What makes a voice timeless? What makes Ella, Billie, Sarah, Nina, Anita, or Betty such highly original singers who sound so interesting, so distinct?
Finding one’s own voice can be one of the greatest challenges for a jazz singer, and the quest usually begins with inspirations. You can hear, for instance, the resemblance of Eliane Elias to Astrud Gilberto, or Madeline Peyroux to Billie Holiday. Cecile McLorin Salvant — also obviously influenced by the singers of the golden era – has managed to do more than find her own voice. The 24-year-old is emerging as the most original jazz singer in three or four decades. How does she do it? Well, she starts with innate talent, of course. And though she respects the jazz tradition, she’s no copycat.
In 2010, Salvant won the Thelonius Monk Vocal Jazz Competition in Washington D.C., and she’s been on the fast track to a Grammy since. Salvant’s 2013 American debut album, Woman Child, was released by Mack Avenue Records. It integrates the variety of music she grew up with, calls upon the voices of Betty Carter and Billie Holiday, and still remains true to her own capabilities.
Take, for example, her version of the traditional American folksong, “John Henry,” which she belts out with the struggles of the labor and civil rights movements in mind. Salvant’s version is powerful, steeped in the blues but filled with hope and passion. It’s also very rarely recorded by women.
Salvant will be visiting Portland as part of the Portland Jazz Festival and playing at the Newmark Theater on February 22, accompanied by the equally promising young pianist Aaron Diehl. Salvant is certainly driven, as evidenced by the growth of her career since last year, and there’s no doubt she’ll be on the jazz scene for years to come.
For now, it’s all about developing that unique and original sound.
“Keep pushing, keep working, and keep developing. I think that’s really what I would hope would happen in the next five years,” she said.
And maybe, there’ll be a Grammy Award coming soon to help her along.
You can hear an interview with Salvant below: