Cécile McLorin Salvant takes old songs and makes them new.
Putting fresh and often humorous spins on classic jazz standards from the American canon and rare tracks from musical theater, Salvant has made a name for herself as a top vocalist in contemporary jazz. Acclaimed for her originality, she won a Grammy Award in 2016 for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Salvant puts particular care into crafting her show repertoire, creating an engaging mix of revamped standards and compositions from her catalog.
“Mostly I choose songs that surprise me, that have an interesting lyric, that have a twist somewhere,” she said, trying always to be “playful with music choices.”
At 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater, Salvant will share her originals and interpretations with Chautauqua, songs that bubble with humor, wit and self-reflection. Backed on the road by a pianist, drummer, bassist and djembe player, Salvant’s performance will express her distinctive musical approach, unfolding each song with personality and verve.
Salvant has a flair for extracting emotional depth from songs that might seem lighthearted on first listen, uncovering layers of complexity below their surface.
She said she relishes “bringing out the contrast, the humor and sarcasm” in the songs she performs.
The element of humor has become a mainstay in her artistry, alongside an exploration of identity, feminism and race. Salvant will begin by taking a song from American music history — one with onerous or offensive themes — and draw out the humor from it. Putting a spin on songs with sexist or racist undertones is to satirize them, she said, and to detract from their power and sting.
“I often laugh at things that are meant to be offensive towards me,” Salvant said. “Laughter has always been my shield and refuge.”
Having spoken as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2016 on the storytelling power of jazz, Salvant will be performing at Chautauqua for the second time. Her lecture, which explored the jazz canon, its rich heritage and its power to fight oppression, included both spoken and sung portions.
This time around, with her jazz concert this evening, Salvant said she hopes to musically translate many of the same themes. She looks to pass on her musical tradition with her performance, educating the audience as before, “making the words (she sings) clear, making the meaning of the song come through.”
Her musical creation, Salvant said, conveys her personal story, background and musical tastes. Released earlier this year, Salvant’s latest album Mélusine is grounded in French folklore while also reflecting Salvant’s ancestry, she said, sung in a mix of French and other languages.
“My family history, my first language, my Haitian heritage, my maternal roots in Southern France, the rituals and myths tied to my heritage” are all enveloped in song, Salvant said, an echo of how she was raised and her experience growing up in a culturally mixed environment.
As much as her work focuses on her own history and identity, Salvant explores the identity of others and how that identity is formed and challenged. The theme of identity is a throughline in her work, she said.
“I am interested in the question of identity, how people self-identify, how they are defined by others, and the push and pull of those opposing forces,” Salvant said.
Talking about identity and exploring her history comes naturally through her music, sometimes without conscious effort. When it comes to writing and performing personal songs, she said she follows her instincts.
Sometimes it’s years after performing a song that Salvant realizes how much her music relates to her moment, “how tied certain musical choices I’ve made are to the personal place I’m in.”