Even if you have yet to notice, jazz is inching back toward the mainstream musical consciousness.
Thanks especially to some high-profile hip-hop collaborators, jazz acts such as Thundercat, Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper suddenly seem ubiquitous, unexpectedly flirting with wider acceptance and accessibility. But by and large, the genre is still held hostage by its old guard's staunch defenders, bop preservationists who render the form ineffective for outsiders. Cécile McLorin Salvant—only a few years ago, an outsider to jazz herself—could help change that.
"I had a hole in my voice. I still do," Salvant explained in a recent interview. She was describing her transition from the classical arena to the more accommodating arms of jazz pastiche and how an error in her voice necessitated an idiomatic switch.
"We call it a hole, but it's an area in the voice where it's air. My classical teachers were just so frustrated with me because I would have these deep, low notes that were really strong, and the higher register was strong," she continued. "But right in the middle area, it was really hard. In jazz, I could take advantage of that."
During the last half-decade, Salvant has stepped into jazz in a major way. Her timbre towers among obvious influences such as Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Betty Carter, though she explores musical latitudes they left alone. Those are the holes of which she speaks, the same that have caused no less of an old-guard dignitary than Wynton Marsalis to identify her as jazz's "manna from heaven." Her third record, For One to Love, recently nabbed a Grammy nomination for "Best Jazz Vocal Album." No, her fanciful renditions of songs by the likes of Valaida Snow and Blanche Calloway have not crept into the Beats 1 play list of many pop stars, but she has created another possible alleyway into jazz.
In fact, Salvant has said that the best point of entry into jazz for the uninitiated may be to start with the vocalist—"It eases you in," she maintains. For that matter, it's not hard to imagine Apple's annual holiday television advertisement converting more than PC users; Stevie Wonder's duet of his 1967 song, "Someday at Christmas," with up-and-coming jazz chanteuse Andra Day could make believers out of the unsuspecting, too.
But Day's approach suggests the Amy Winehouse kind of crossover, meant explicitly to greet the jazz virgin. The Miami-bred Salvant offers a welcome that is more didactic and allegiant to tradition. She swings her voice between grunt-y conquests of jazz, blues and vaudeville fluency, bending accessibility toward her will rather than bending her voice toward its demands.
Sometimes these swings take on whimsical shapes, as in Salvant's cover of Snow's 1934 mating cry, "You Bring Out the Savage in Me," from her swoon-worthy second album, WomanChild. Salvant's archival instincts come out here as perfectly pitched primitive madness, so that her take recalls an appreciation for the source and an upgrade of it all at once. Her approach recalls Percival Everett's short story "The Appropriation of Cultures," in which the story's black protagonist, Daniel Barkley, plays overtly racist, old-time tunes like "Dixie." "He sang it slowly," writes Everett. "He sang it, feeling the lyrics, deciding that the lyrics were his ... recognizing his blood in it." You hear that same sort of new ownership in Salvant.
In September, Salvant issued For One to Love, a 12-song stride through brave, original songwriting and revisiting canonized standards such as Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Wives and Lovers" and Stacey Kent's "Le Mal de Vivre." That track traces Salvant's Haitian-French-Guadeloupean heritage to her classical voice training at Conservatory Darius Milhaud in France. That's where she eventually found jazz and the strength of her own voice.
During "Look at Me," which Salvant wrote, she questions an unwilling lover for keeping her in the friend zone. "Why don't you look at me the way you look at all the other girls?" she asks in a high, pleading coo. But then she slides through one of her holes and hits a low blues register. Suddenly, the song's heavy air creates a burden of sympathy. Despite her protestations in this song, Salvant is becoming nearly impossible to overlook.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Call and response"