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When Cécile McLorin Salvant arrived at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC to compete in the finals of
the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, she was not only the youngest finalist, but also a
mystery woman with the most unusual background of any of the participants. When she walked away with
first place in the jazz world’s most prestigious contest, the buzz began almost immediately. If anything, it has
intensified in the months leading up to the launch of her Mack Avenue Records debut, WomanChild.
“She has poise, elegance, soul, humor, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and
grace,” Wynton Marsalis asserts. “I’ve never heard a singer of her generation who has such a command of
styles,” remarks pianist Aaron Diehl. “She radiates authority,” critic Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times
in response to one of her post-competition performances, and a few weeks later his colleague Stephen
Holden announced that “Ms. McLorin Salvant has it all…. If anyone can extend the lineage of the Big
Three—Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald—it is this 23-year-old virtuoso.”
Yet at almost every step of the way, McLorin Salvant has followed a different path from her peers. Born in
Miami to a French mother and Haitian father, McLorin Salvant’s first language was French. She immersed
herself in the classical music tradition, long before she turned to jazz—starting on piano at age five and
joining the Miami Choral Society at age eight. When it came time for college, McLorin Salvant bypassed all
the US conservatories and jazz schools, heading instead to Aix-en-Provence in France, where she continued
to develop as a singer, but with an emphasis on classical and baroque vocal music as well as jazz.
There, thousands of miles away from jazz’s land of origin, McLorin Salvant entered into a fruitful partnership
with reed player and teacher Jean-François Bonnel, first as a student and soon as a performer. Before
returning to the US, she gave concerts in Paris, recorded with Bonnel’s quintet, and immersed herself in the
early jazz and blues vocal tradition. By the time she returned to her home country to take the stage in the
Monk Competition, she had drawn on this unusual set of formative experiences in shaping a personal style of
jazz singing, surprising and dramatic by turns, and very much in contrast to that of the other participants and
McLorin Salvant’s contemporaries.
In the aftermath of McLorin Salvant’s triumph at the Monk Competition, the jazz world eagerly awaited the
winner’s first US recording. Answering that call with WomanChild, McLorin Salvant draws on songs
spanning three centuries of American music. “I like to choose songs that are a little unknown or have been
recorded very few times,” McLorin Salvant notes. “While these songs aren’t recognized as standards, many
should be because they are so beautifully crafted.”
On the album, her repertoire ranges from the 19th century ballad “John Henry,” refreshed in a spirited up-todate
arrangement, to McLorin Salvant’s own 21st century waltz “Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux” which
draws on a poem by Haitian writer Ida Salomon Faubert for its lyric. She is joined by a world class band who
share her concern for creating jazz of today by drawing on vibrant traditions of the past: pianist Aaron Diehl
and bassist Rodney Whitaker (both of whom are Mack Avenue label mates), guitarist James Chirillo and
master drummer Herlin Riley.
The old and new rub shoulders throughout this album, but this singer’s attitude is neither beholden to the
past nor trying to anticipate the trends of the future. Her captivating singing is immersed in the immediacy of
the present moment. So much so, that those who have seen McLorin Salvant in concert marvel at how she
radiates the confidence and poise of a mature artist even though she is just at the dawn of her own career.
McLorin Salvant may have the deepest roots of any singer of her generation. She knows the sounds and
styles of modern jazz but also possesses complete command of the classic blues and early American vocal
tradition. She has studied the entire recorded legacy of the great Bessie Smith (1894-1937), often called the
Empress of the Blues, and also has deep familiarity with Valaida Snow, Bert Williams and other early
masters of American music. For her, these musicians are exponents of living traditions that she has drawn
into the orbit of her own work.
However, McLorin Salvant can’t be pinned down as a jazz traditionalist. Alongside fellow Monk Competition
winner Jacky Terrasson, she has recorded works by John Lennon/Yoko Ono and Erik Satie, and can sing in
French, Spanish or English as the mood and situation warrant. Knowledgeable jazz fans will identify the
influence and inspiration from some of the most distinctive modern jazz stylists, such as Betty Carter,
Carmen McRae and Abbey Lincoln. She is also currently continuing her studies of the classical and baroque
tradition. In short, McLorin Salvant is a seeker and a creative spirit who is determined to push ahead, even
while she shows an extraordinary command of the tradition that has preceded her.
In his article in The New York Times, critic Stephen Holden listed some of the virtues of McLorin Salvant’s
singing: “perfect pitch and enunciation, a playful sense of humor, a rich and varied tonal palette, a supple
sense of swing, exquisite taste in songs and phrasing, and a deep connection to lyrics.” Her musical skills
are considerable, but they are matched by an interpretive ability that is almost more akin to an actor’s than a
singer’s. She draws out the story hidden inside the song, and can draw on the elements of her own
personality and a full gamut of emotional stances—from the darkly troubling to the richly comic—in bringing
lyrics to life.
“I want to get as close to the center of the song as I can,” McLorin Salvant explains. “When I find something
beautiful and touching I try to get close to it, and share that with the audience.”
On WomanChild, McLorin Salvant gives music lovers the chance to hear why the illustrious judges at the
Monk Competition gave her top honors. McLorin Salvant is still a bit of a mystery, but she will hardly be a
secret any longer.