Jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant had a break-out year in 2010. She released her debut album, “Cecile” and she sang in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition before judges Al Jarreau, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves. She was awarded first prize.
“It was a shock to me,” said Salvant, 22, of her win. “I felt like I was an underdog. I hadn’t been to an American jazz school. I felt like I was in over my head, but it was so gratifying to have that kind of recogni
“I don’t know when I would’ve been able to sing for Dianne Reeves. It was a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing.”
Over the next two evenings, Salvant will be performing at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard as part of the Spoleto Festival.
Her backup band is the Aaron Diehl Trio, led by 26-year-old, Juilliard-trained composer-pianist Aaron Diehl.
Salvant was raised by a French mother and a Haitian father in Miami. Growing ?up, she took listening cues from her mother, a well-traveled woman with a variety of musical tastes.: Cuban ?music, Latin music and world music.
“She absolutely loved jazz, especially vocal jazz. We would listen to all of the great jazz singers,” Salvant said. “It was a very musical household and I was always pushed to sing. We would sing, we would dance. My mom put me in my first piano class when I was five.”
The young Salvant studied vocal performance at the University of Miami and, in 2007, accepted a spot at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, France. There, Salvant met jazz instructor and multireedist, Jean-Francois Bonnel. She later cut a demo with Bonnel’s Paris Quintet, two recording sessions that would eventually become “Cecile.”
It was Bonnel, a disciple of the French-born, swing-infused “hot club jazz,” who encouraged Salvant to move from the recital hall to the stage.
“There’s definitely a love for the music,” said Salvant of the jazz scene in which she gained her first performance experience. “A lot of the younger musicians are developing their own European-French sound, which is great.”
Salvant’s performances ?are all over YouTube in the form of amateur video ?recordings shot at jazz festivals. Even through a computer screen, her vocal prowess is apparent.
She’s a versatile singer; her voice is hefty yet flexible. Bluesy trills dissolve into smoky, skeletal murmurs on her take of Bessie Smith’s “Take it Right Back.” Her tone is rounded and fluid on “The Mood I’m In,” a Billie Holiday tune. Both songs were part of her set at the 2010 Whitley Bay Jazz Festival.
“I’ve never heard a singer of her generation who has such a command of styles ranging from Bessie Smith to Betty Carter,” said Aaron Diehl. “To have an artist with such a handle on jazz vocabulary while being extremely expressive and soulful, that’s very rare.”
Diehl and Salvant met a year ago via Skype. Salvant was about to move back to the U.S. and her manager, Edward Arrendell, suggested that the two connect. “Ed had heard my trio a couple of times in New York City,” Diehl said. “He thought that we’d be a good match for Cecile when she moved to the states to study at The New School.”
Though the two performed together, officially, for the first time last month at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, they’d already played a couple of tester gigs to gauge their cohesiveness.
“Cecile had a series of bookings lined up before we met to discuss collaborating,” Diehl said. “She wanted to get a feel for our chemistry and interaction, and that’s what led to both the Kennedy Center performance and the Spoleto Festival.”
Salvant’s performances in the Cistern Yard mark yet another apogee in her ascent.
“It took a long time for me to decide to do this professionally because I felt so uncertain about it,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure what I could do, and what the life of a musician might be like.”
Thus far, Salvant has proven tough in the competitive environs of modern jazz. She’s laid her groundwork in preparation for a long, abundant career.
“It’s like a musician building a phrase from piano to fortissimo,” Diehl said of Salvant’s bottom-up approach. “If you start at forte, you don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Salvant’s commitment to hard work continues to shine through with each new turn. She’s refused to take her overseas’ popularity for granted, an approach that’s only intensified the slow burn that is her artistic evolution.