Cecile McLorin Salvant: Jazz Master of the 21st Century

The first time I heard Cecile McLorin Salvant, I actually thought her song “Visions”  was a classic from the great jazz artist of the 40s, Sarah Vaughan. I looked for the mysterious “Vaughan” song everywhere, but was unfortunately unsuccessful. Many months later I heard it again, this time on the television, and I was shocked.


McLorin Salvant is a Grammy winning jazz artist and the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. In the modern jazz world she is well revered and respected , having a large fan base in both the United States and Europe. Born in 1989 in Miami, to a Haitian father and French mother, Salvant began classical piano training at age 5 and joined the Miami Choral Society a couple of years later. She went on to  study classical and baroque voice at Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, France., where she  first stepped into Jazz. Her debut album was self-titled- Cecile and the Jean-Francoise Bonnel Paris Quintet. She went on to record WomanChild , which earned her first Grammy nomination as Best Vocal Jazz Album, and later won her first award in the same category for For One To Love..

Salvant has a versatile voice range and a tone of her own. She sings with the kind of conviction that holds your attention. When she sings, she tells you a story. She emotes. She moves. She feels. In reference to her singing, Fred Kaplan of the New Yorker wrote, "Her blues are blue. Her swings swing. She has vast, almost operatic range." When you listen to Cecile, you don’t just listen, you understand. She molds her voice, range, tone and pitch according to the feeling and sound in the song. She molds her emotions to the theme and expresses her feelings in a pure manner. She has the unmistakable depth of Sarah Vaughan, the promiscuity of Nina Simone and the purity of Billie Holiday.

Several jazz artists today divert from the repertoire that artists preferred several years ago. Some transition into alt-jazz  blues, folk, or even pop like Michael Bublé and Diana Krall.  Quartets and Quintets often stick to traditional jazz classics. McLorin Salvant is one of those artists who has stayed true to the essence of Jazz. while also delving into different circles like alt-jazz and neo-jazz. She has her own repertoire, but she also includes classics. She is not afraid of bringing her own rhythm, while staying true to the beat of Jazz. Popular jazz artists like Norah Jones often mold their work in order to fit the tone of today. While, McLorin Salvant’s work is relevant and relatable to the audience now, it reminds us of the days when jazz was an art form of itself. It doesn’t ‘transport you to a different time’. No, it makes you feel more in the present than you might ever have, but eerily reminds you of a time when jazz wasn’t something people listened to at a fancy brunch.

In her last album, Dreams and Daggers, she has a mix of classics like  “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty”(famous from the movie Funny Girl) “Mad About a Boy,” (Dinah Washington) “ Si j'etais Blanche,”(Josephine Baker)  and “I didn’t Know What Time It Was,”(Several Artists) among others. It also includes forgotten “oldies” like “Sam Jones Blues”(Bessie Smith) and “Devil May Care”(Several Artists)  as well as originals like “And Yet,” and “More and The Worm.” This album reiterated her unique style , while giving a new angle to her music. It was daring and sensual. All her songs were carefully picked to reflect the theme, and she used  jarring contrasts in the sounds of her song order, allowing her to show off more movement in her voice and her range.

In the music world, we often say, don’t compare two artists.  They all come from different places and have different experiences and emotions. It is very tempting to compare Salvant and Vaughan. They share a voice quality that holds the room ,and doesn’t let the attention drop till the last moment. Their vibrato can only be comparable to that of an instrument. They have the same depth and soulfulness. They have a penchant for emoting. But the more you listen to Salvant, the further Vaughan moves away. Salvant is clearly inspired by her, but do not mistake her for the next Sarah Vaughan. She has a rhythm true only to herself. She is THE master jazz vocalist of the 21st century and she is Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Photography by: Spencer Brown