Cécile McLorin Salvant may be a rising vocal talent in jazz today, but when she started, she didn't know the first thing about singing jazz standards. Give her "Lullaby Birdland," and she wouldn't know the first thing to do.
"I was completely clueless," she says. "I basically did my best imitation of Sarah Vaughan without knowing the basics of how it worked."
Enter Jean-François Bonnel, a woodwind player and teacher in Aix-en-Provence, France, where Salvant moved after high school graduation. The Frenchman tutored her on improvisation and technique.
"He really encouraged me from there, enrolling me in classes and giving me different records to listen to. I was nervous, but within three months, I had my first jazz gig in France," she says.
Her initial academic goal was to study political science, but she enrolled at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Antony, France, to study classical and baroque voice. Then the jazz bug bit her.
"It took me two-and-a-half years of working and training in France before I felt confident about a possible career in music," Salvant says. "I'm such an academic person, so I was interested in figuring out how being a professional musician would work, just like figuring out how being a doctor or lawyer would work. But there's so little structure to the lifestyle of a musician. It took me a long time before I committed, but I'm glad I did."
Bonnel nurtured Salvant's instrumental and vocal repertoire. She expanded her range of styles as she worked on a variety of material, from early-20th-century standards and early blues and swing to more modern works.
"I wasn't sure about pursuing music as a career, because I also loved to write and study history," she says. "I think my interest in history is probably reflected in my repertoire now."
Salvant, the daughter of a Frenchwoman and a Haitian, was born and raised amid the vibrant culture of Miami. The music and language of Europe and the Caribbean had already influenced Salvant's musical vocabulary when she started taking classical piano lessons at the age of four. She began singing with choirs and school groups shortly after.
"I always loved to sing around the house and at family parties," Salvant says. "My mom loves music, and she put me into classical piano classes. I did that for a long time. Eventually, I showed that I had the facility to sing and play well. Compared to other instruments, singers are kind of born to do what they do. They have the raw talent."
In 2009, after a series of concerts in Paris, she recorded her first album, Cécile, with Bonnel's Paris Quintet. Much of the lively collection showcases Salvant's scatting and vocal range. Some songs are captivating and intense. Critics raved about her expressive style, her expansive technique, and her youthful, sassy enthusiasm. All About Jazz's Suzanne Lorge compared Salvant to veteran American jazz/blues singer Ernestine Anderson, saying, "Like Anderson, Salvant connects to her material effortlessly and engages us with her honest and emotional delivery. You can hear in her performance all of the influences jazz singers often cite, but Salvant does not imitate, does not brandish any well-practiced technique."
Although Salvant felt culturally connected to France, she noticed that her musical performances sometimes puzzled both the French musicians with whom she collaborated and the French audiences who came to her concerts.
"It's always hard to find musicians who are on the same page with me because my whole approach is really lyric-oriented," Salvant says. "A lot of players aren't seeing lyrics — they're music-oriented, and the lyrics are sometimes very secondary to them. I have to remind them to focus on the lyrics and the song. In France, the musicians there didn't necessarily understand the words, so I had to explain the meaning of certain phrases and what to underline and emphasize. The language barrier was kind of difficult, with the musicians and the audience."
Salvant noticed that at concerts in the United States, the audiences respond differently. "European audiences might be more subdued and attentive in ways, but they might not fully understand some of the songs the way I sing them," she says. "In the States, if I say something ironically, they get it."
These days, Salvant is one of the rising stars in the international jazz scene. Her current ascent began in 2010 when she won first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition at the Kennedy Center in New York, which included a contract with Concord Records. This year, she's wrapping a studio session and touring around the world with various combos.
There's always been a sense of collaboration between jazz artists over the decades, and Salvant has picked up on it. She will perform two concerts at the Cistern during Spoleto's Wells Fargo Jazz Series with backing from the New York-based Aaron Diehl Trio. The lineup features Aaron Diehl (a 2007 graduate of the Juilliard School) on piano, Paul Sikivie on bass, and Lawrence Leathers on drums. The collaboration between Salvant and the band started only a few months ago; their first concert together was in April at the KC Jazz Club at the Kennedy Center in New York.
"I love working with small combos and different types of ensembles," Salvant says. "I love singing with big bands and with strings, and I also love to sing with only a bass or piano accompaniment. I've been a fan of Aaron's for a while now. We were interested in working together, so it started from there. I look forward to being on stage with him and his band in Charleston."