Hong Kong Arts Festival

Grammy Award-winning jazz singer ahead of Hong Kong concerts: interview with Cécile McLorin Salvant

We caught up with singer Cécile McLorin Salvant before her performances for the Hong Kong Arts Festival to talk about why she chose jazz, her upcoming album and what she will be singing in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 7:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2018, 7:46pm

Still only 28, jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant has already won Grammy Awards for best jazz vocal album for both of her last two CDs and is regularly compared to the greats who inspired her, including Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.

Salvant grew up in Miami in a music-loving household and began studying the piano at age five. A move to France in 2007 to study law and classical vocal music led her indirectly to jazz. Her debut album, Cécile, recorded with the Jean-Francois Bonnel Paris Quintet, was released in 2010.

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She is in Hong Kong for the first time to perform in Hong Kong Arts Festival concerts on March 21 and 22. We caught up with her before the shows.

You grew up listening to a lot of different styles of music. What made you gravitate towards jazz?

Meeting a jazz teacher in France who really pushed me to be in his class. I was curious about why he was so insistent and intense about it. He knew in his mind that I would become a jazz singer – that I had the voice and the ears and the potential to make it my career.

I just went with it. People say I just go with the flow, and that’s what I think I did. If I had met with a lot of resistance and it had been really hard, I probably would not have pursued it. I would just have been singing jazz at home and listening to records. I was very lucky and I’m very grateful for that. I guess people like a struggle story but mine is not one.

Winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in the vocals category in 2010 was a turning point for you. Were you confident of the outcome?

I was confident that I would lose. I wanted it, but at the same time I was so scared and also thought that everyone else was much better. It was a strange, strange experience.

When I won it I thought my life was going to change overnight, but it didn’t. I didn’t get any calls for months and months. I went back to France and to the small music school in Aix-en-Provence that I had been going to. Then, slowly, things started to pick up.

For your second album WomanChild, which was nominated for a Grammy, you signed with specialist jazz label Mack Avenue Records. Why that label?

When I won the Monk competition I had the opportunity through the prize to record with Concord [Records], but Mack Avenue was my other option. They have been really welcoming and encouraging, and let me have complete artistic freedom.

I’m really excited about [my next album]. It’s probably the most accurate representation of my voice and what I do that I’ve done so far
Cécile McLorin Salvant

I completely control all the album artwork, the selection of songs and the personnel. For an up-and-coming musician, that’s rare. They had no reason to trust my instincts, to trust my vision. They just said ‘We like you. You do you.’ I’m really glad that I don’t have to be fighting all the time for things I want to do.

You seem particularly happy working with the Aaron Diehl Trio, although you have also worked with larger configurations. Does the trio format particularly appeal to you?

I love that format, and some of my favourite recordings from the history of jazz are in that format. It’s very small and allows for a lot of freedom, but at the same time can feel like a big orchestra, which is not necessarily the feeling that you get from a duo setting.

I love duos, that’s probably my favourite thing, but [singing with a] trio is like a sweet spot. I’m moving away from that in future projects, but I think it’s something I’ll always come back to.

How did you and this trio find each other?

My manager put me together with Aaron Diehl, the pianist, having given me a list of pianists to check out and I really liked Aaron’s playing. Aaron knew Paul Sikivie, the bass player, while Kyle Pool the drummer is relatively new in the ensemble, but I actually met him first. We went to The New School, a university in New York, together. He’s a great drummer and I really like his creativity, and his sound, and his swing feel. It was nice adding him on. He’s the youngest now, so it’s nice not to be the youngest any more.

You picked up your second Grammy this year for the Dreams and Daggers album, having already won in 2016 with For One to Love. What comes next?

The next album will be a duo album with [pianist] Sullivan Fortner who was a guest on Dreams and Daggers. I’m in the process of sequencing it. We don’t have a title yet but everything is recorded.

I’m really excited about it. It’s probably the most accurate representation of my voice and what I do that I’ve done so far. The duo setting is something I love, and Sullivan Fortner is such an incredible pianist.

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I’m also working on a project that is all original compositions, and it’s kind of a song cycle.

Do you know what you’re going to sing in Hong Kong or will you find out when you go on stage?

I think we’re going to find out. There’s a pool of things that I choose from, of course, but I might learn a song today and add it for tomorrow. We might dig up an old thing that we haven’t done in years.

It’s not going to be supporting the last album, that’s for sure. None of my concerts support albums. The albums support the concerts. Sometimes we’ll do all stuff that’s never been recorded. We usually tour and then record what we toured.

Cécile McLorin Salvant with the Aaron Diehl Trio, Mar 21 and 22, 8.00pm, Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Tickets: HK$140 to HK$420. Inquiries: 2824 2430