Cécile McLorin Salvant
Cécile McLorin Salvant is a highly respected jazz vocalist. Born in Miami, Florida to a French mother and Haitian father, She won the first prize in the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition releasing her first album, Cécile, shortly afterwards. Her second album, WomanChild, was released in 2013 and received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. She won four categories in the 2014 DownBeat Critics Poll: Jazz Album of the Year, Female Vocalist, Rising Star–Jazz Artist, and Rising Star–Female Vocalist, and her third album, For One To Love won her the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2016. The Awards went on, including the UK's JazzFM Award for International Jazz Act Of The Year in 2018, the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album for The Window in 2019, and the Jazz Journalists Association's Jazz Award for Female Vocalist of the Year in 2022. Quite a list!
Cécile's latest album, Mélusine, was released on 24th March. Partly sung in French, English and Haitian Creole. It tells the story of the European folkloric legend of Mélusine, a woman who turns into a half-snake each Saturday as a result of a childhood curse by her mother. Mélusine later agrees to marry Raymondin on the condition that he never see her on Saturdays. He agrees but is ultimately convinced by his brother to break his promise, piercing his wife’s door with his sword and finding her naked in the bath, half snake, half woman. When she catches him spying on her, she turns into a dragon and flies out the window, only to reappear every time one of her descendants is on their deathbed.
Cécile says: "“I think what I try to do is more akin to revealing secrets than telling stories. Revealing secrets is also the snake’s role in the Garden [of Eden]. The snake brings secrets, knowledge, pain, and mayhem. The story of Mélusine is also the story of the destructive power of the gaze. Raymondin’s sword pierces a hole into her iron door. His gaze does too. The gaze is transformative and combustible. She sees that he is secretly seeing her. Her secret is revealed. This double gaze turns her into a dragon. She can now breathe fire."
"It is also partly about that feeling of being a hybrid, a mixture of different cultures, which I’ve experienced not only as the American-born child of two first generation immigrants, but as someone raised in a family that is racially mixed, from several different countries, with different languages spoken in the home. This album combines elements from French mythology, Haitian Vaudoo, and apocrypha; Dame Iseut, the last song of the album, was translated into Haitian Kreyol with my dad from the Occitan, which is an ancient language spoken in the south of France. My grandmother spoke a little, and her brother used to teach it."
It is debatable whether the collection of songs on the album that tell the story make it a 'jazz' album as they are quite varied in their styles, but that's something that makes the recording interesting. For example, Il Ma Vue Nue (He Has Seen Me Naked) has a light, almost humourous touch while Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle (Tell Me I'm Beautiful) is just voice and percussion.
The musicians and variety of instruments on the album also add to the textures and variety of the music. [Cécile McLorin Salvant: (vocals, synth #7,9,13); Sullivan Fortner (piano #3,5,6,11,12; synths #6,10, kalimba #12, vocals #12, celeste #14); Aaron Diehl (piano #1,2); Paul Sikivie: (bass #1,2); Kyle Poole: (drums #1,2); Lawrence Leathers: (drums #2); Godwin Louis: (alto saxophone #3,5, vocals #12); Luques Curtis: (bass #3,5,12,14); Weedie Braimah: (percussion 3,4,5,12,14); Obed Calvaire: (drums #3,5,12); Daniel Swenberg: (nylon string guitar #8).]
But for this article listen to the title track, Mélusine, which I think gives us an understanding of why Cécile is seen as such an accomplished jazz vocalist.