Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile (McLorin Salvant) review: first-name basis

Rising jazz vocalist draws deep admiration and girl crushes from female Portland jazz singers


Ella and Bessie and Billie (and Cher and Pink and Prince and Madonna). But let’s stick to jazz.

Now there’s Cécile. She has two other names (McLorin Salvant) but she earns the first-name-only tag.

She is the It Girl among jazz vocalists. Her singing has it all: perfect pitch, a range from tenor to high soprano, precise articulation, full-on emotion, playfulness, varying timbres. As well as improvising on standards, Cécile composes and arranges many of her songs, distinguished by clever lyrics, a wry dark view of romance, an unflinching look at the pressures of female beauty standards and behavior, a funny dead-on assessment of male chauvinism, a lack of sentimentality, a timelessness.

Cécile performed at Portland’s Revolution Hall. Photo: Mark Fitton.

She sang at Portland’s Revolution Hall in late April with pianist Sullivan Fortner accompanying — and she was magnifique, as was the subtle touch of the ever-modest Fortner. These two should stick together on stage and in the recording studio; their chemistry works like magic, and they riff off of one another as if they’ve been performing together for decades rather than several years.

Cécile is fluent in French and studied in Aix-en-Provence. Her father, a physician, is Haitian, her mother French, so “magnifique” fits her versatile voice and her large expressive hands like a glove. She broke into big-time jazz as a teen-ager when she won the Thelonious Monk Competition. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Patti Austin and Al Jarreau chose her in 2010 for her “remarkable voice and striking ability to inhabit the emotional space of every song she heard and turn it into a compelling statement.” The 28 year old has already won two Grammys for the best Vocal Jazz Album: 2016’s For One To Love and this year’s double CD Dreams and Daggers.

That CD supplied many of the tunes in Cécile’s hour and 45-minute Portland performance (“Nothing Like You,” “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” “J’etais Blanche”). She filled out the set with such oldies as “Lush Life,” “Stepsisters’ Lament” and the touching “John Lewis,” an a cappella encore. Wearing a satiny tent-like aquamarine dress, plain flat sandals, and large signature glasses that framed her restless, animated eyes, she stayed on task with little fanfare, a few jokes and no froufrou.

Instead of my celebrating Cécile alone, I asked several Portland jazz vocalists familiar with her to give me their takes on her singing.


MusicWatch Weekly: new sounds from Oregon

This week’s Oregon music schedule boasts numerous new works by today’s composers from the Northwest, Midwest and beyond, mixed in with classics from across the ages and oceans

Big Horn Brass, a baker’s dozen of brass players and two percussionists, feature brassy new music by Cascadia Composers Greg Steinke, Jan Mittelstaedt, John Billota, Greg Bartholomew, and fellow Northwest composer Anthony DiLorenzo at their Saturday night concert at Beaverton’s St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Some other guys named Debussy, Bach and Puccini will provide filler.

New Oregon music by Eugene composer Paul Safar is also on the program when Eugene’s excellent Delgani String Quartet goes all homicidal Friday at Portland’s and Saturday at Springfield’s Wildish Theater. The program features music inspired by murder, with theatrical readings from literary works that inspired them interpolated by actor Rickie Birran of Man of Words Theatre Company. Janacek and Shostakovich will be represented too. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview.

Speaking of new music by Oregon composers, read Gary’s ArtsWatch preview of Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s new composition commissioned by Rogue Valley Symphony, which the orchestra performs this weekend in Medford and Grants Pass. Beethoven is the closing act.

Estelí Gomez sings new music by University of Oregon composers at  Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

There’s even newer Oregon music for voice Sunday at the Oregon Composers Forum’s Sunday concert at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall. The superb soprano Esteli Gomez, one of the singers in Grammy winning Roomful of Teeth ensemble, returns to sing new music by UO composers.

Joe Kye performs at Portland State Friday.

That same night, Portland based, Korea-born songwriter-composer and looping violinist Joe Kye plays his engaging, often autobiographical songs at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Shades of Sufjan Stevens and his albums inspired by American states! Does a symphony called “Portland” and named after Oregon’s largest city qualify as Oregon music — if it wasn’t written by an Oregonian? Decide for yourself at the University of Portland’s free concert featuring Erich Stem’s orchestral work Tuesday night at Buckley Auditorium. His website bio says nothing about where Stem resides or was born, but Indiana seems a likely suspect. The piece is part of Stem’s project called America By: A Symphonic Tour, which includes a collection of commissioned works from across the country, “each work reflecting the unique qualities and history of a specific location.”

New American Sounds

One of the most frequently performed and commissioned composers of choral music, Minnesota’s Jake Runestad, seem poised to follow Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre as a choral music star, and he’s also written several operas and other works. On Saturday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Choral Arts Ensemble and Linn-Benton Community College Chamber Choir team up to present the Music of Jake Runestad, the first major opportunity for Portland to get a healthy sampling of his heartfelt songs and broad, audience-friendly musical range.

Bells toll in Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas’s new, half-hour orchestral composition, Sonorous Earth (an evolution of her earlier Resounding Earth), which Eugene Symphony performs Thursday at the Hult Center to complete her artistic residency there. Each of its four-movements also uses techniques associated with the major composers who made percussion the defining sound of 20th century classical music: Stravinsky, Messiaen, Varese, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Partch and Oregon’s own Lou Harrison.




Cécile McLorin Salvant has gone from rising to shooting star in the world of jazz. The New York Times has declared her the heir to the legacy of the “Big Three,” Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

Cécile McLorin Salvant

The 24-year-old French-American jazz singer won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition in 2010, and her first distributed album, 2013’s WomenChild, was a 2014 Grammy nominee. Now, she comes to Oregon for the first time for concerts in Eugene Friday and the Portland Jazz Festival Saturday.

When did you first get involved in music?

When I was a kid I always sang. I took piano lessons from the age of four years old. I was really interested in classical singing so I started taking classes after school when I was a teenager. I always really liked the voice, the human voice.… As a kid I would watch the Disney movies and really be into all the songs.

Classical singing is a rare teenage interest. What sparked it for you?

One day I was watching TV and I saw this girl, Charlotte Church, singing … I thought it was amazing that somebody so young could really move people to tears with a voice and singing this classical repertoire. And my mom always liked classical singing so I had that in my ear. I was just dumbfounded and thought it was something I could do.

You grew up in Miami with a French mother and a Haitian father. You’ve studied music in France. How has geography had an effect on your music? 

Being brought up in the family that I was and music being such a central part of our everyday life — not just French and Haitian music, but music from Senegal, South America and classical to funk to hip hop … that has definitely had a great influence in how I listen to music.

Growing up in Miami, singing jazz didn’t seem at all like a viable option. I was really not in contact with any jazz musicians in Miami growing up. I wasn’t even aware that there was a jazz scene. It’s so not something that is central in people’s lives there. I knew there was Latin jazz. I was much more in contact with Latin music culture.

It just seems it was not accessible to me as it was when I moved to France. [Salvant moved to Aix-en-Provence, France, after high school to study political science and law.] There are jazz festivals all over France.… It’s not necessarily like only jazz-fusion or things with Latin elements; they also just like to listen to jazz, jazz from the ’20s. All of a sudden I had banjos in my life! I had no idea that anyone played the banjo. And sousas. I had no idea that was something people still appreciated and still played. Moving to France on that level completely opened my eyes. I don’t think I would have done any of this if I hadn’t moved to France.

What was it like studying music in France?

I ended up meeting the jazz teacher [Jean-François Bonnel] there because I was urged by my mom to try to audition for the jazz class … He forced me into that audition. I really didn’t want to go … I was so shy and so completely disoriented. He was telling me I had to scat and learn how to play the piano and listen to all these musicians and singers. He was absolutely the most important thing; him and my mom have been hugely important in my life musically.

And your training in Baroque singing in France? How did it inform your jazz singing?

Your relationship to the libretto in Baroque is totally different than in classical … It’s really, really precise. The teacher was a historian of the music … I always had these teachers that were really adamant about interpreting the role. Why is the character singing? What did they do after and before the song? Singing is natural and absurd. What moves you to that crazy act? My Baroque teacher was always very much into the words. Learning how to pronounce the words, even in French, and understanding the lyrics before doing anything else. Those are definitely things that have stayed with me.

You released WomanChild in 2013. How do you choose which songs to cover?

I like songs that have kind of an odd little edge to them. I like songs that are funny. I like songs that haven’t been recorded too often, digging up something that sounds beautiful that maybe has been recorded once or twice but people don’t know it, and I really like having people discover those songs .… It always definitely has to be something that I can really identify with.

The track “WomanChild” is your first original song that you didn’t throw away. Why is that?

“WomanChild” was really the first thing that I didn’t hate. I liked the idea of having this very sort of instinctive song come out … To me, it was really important to have that on the album. It’s autobiographical but eventually it came to embody a lot of things that the album is about, that I feel about jazz music — how it does have these two qualities: an intellectual savant quality but it also has this spontaneous, open, childlike naïve instinctive quality to it.

Cécile McLorin Salvant performs Friday at The Shedd in Eugene and Saturday at Portland’s Newmark Theater.

Alex Notman is arts editor of Eugene Weekly, where this interview first appeared.

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