Last September, as Cécile McLorin Salvant prepared to take the stage of the Village Vanguard with her trio for the last night in a vaunted Tuesday-through-Sunday run at the jazz mecca, her drummer, Lawrence Leathers, gave a pep talk. By Salvant’s own admission, the first five nights were merely OK. Now, as Salvant huddled in the club’s claustrophobic kitchen-turned-dressing room with Lawrence, pianist Aaron Diehl, and bassist Paul Sikivie, it was time to step up.
“He was like, ‘Guys, we’ve got to do this, I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone!’ ” she says, over a glass of Chardonnay on the Lower East Side. “I’m making it the clean version, but some words were said.”
Suitably amped up, the group then went out and worked their way through a set of standards that make up the bulk of Salvant’s rollicking new double album, Dreams and Daggers (out September 29). “It was fine,” she said of those first five nights. “Do you know when you’re like, ‘It’s fine’? You don’t want that. I’d rather it be a train wreck and it has a thing than, ‘It’s fine.’ ”
Whatever Salvant found on that final night, it was more than fine, and this week, beginning Tuesday, September 26, she’s back at the Vanguard with a weeklong headlining slot. “The Vanguard is a character in this story,” the 28-year-old Salvant says of the album. “It’s part of the sound. And the people there — we should have written their names down.”
Indeed, during “You’ve Got to Give Me Some,” when Salvant sings, “Lovin’ is the thing I crave/For your love, I’d be your slave…” a woman in the audience belts out, “Careful!” The crowd cracks up. That tune was popularized by Bessie Smith, as was the hilarious “Sam Jones Blues.” (“You ain’t talkin’ to Mrs. Jones/You speakin’ to Ms. Wilson now.”)
Not that the record is all fun and games. Salvant’s rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, is so wrenching that the audience delays its applause, as if out of respect. In “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” a piece from Street Scene, the mid-twentieth-century opera by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes about life in a New York tenement, Salvant relays the same kind of intensity. (In lieu of liner notes in Dreams and Daggers, she simply uses another Langston Hughes work, the poem “Fascination.” She also has an artistic hand and did illustrations on the back cover, as well as all the handwriting, even down to the FBI warning.)
Salvant, who just moved to Brooklyn from Harlem, was born and raised in Miami in a French-speaking home. Her father, a doctor, is Haitian; her mother is French — and is the principal at a French school in Miami. Having started singing formally at age eight with the Miami Choral Society, by her late teens she had moved to Aix-en-Provence, France, to study law as well as classical and baroque voice. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of acclaim: In 2009, she recorded her first album, Cécile; the next year she won the prestigious Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz’s International Competition back in the United States. By 2014, her second CD, WomanChild, was a Grammy nominee for Best Jazz Vocal Album. And last year, with For One to Love, she won the award outright.
“She is able to understand and express a complex relationship to the text,” says Sikivie, about Salvant’s precocious vocal dexterity. “She makes the song her world and then uses her well-developed instrument to let others feel genuine emotions from that world, reveal the lessons from that world. And she has a marvelous and confident sense of taste.”
Salvant rarely sings in French, she tells me, but she did at the Vanguard, interpreting Joséphine Baker’s “Si J’étais Blanche” (“If I Were White”), a song about, in Salvant’s words, “a black woman wanting to be white,” which is also on the album.
When she was growing up, Salvant — who says she has the darkest skin in her immediate family — was in the awkward position of being ridiculed by both blacks and whites. She says black kids told her, “If you’re darker than this, you’re ugly.” Whites asked her, “Why are you trying to act white?”
“I’ve always been attracted to songs about identity,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in how people interact with each other, and power dynamics, and how we tell people that they’re lower or how we try to control people. Those are the songs I connect with the most.… I do it through humor.” Then she cites songs from the new record. “ ‘If a Girl Isn’t Pretty’ is, to me, a political song. ‘Somehow I Never Could Believe’ is a feminist, political song, but it’s not in your face. It’s not, like, ‘We need rights.’ I’m more interested in asking the questions, and then people can discuss it.”
The new album isn’t exclusively live tracks from the Vanguard. There are short originals dispersed throughout, with Salvant’s lyrics and music by her bassist, Sikivie, who did the string arrangements for the Catalyst Quartet. “I see them as little passageways or little remarks on what just happened,” she says. “Most of the songs I wrote were reactions to the standards on the album.”
For instance, after “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” — from the 1968 musical Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand — comes her own original “Red Instead,” where she sings: “I can’t really change the way I am/I can be bolder/Sharpen my dagger/Cut through the multitudes/And make it bright red instead.”
At this week’s Vanguard gig, Salvant will not be accompanied by her regular sharply dressed trio, but instead only by pianist Sullivan Fortner, who was in the audience that Sunday last year and played with her on “You’ve Got to Give Me Some.” She calls Fortner “such an amazing musician,” and recorded an album with him earlier this year that will be out in 2018. “I’m trying to get him to sing,” she says. They’re going to do standards, yes, but also a song each by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Michael Jackson might also be in the mix.
On display will be her impeccable articulation, sly phrasings, and that distinctive way she has of conveying different characters and voicings within a song, as if she’s playing different roles.
“I’m just a frustrated person who wishes they could be an actress,” she says. “I think that’s what I always wanted to do, and I never really pursued it, partly because of how I look. For a black woman who looks like me, roles are,” she pauses, “interesting. You have a certain area where you can express yourself, and if it’s outside that, it’s not working.… So I think deep down, that’s my passion, the theater. The music is an outlet for me.”
Cécile McLorin Salvant plays the Village Vanguard Tuesday, September 26, through Sunday, October 1; 178 7th Avenue South; 212-255-4037; villagevanguard.com