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A dream and a dagger: Jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant sings with grace and fire

Jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant
Mark Fitton | Courtesy of the artist
Jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant has won widespread aclaim since winning the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocalist competition. The Haitian-American performer takes the stage Saturday at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

When jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant takes the stage Saturday at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, she won't be trying to sing as her storied predecessors might have.

Though the virtuoso performer has been hailed as a successor to such greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, she is very much a contemporary singer. Salvant, a Haitian-American who grew up in Miami, has grown to love jazz standards, show tunes and songs many might miss, like the Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes piece "Somehow I Could Never Believe."

But the 28-year-old also writes original compositions and through her singing wants to make her own statement about the music's past, present and future.

Salvant is on tour to promote her latest CD, "Dreams and Daggers," a double album that captures many moods and textures.

Before her show, she spoke to David Cazares, St. Louis Public Radio's arts and culture editor, about her work.

David Cazares: You were born and raised in Miami, of Haitian and French heritage. How did you come to this music, which is largely of the African-American experience?

Cecile McLorin Salvant: It’s funny that you ask that. I feel like the Haitian and French experience maybe made it easier for me to come by this African-American music. French people absolutely love jazz. It’s just a well-known thing. There are so many jazz festivals throughout France. It’s really a music that has a huge place in French culture — almost, I think it can be argued, maybe a bigger place than jazz does in American culture.

And Haitian culture has a certain type of fondness for jazz. One of their types of music called "compas" is so absolutely influenced by jazz, and also Haitian music has influenced jazz. I have African-American friends that I grew up with who did not have any jazz in their homes. That wasn’t a part of their upbringing and their culture as they were growing up.

So it’s just very odd and interesting that this music has sort of been kind of adopted by all these different cultures in a way that’s at the same time really exciting — but I think at the same time is really indicative of a big problem in the U.S., which is that we don’t have enough reverence for our history and for the greats of our past.

Cazares: When I hear you sing, I don’t hear old stuff, I’m hearing a very youthful feeling. Are you reimagining the past and trying to make it new in a way?

Salvant: I don’t think I’m trying to make it new. There’s the sort of feeling [in] all of these songs —  let’s say a Bessie Smith song or a song that we hear by Carmen McRae — we’re hearing it today with our ears of today and with our experience of this world. And yet, some of these songs have this immediacy. At the same time, you know, it makes you feel like you’re almost able to communicate with people, like you’re able to travel through time.

I don’t think of music in the linear way of “that was then and this is now.” I think of it as all this kind of this big bowl of all these different emotions and styles and feelings and geniuses —  and that there can be some kind of communication in a way with people that have come before us and also with people that are coming after us. Having that feeling of being connected to the future and to the past is really interesting to me.

It’s something that I’ve been thinking about more and more. Because music is an art form that essentially plays with time, even in the moment. A music with improvisation has this very much cause-and-effect part to it and very much the idea of, you know, time is going by and we’re seeing what we can do with playing with this time that’s going by.

Cazares: Many of these lyrics were written in a time when most songwriters were thinking about courtly love and a different age where men and women were treating each other differently. Are you seeing it through a different prism, through a feminist lens at all, or a more fair lens?

Salvant: I’m seeing it through sort of the mindset of, you know, questioning. More so than saying this is right or this is wrong. It’s more of questioning. What do we think about how we treat each other? What do we think about how we identify other people and how we categorize other people, and how we give people certain roles in society? And how has that changed, how has that remained the same and what does that mean about us as people?

Those are all things that I’m really fascinated with. The question of identity [and] the question of power dynamics are really fascinating … infuriating, glorious and understandable at the same time. All of these things run through my mind … [with] a song like “Wives and Lovers,” which is essentially a song that was written in the ‘60s by Burt Bacharach about how women need to be a certain way and present themselves a certain way and you now wear makeup and make sure that they look their best for their husband who they’re waiting for after work.

All of these ideas, which can seem as laughable at the same time, are ideas that are very much present, in different forms, in women today. There is very much an obsession with beauty: How am I presenting myself in society and how can I be acceptable and how can I be more desirable? And all of these things are still so, so, so prevalent, even with people who are … doing these things but then at the same time presenting an ultra-feminist message. It can be a little bit confusing. So for me, I like to laugh. I like to sort of just ask questions. I don’t presume to have any of the answers.

Cazares: In terms of your music, and the trio setting, how you’re playing off each other? How does that work with the themes that you’re working with? Because a song to me is the lyric, which is very important, and the vibe from the band.

Salvant: It’s funny, I think, because I’m singing lyrics. You know I’m a singer. That’s what I do. That’s the difference between me and instrumentalists. You know, I have this text. I almost feel like it’s my responsibility to re-center that a little bit. It can be the case where jazz musicians —  who are so interested in music and how it functions, and rhythm and harmony and the arrangements and the improvisation — sometimes forget what the song is about.

Thankfully I’m surrounded with musicians who are, very, very interested in: How can we respect this song. How can we make it come through? What does it mean? Why did you pick this song what were you trying to go for with this song? So it’s actually really fun to have that layer on top of, you know, the musical layer. Which as you know really important to jazz. When things can go hand in hand, and they can be balanced, that’s really the ultimate thing.

Cazares: What kind of singer do you want to be?

Salvant: I don’t know. I want to be mellow and outrageous and giving and thoughtful and provocative. I want it to feel like I’m whispering in someone’s ear, and like, we’re in this very intimate personal conversation. I want to have a certain amount of freedom in my singing.

If You Go

What: Jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant

Where: Sheldon Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $25-$40; students, $15

Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.

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