“If anyone can extend the lineage of the Big Three — Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald — it is this 25-year-old virtuoso.” — Stephen Holden, New York Times
If you’ve never heard of Cecile before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about. Cecile McLorin Salvant is a young singer based in New York, born and raised in Miami, Florida. A lot of big things have been said about her and her music and I must say that none of it is an exaggeration. She deserves every bit of recognition she’s been getting. If anything, she should get more. You know how every now and then you stumble upon someone who completely blows you away? Well, for me that was Cecile. I started listening to her just as I was getting over a breakup, and boy did her music prove to be helpful and healing. And that’s what great music can do. Heal. Inspire. Excite.
What makes her so amazing? Well, where to begin with someone so accomplished. Her voice is clear, rich and full. She has impeccable control and makes it look easy. She is not afraid to use her full range and when she sings, she’s not afraid to take chances. She’s a great storyteller. She sings with Ella’s clarity and eloquence, with Sarah’s expressiveness and dynamics and with Billie’s emotion and depth. She often talks about a long list of musicians that influenced her, and you can hear them all through her (for example, Bessie Smith) - she has a great sense of jazz history and tradition. I love her taste in songs and how she brings very obscure and rarely recorded songs of the 20th century back to life, with an almost theatrical delivery.
What I personally enjoy and appreciate the most, beside her obvious technical proficiency, is how she makes the lyrics come alive and how she interprets them in a way that make the song completely fresh and relatable. And then there’s this amazing ability to deliver two seemingly contradicting experiences of the human condition together, and show that they’re actually just two sides of a coin. Comedy and tragedy. Determined, thought-out artistry and childlike playfulness. She combines that in her music unlike anything you’ve heard before. Someone else that comes to mind when I talk about this, is Thelonious Monk, who incidentally, was also a big influence on Cecile.
You can listen to her whole body of work to hear the things I’m describing, but here are just two examples (and the song earlier, ‘Poor Butterfly’, is definitely a testament to this, as well).
So much fun! She makes this song, that could easily sound completely out of date, come to life, and she’s not afraid to interpret it in her own way. In fact, this is reminiscent of Louis Armstrong who, given a song, would take it, find the very essence of it, and recreate it as something novel and magical. And yes, you guessed it, Pops was also a great influence on Cecile.
(Would you have guessed that this song is over 100 years old?)
The performance itself is amazing, but I feel if you know the background of the song, it makes everything even more special. ‘Nobody’ was originally performed by Bert Williams, a very popular comedian of the early 20th century. He was one of the (if not the) first successful African-American entertainer. Although he was widely loved by audiences, it was a different time back then and he went through a hard life, to say the least. When performing he would wear black-face, and often, in order to perform, he would have to pretend he’s white. So here’s a successful, talented black man, pretending to be white, pretending to be black. Naturally this caused a great deal of pain for him. And that doesn’t even begin to describe it. I mean, it’s crazy. How do you even talk about something like that?
The song ‘Nobody’ was extremely popular, which he would say was both blessing and a curse. A fellow performer described Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”. There’s just so much irony and tragedy in all of that, and Cecile captures it perfectly.
If you’re interested, you should check out her album WomanChild. She performs with a band of incredible musicians - Aaron Diehl on piano, Rodney Whitaker on bass, James Chirillo on guitar and Herlin Riley on drums.
She was also in the studios again last month, so I think we can expect a new album soon. Can’t wait!
Before I finish, listen to this hauntingly beautiful rendition of ‘There’s a Lull in My Life’ matched with a Prelude, done by Aaron Diehl (who deserves a post of his own). And don’t do what we usually do - don’t just put it on for the background music to whatever it is you are doing. As a matter of fact, try this (especially if you’re someone who thinks jazz music isn’t for them, or that you don’t get it). It will take only 5 minutes. Put away all distractions - phones, email notifications, anything like that. Don’t tweet, go on Facebook or check emails. Just put it all away for five minutes. Dim the lights, sit back and if you want, maybe even pour yourself a glass of wine. Then play the song. While you’re listening, relax and think about that special someone in your life. Might be your crush, might be the love of your life or the one that got away. Just sit back, take five minutes for yourself, and think about the love you feel for this person, while listening to this beautiful song.
Now tell me that didn’t strike a chord!