Cecile McLorin Salvant: The 13th Floor Interview

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New York City-based jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant will be making her New Zealand performance debut in March.

Salvant, along with the Aaron Diehl trio, will be in Wellington on Tuesday, March 13 to play at the Michael Fowler Centre as part of the New Zealand Festival, then two days later they will be in Auckland to perform at the Auckland Town Hall as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Cecile McLorin Salvant recently about her most recent live album, Dreams & Daggers, recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard and what we can expect from her performances in New Zealand.

Click here to listen to the interview:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: You’re coming to New Zealand in the not too distant future. Is this your first trip down here?

CMS: It is, yes, and I cannot wait!

MD: Aha! Well, we can’t either. It’ll be very exciting. Do you do anything differently when you’re going to a new territory or place that you haven’t been to, as far as performing is concerned.

CMS: Performing: not that new or different, but, definitely, the whole environment will be so completely different, and also the time zone will be so completely different…. Something will be different and strange, I think, in what we do.

MD: Right. When you’re travelling that far – it’s a twelve hour flight from LA, at least – do you have to worry about the effect that travel may have on your voice?

CMS: I feel like my voice… is not really something that I worry about so much; it’s more worrying about getting sick from the flight – just generally feeling sick – getting a cold, or that kind of thing – it’s a worry – and also just being tired for the gig. Those are things that we try to find solutions to make it better. But I’m not so worried about my actual voice, just about my whole being.

MD: You’ve got a new album out, Dreams and Daggers, which is a live recording, at the Village Vanguard, from some performances you did last year, from what I understand. From what I’ve read, you described those dates at the Vanguard as a turning point in your development, and I was hoping that you could elaborate on that, and explain what that meant.

CMS: I think it was more just a huge honour to be in that space; so, there’s a feeling of, “Am I worthy?” “What have I done to deserve this, and what is my sound to deserve being in this beautiful, beautiful place?” So, there was a lot of thought into the months preceding going to The Vanguard – especially since we knew we were recording there – just figuring out that I wanted to sound more relaxed, and more natural, and less like I was trying so hard, and less like I was so desperate for approval or to sound good, and really try to get to the bottom of things and try to figure out a way to sound like I’m three hundred years old; but, of course, I failed! I think the turning point – I thought it would be a turning point, or I thought I would be able to use this – I think that it changed the way that I thought about singing, though, in a way.

MD: You, thinking that you wanted to sound like you were three hundred years old – because [of] the weight of some of the songs, I’m assuming – probably the cool stuff that happens, is when you mix the reality with the aspiration, and you come up with something in between that’s different and no one has heard before. That’s always a plus, right?

CMS: Yeah…! What do they say: in the failure of doing what it is that you want to do, art-wise – you miss whatever the mark is – that’s its own thing; and the distance between what you thought it would be, and what it actually is, is the interesting thing about it, I think.

MD: My understanding is that you returned to the Village Vanguard just this past year, and did a few more dates at the end of September.

CMS: I did! I did. I sang there with a pianist who is a guest on Dreams and Daggers for one song, and we played there as a duo. It was really a lot of fun to be back in that club, and in another instrumentation.

MD: When you come to New Zealand, are you bringing a trio, a piano player? What’s the plan?

CMS: It’s going to be four of us; so, piano, bass and drums and me.

MD: Are these the same musicians who played with you on the album?

CMS: Almost. The drummer is different. His name is Kyle Poole.

MD: What can you tell me about these guys?

CMS: They’re fabulous! They’re really sensitive players. They’re very versatile, and they’re really in the service of music, and they’re just on a very high level of playing musically.  They’re entertainers in their own right, in terms of how they play: they really set a scene, and they can really do a lot. It sounds, to me, when they play, it sounds like it’s a lot more people on stage than it actually is.

MD: I’ve got to imagine it’s, pretty much, a collaborative effort between the four of you. How do you find the people that you can collaborate with best, in order to form this little group that you’ve come up with?

CMS: Well, I met the pianist (Aaron Diehl) through my manager, about six years ago, and we started playing together, and it worked; but that’s luck, because a lot of the time, its trial and error – and you just try things, and sometimes it doesn’t work. Thankfully, I met Aaron really early on – he was one of the first American musicians I played with – and we really had great chemistry, and had a very similar way of approaching music; and so, it was a really great joy to be able to collaborate with him. He came along with a trio – with Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers at the drums – and we played together for years, and we developed a band sound together; so, that type of situation was pure luck. In other situations: Sullivan Fortner, who I play with: he’s just a pianist that I heard on the scene, and I was such a huge fan of his, and he called me for a gig, and I went and I loved it, and then we, eventually, just started playing together more and more. Kyle is also someone like that: that I met through being in New York and mutual friends and acquaintances and people that we played music together with, and things kind of happen like that.

MD: I know that quite a few of those songs, on the live album, are old blues and American standards that have been around for a while; so, obviously, you’re rearranging them, or setting up new arrangements. Is it you who is doing the arrangements? Is it you collaborating with the group? How does the process work, as far as coming up with what ends up being sung?

CMS: I have very vague ideas, and then I throw them at the band. Aaron does a lot of the arranging, but Paul Sikivie also did the arranging for the strings – he did all of the string arrangements on the album – so, it depends on the song; it depends on what we’re going for. Sometimes there’s no arrangement at all; we just play it and figure something out. The interesting thing, I think, more than who does the arranging, is how the arrangements change every time, and how we might have a song that’s four years old, that we played a certain way, and as time goes by, it just completely changes; and so, the arrangement is no longer even the same, and it changes and morphs because we play it so much, and we figure out different ways of performing it.

MD: You mentioned that Aaron was one of the first American musicians that you played with; so, I’m assuming that the musicians previous to that were European; is that right?

CMS: Yeah, they were French.

MD: … Did you find that working with European musicians was, in some way, a different approach to the music than the Americans would have an approach to, say, an old Bessie Smith song, or something?

CMS: I think a lot of it has to do with the lyrics – when you have people who understand the lyrics, versus people who don’t – but I think that’s general, because you have some American musicians who don’t listen to the lyrics, and others who do, and really care about them; so, I think… everything depends on the individual. The thing with jazz: I think we’ve reached a point that it’s almost like European musicians have as much distance between them and jazz as Americans do, because jazz has become such a niche music in the US – it’s become such a thing that you need to go to, and figure out for yourself. We’re getting, almost, to the point where the question of where the musician is from is not even relevant anymore; because it’s not like American jazz musicians are getting standards from their grandparents – it’s really rare. Aaron is an example of somebody who started playing because his grandfather was a jazz musician – and trombonist and pianist – and introduced him to a bunch of stuff. Typically, people just start off playing rock. Like Paul Sikivie, the bass player in the band, was playing ska and rock, and things like that, and then he was paying bass – electric bass – and then he stumbled upon jazz, and then he wanted to play it. So, is there a huge difference between him and the French guitarist that I played with for years, who also stumbled upon jazz? I don’t know.

MD: And yourself: my understanding, from the reading, is that you were quite an accomplished classical vocalist as well. You had options open to you, as to what you could do, because you have this amazing talent, and you chose to sing jazz. Obviously, it’s not a financial thing; so, why did you go in that direction?

CMS: I just had gigs in jazz, and I was still a student in classical voice – and I was still taking lessons – and then, eventually, they got more and more gigs, and it became more and more time consuming; but there was no specific moment where I was like, “Well, I’m just going to stop singing classical voice.” I always wanted to do classical voice, and I still do. If things had been different, and I started getting gigs as a classical singer, then I wouldn’t have done jazz. I mean, I would have done jazz as a hobby or on the side, but this is just how it happened.

MD: Are you based in New York City now?

CMS: I am, yes.

MD: Because you were born in Miami, which is not exactly a hotbed of jazz – although, there is a lot of other music going on around there. How do you compare being in the musical environment of Miami to New York City?

CMS: I didn’t know any musicians in Miami. I didn’t even know that jazz was a music still being played; so, that gives you an idea, a little bit, of where I was at, in terms of connecting and engaging with the music scene in Miami. I met a bunch of musicians now, in New York, who are from Miami; and that we lived in Miami at the same time, but I didn’t know them. It’s just very interesting how you can be so removed from something, and then, if you’re really in it, it’s different: things open up, and you realise that there’s this whole theme. I’m sure there’s a bunch of people in New York, who live here, who have no idea how many jazz musicians live here. I’m sure people… have no idea that there’s this whole scene – like, jazz scene – in New York, because they’re not in it, and then once they dig into it, they’re like, “Oh, wow! There’s a whole culture. There’s a whole environment here.” That’s a great thing about New York, though: is that there’s that, but… I think that applies to everything: there are so many subcultures and communities doing different things here; so, it’s fascinating.

MD: It’s been a few years since your previous – or your most recent – studio album – which is the one that won the Grammy. Are you thinking in terms of what that next studio album is going to be like?

Cecile McLorin Salvan & Sullivan Fortner

CMS: I don’t really think of it in terms of studio versus live – because if I could just do live, I would just do live – but I already did record with Sullivan Fortner – who is the pianist that I was talking about earlier. We recorded a duo album in May, and we also recorded at the Vanguard, when we were there; so, there’s a lot of material – we have, maybe, thirty songs that are recorded.

MD: Are these original songs?

CMS: There’s one original. I have to figure out what we’re going to do with that: are we going to put all of it out? Are we going to put ten songs out? It’s not clear to me right now. So, yeah, I’m excited about that, and then I’m also writing… a long piece that’s going to be a collaboration with an arranger named Darcy James Argue. He’s going to be doing the arrangements; I’m writing the music and lyrics – and this is like a story; a long story – so, it’s kind of different, and very new terrain. I really don’t know what it’ll be!

MD: It sounds pretty interesting….

CMS: At least, if it’s anything, it’s different. If there’s anything about it that can be taken away, is that it’s different from what I’ve done in the past. Now, whether it will be successful – whether it’ll even be okay to listen to – that’s totally different situation – that’s a different question and answer altogether – but it’s different; I’ll say that.

MD: Are you a prolific writer – are you writing all the time – or do you write when you need to?

CMS: I think I write when I need to, but I kind of force myself to have situations where I would need to, if that makes any sense. I was like, “We’re going to do a song cycle. This is the due date. This is what we’re doing,” and then I was like, “Oh, no! Now I can’t back out of it! I’ve got to do this!” If I don’t set something up, like that, it’s harder to write songs.

MD: When you come down to New Zealand, what kind of material are you going to be presenting to us? Is it going to be similar to what’s on Dreams and Daggers, or is it going to be something that we haven’t heard before?

CMS: Right now, I’ll say it’s probably going to be similar to Dreams and Daggers, but anything could happen. Anything could just drastically change, and it could be totally different; so, we’ll see.

Click here to see Cecile McLorin Salvant in Wellington on March 13th.

Click here to see Cecile McLorin Salvant in Auckland on March 15th.

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