The Breath of Fresh Air

One of the great finds of last year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival was a young singer named Cecile McLorin Salvant who blew into town like a breath of fresh air for many of us fans of classic and mainstream jazz. With her bright sound and pared-back style of singing, this striking 22-year-old, who is bringing her own band to the festival tonight and appears with the World Jazz Orchestra on Saturday, exudes the joie-de-vivre and youthful dynamism of Billie Holiday on her first recordings. And as if that wasn’t enough, she stands alone as a twentysomething, black champion of the songs and singers of the 1920s and 1930s – though she has been inspired by dozens of more recent vocalists too.

But Salvant never set out to be a jazz singer. Indeed, she’s more or less been hijacked by the jazz community which knows a good thing when it hears it – and is not prepared to let her go. The young American, whose parents are French and Haitian, had her heart set on another style of singing when she inadvertently fell into her jazz career.

She explains: “I’ve long had a deep wish to be a classical singer. Classical singing is my first passion. It demands so much technically. For anyone who listens to a classical voice it’s astounding to hear what the great singers can do with their voice. It’s kind of freakish. I think that’s what attracted me to it. I love the voice above all kinds of genres … and the classical western vocal technique is something that has always fascinated me.”

As a child growing up in Miami, Salvant was, however, exposed to jazz from an early age. “My mum used to listen to a lot of the great singers – Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn. I always had jazz in the back of my mind but I didn’t really pay attention to it.”

It was during a year’s sabbatical in Aix-en-Provence that the then 18-year-old Salvant was thrown off-course musically. She was going to study classical voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatoire in Aix, and – at her mother’s suggestion – tried out for the jazz programme as well. The professor who heard her sing her version of Lullaby of Birdland was Jean-Francois Bonnel, whom long-standing Edinburgh Jazz Festival-goers may remember as one of the original members of the hugely popular Hot Antic Jazz Band.

Bonnel is a renowned musicologist and expert on classic and early jazz – and he was immediately taken with Salvant. Not that he gave her that impression. Salvant recalls: “He didn’t say too much. I thought I probably wouldn’t bother going to the class, but he approached me in the steeet and asked me to come – and that was the first of the many times he told me: ‘You have to do this, you have to scat, you have to learn how to accompany yourself at the piano ….’

“He was very instrumental in putting me out there and getting me out of my comfort zone. He was a huge catalyst. I would not probably have done this had it not been for him..”

Bonnel clearly recognised the potential in Salvant, and identified something in her voice and style that harks back to the 1930s, the decade when Billie Holiday was her age. “When I met him I didn’t know that stuff at all. I knew late Sarah Vaughan records, late Billie Holiday records. He’s the one who pointed me in the direction of their earlier work. And I fell in love with the music of the 1920s and 1930s. It became something that’s central to my development. A lot of people you meet – teachers and musicians – are not hip to that stuff, they don’t know about that stuff. They tell you about Louis Armstrong but that’s as far as it goes. Miles Davis and Kind of Blue seem to be THE  reference point – and the danger is that everyone ends up getting that aesthetic and sounds like that.”

Within two years of working with Bonnel, Salvant had won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Vocals Competition 2010 in Washington, to her great shock. Indeed, she was so taken aback by winning, that she only “thinks” she was handed the prize by jazz luminary Herbie Hancock; the whole experience was so “surreal” that it’s a bit of a blur.

Since then, she has worked with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – indeed, it was their baritone saxophonist, Joe Temperley, who recommended her for this Saturday’s World Jazz Orchestra concert in Edinburgh – and has met a string of her heroes, notably, she says, Annie Ross.”Before I was even singing, I knew about Annie Ross because of Twisted – I loved that song and would play it over and over again.”

Ross is a perfect example of someone who, like the later Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan records that Salvant first knew, sounds as if she has really lived. Does she feel that there’s a pressure on her to sound as if she has been round the block a few times – even though she’s only 22.

“Yes, I think people expect a lot from a jazz singer. They expect a certain sound, and sometimes it’s hard to force yourself not to pay attention too much to those expectations and just do something that’s sincere.”

And does she feel she’s been hijacked from her classical aspirations? “Well,” she admits, “in the beginning I felt that way. I had my mind set on the classical, and all of a sudden someone was telling me ‘You need to sing jazz, you have a voice that works really well with jazz, you should do it, you’re getting all these gigs’.. And I still haven’t done a classical gig where I’m paid. I now feel that it’s not so much that I was hijacked but that all the arrows were pointing to this thing that seems to be happening easier and quicker and seems to be also a very natural path. And it’s also very vocally demanding and very vocally interesting so it’s a music that took me a little bit more time to understand and love… but now I’m obsessed with jazz and I listen to it all the time.”

* Cecile McLorin Salvant sings with the World Jazz Orchestra at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28 at 8pm. For more information visit

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 26th 2012

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