By Andrew Gilbert
Special to The Seattle Times
With her luxuriantly appointed voice, razor-sharp wit, sly theatricality and discerning ear for unlikely material, jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant would stand out in any era. But the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition is downright radical in an age of melisma-addicted belters.
Salvant, who opens a two-night run Tuesday at Jazz Alley as part of a double bill with the superlative piano trio of Kenny Werner, has the pipes to blow away any Whitney wannabe. But she’s an artist who knows there’s power in restraint, and that a pregnant silence can speak volumes.
While her velvety lower register is reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan, her minimalist sensibility and knack for rendering ballads at slow-drip tempos owes more to Shirley Horn, what she describes as “that mellow vibe when you’re older and have less to prove and you’re less antsy about everything, just singing the song.”
Not that senior citizenship is anywhere near the horizon for McLorin. Part of what sets the 24-year-old phenomenon apart from so many of her peers is that she’s not interested in merely thumbing through the well-worn pages of the American Songbook. Her second album, 2013’s Grammy-nominated “WomanChild” (Mack Avenue), ranges gracefully across more than a century of American music, including a tour de force rendition of the American folk song “John Henry” inspired by a Big Bill Broonzy recording.
When she talks about developing the arrangement you get a good sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to every piece.
“It’s difficult to get that folk, rural blues aspect in a trio,” Salvant says. “What are the drummer and bass play going to do? How does the piano fit into that sound, which I associate with the guitar? These arrangements start with the seed of an idea and it takes a long time to get them together. I like it to be a group effort. When everybody brings their own voice and background it makes it something unique and of the band.”
Born in Miami to a Haitian father and French mother, Salvant spent her teenage years immersed in European classical music. She was in Aix-en-Provence, France, studying law and classical voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory when a professor turned her on to jazz and improvisation.
Within a year she had recorded her first album, and was faced with choosing between two musical passions, “but I refused,” Salvant says.
“I still love singing French and Italian baroque music from the 17th century, singing with the early instruments, and I intend to get back into studying classical voice next year.”
As a jazz artist, she’s growing exponentially, and judging by recent performances Salvant is living up to all her early promise.
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Tuesday-Wednesday, Feb. 18-19 at 7:30 p.m., Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave., $24.50, (206) 441-9729 or www.jazzalley.com).