Cécile McLorin Salvant offers a fresh take on jazz [video]

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She’s only 27, but Grammy Award–winning jazz singer and songwriter Cécile McLorin Salvant has music critics and fans drawing comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and other legends.

She won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’s international competition in 2010, picked up a Grammy Award in 2016 for her second album, For One to Love, and can be heard singing on a ubiquitous ad for Chanel perfume.

Born in Miami to Haitian and French-Guadeloupean parents, Salvant switched from baroque music to blues and jazz under the tutelage of saxophonist and clarinetist Jean-François Bonnel at a conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Woman singing into microphone (© Luis Sinco/Getty via Los Angeles Times)
Salvant brings an edgy look to jazz performances, hooking younger audiences. (© Luis Sinco/Getty via Los Angeles Times)

In intimate cabarets and on the stages of big jazz festivals from Switzerland to Japan, she always wears bright, bold colors and white, oversized spectacles — making an unforgettable impression even before the first note.

Salvant has breathed new life into the “Great American Songbook” by such composers as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and others.

Her repertoire stretches from the Jazz Age to the 21st century, from “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Anything Goes” to “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Something’s Coming.”

Salvant grew up in a home surrounded by music, from opera to folk songs, from the African-inspired beats of Cuba to the fado music of Portugal.

Her parents, a physician and a founder of a French immersion school, started her on piano lessons early. At 10, after watching a televised concert by Welsh prodigy Charlotte Church, she began classical voice training.

As a teen Salvant also loved to listen to her mother’s albums featuring Sarah Vaughan, the big band singer who brought an operatic range to jazz. “I just wanted to sound as much like her as I possibly could,” she told a National Public Radio interviewer in 2015.

She imitated other famous singers, too, but “the more I listened … the more I realized I had my own little thing that I could do,” Salvant said in the interview.

Singer and double bass violin player onstage (© AP Images)
At New Orleans’ 2015 Jazz & Heritage Festival (© AP Images)

Bonnel lent her recordings of singers from the early years of jazz. Salvant sings sorrowful ballads as well as romantic songs, always making them her own.

“I never wanted to sound clean and pretty,” she said. “I always wanted to have a certain natural quality to my voice. I wish it was more rough than it is.”

Rough or smooth, her voice is here to stay.