Cécile McLorin Salvant’s thoughts are even wilder than her music

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Cécile McLorin Salvant’s thoughts are even wilder than her music

Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2023 lineup
Photo by Karolis Kaminskas
Words by Lesleigh Luiten

Cécile McLorin Salvant closes the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

For 10 days every year the Melbourne International Jazz Festival brings the underground above ground, celebrating jazz culture. Making her Melbourne International Jazz Festival debut – and bringing the 2023 festival to an unforgettable close – is celebrated Grammy-winning vocalist and composer, Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Jazz is a genre that’s full of tradition but also continuously evolving, it is characterised by complex harmonies, syncopated rhythms and relies heavily on improvisation. Salvant, who describes herself as a contrarian, is at the forefront of innovation in jazz.

She is known for both breathing new life into classics while still exploring uncharted musical territories and seamlessly traversing genre and culture – from jazz, blues, baroque and folkloric music. While her performance at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival this October promises to be an unforgettable night, we wanted to know what lies behind Salvant’s performances and fuels her creativity.

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Salvant has back-to-back shows for the remainder of 2023 and when she is not performing, she continues to immerse herself in all things creative. “I think whenever I feel a little bit of a slump I listen to music, read, consume whatever art I can get my hands on. I go into research mode. I fill the well,” Salvant confides, revealing the secret to maintaining her inspiration. “When I’m not performing, I like to write, embroider, walk, draw, read,” she says. It is this pursuit of artistic enrichment that fuels the captivating performances for which she is well known.

As jazz relies heavily on improvisation, so too does Salvant before her shows. Staying emotive and raw each night and being vulnerable within her performances can be contributed to by a genuine connection with her band members. “I don’t have any pre-show tactics. For a while I meditated, and that was actually great. I want to go back to doing that. Usually, I just hang out with the band,” she contemplates.

Earlier this year, Salvant expressed that popular culture making fun of jazz drew her to it. People not liking jazz made her love it even more, so her relationship with jazz can be described as reverence. “I said that because I am a contrarian, I think. But what I love about the genre is not the genre in abstraction. It’s specific musicians that I’m drawn to like Charlie Parker and Betty Carter and James P Johnson and Blossom Dearie,” she says. Her admiration for these jazz legends is evident in the way she crafts her own music; Salvant is known for her own brand of charismatic storytelling.

Whether it be a rich interpretation of a familiar song or a rarely performed treasure when reimagining a song, she seeks out songs that challenge her but also translate to a dramatically charged performance. “I want to be surprised by a song. My reasons for not pursuing a song are usually more related to fear and self-censorship,” she admits.

It’s beautiful to see that the most accomplished jazz vocalist of her generation is still vulnerable when it comes to exploring music. Although she is known for pushing the boundaries of jazz, she still holds herself back when reflecting that the thoughts in her head are wilder than the music she currently creates. Wondering what it would look like if she surrendered to those thoughts, she said:

“I have no idea! Hopefully little by little, time will tell.”

It’s hard to picture the multi-award-winning artist doing anything other than jazz today, but there was a time in which Salvant, like many of us, didn’t know what her true calling was. “I only studied law because I was unsure what to do after high school. What interested me the most was the history of law. Music was always in my life, but I still am unsure it’s something I was ‘meant to do’, but it is something that I feel extremely lucky I get to do. From the moment I started singing professionally, I always thought I’d just take it one step at a time and see where it led.”

As Melbourne is the unofficial cultural capital of Australia, and the city is beaming with diverse arts, architecture, culture, and even natural beauty, we can expect Salvant to be in her element and inspired. “If I get time to walk around the cities I am in, and see people interact, eavesdrop, that’s where I get the most inspiration,” she admits. So, as she graces the stage of Arts Centre Melbourne, we can expect to be both electrified and thrilled by the inspiration found in the bustling streets of our very own city.

Cécile McLorin Salvant is closing the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on Sunday 29 October at Arts Centre Melbourne. Tickets here.