June 19 2014 12:00 AM

INTERVIEW with singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, performer at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival

Ceclie McLorin Salvant performs Friday at East Lansing\'s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. Courtesy photo.

THURSDAY, June 19 — At 25, Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, headliner of this weekend’s East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, is one of jazz's most promising young artists. Her playfulness, intelligence and supreme musicality drew strong comparisons from the festival’s artistic director, Rodney Whitaker, who called Salvant “a breath of fresh air” in jazz.

Whitaker played bass on her debut CD, “WomanChild,” on Mack Avenue Records, and accompanied Salvant when she won the 2010 Thelonious Monk competition, the most prestigious in jazz.

“In jazz, we’ve got virtuosos like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and musically, she’s already at that level,” Whitaker said. “I’ve never met a person that age with so much depth of understanding of the history of her craft. It's scary to see somebody that young and accomplished.”

Salvant took time to answer some questions from City Pulse’s Lawrence Cosentino via email this week.

You create some breathtaking extra-lyrical effects on “WomanChild” (like the strange calls in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”) but you don't scat in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald. Why not?

I rarely scat because of the passion I have for the lyric. I think there is a lot of improvisation and surprise while still singing the lyric, and when that is successfully done it can express a great deal of emotion, and reveal the different layers there are in the music in the text all at once.

You don't seem interested in electric instruments, sampling or other hybrid forms of jazz. Is using acoustic instruments and not using overdubs a fixed principle in your mind or one sphere of expression among many you would like to explore?

I love electric instruments … and certain hybrid forms of jazz. But for now, it would be insincere to explore that. I have always had a great love for acoustic instruments, the sound of wood and skins. And I truly believe that jazz was a hybrid music, a music of fusion, from the beginning. I have been trying to think of a way to bring together the very different forms and roots of jazz that I love most in my music (from country blues, folkloric music, to Vaudeville, to hot jazz, modern jazz and singer-songwriter elements) without making it seem like a patchwork but rather in the most coherent and genuine way I can.

You bring some very old songs to vivid life in “WomanChild” (“St. Louis Gal,” “Nobody”), but they don't feel at all like revivals. How is it you are able to “put them on” and wear them so naturally?
Thank you! I guess I've just been taking time to figure out what it is that I can do, and how to find my own voice and personality all the while being enriched by the artists I love and admire that came before. I still have a lot of work to do.

What was the music you first fell in love with? Who are some of the singers and instrumentalists you have admired most, jazz or otherwise?

The music I first fell in love with was what my mother listened to. She has a very eclectic taste, from fado to bluegrass, Motown, disco and funk. I just loved everything she played around the house. It’s hard to list the musicians I admire without droning on. I would have to say in jazz my first loves were Sarah Vaughan and Thelonious Monk. Some others I fell in love with later would be Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, Clifford Brown, Mercedes Sosa, Blossom Dearie, Shirley Horn, Lil Armstrong and Valaida Snow.

What do like to do outside of music? What book(s) are you reading these days?

I like to draw, absolutely love comedy, reading and writing, and eating. I've been reading Emily Dickinson’s poems, “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith and “In Search of Lost Time” (aka, "Remembrance of Things Past”) by Marcel Proust.

Rodney Whitaker is a significant voice in “WomanChild” and a treasure here in East Lansing. How would you describe his musical contributions to the CD and his personal qualities as a teacher and influential jazz musician?

Rodney Whitaker was one of the first bass players I was lucky enough to perform with in the United States. I met him at the Monk competition. He has always been extremely supportive and such a wonderful presence for me. I consider myself very lucky that he accepted to play on “WomanChild.” He really, really swings, and his sound is so warm and impressive. He is someone that I hope to learn from for many years to come.

“Deep Dark Blue” from “WomanChild” goes in the “art song” direction of Schubert or Schoenberg. Is this a side of your interests you want to explore further?

I am definitely interested in expiring this type of writing more in the future. I wrote “Deep Dark Blue” on a plane returning from France where I had worked with my baroque voice teacher and had taken one lesson of continuo accompaniment on the harpsichord. I think that seeped in.

What repertoire will you sing at the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival?

I will most likely sing “WomanChild” and some of the newer repertoire we've been working on, including some songs from musicals.