(This interview was conducted at Salvant’s apartment on January 5, 2018 and transcribed by Kevin Sun.)
Ethan Iverson: Was your father born in Haiti?
Cécile McLorin Salvant: Yes, he was he was born in Cap-Haïtien, but I haven’t been to Haiti much. Only been there maybe four times in my life.
EI: Andrew Hill and Andrew Cyrille have Haitian roots, but there are other current jazz players as well…[Update: Andrew Hill was apparently not from Haiti, although the liner notes of Hill Blue Note albums state that fact.]
CMS: Obed Calvaire is from Haiti. Jonathan Michel, Sarah Charles, Melanie Charles, Jean Caze…
EI: And your mother is French?
CMS: She was born in Monastir in Tunisia. Her family traveled through Africa. They lived in Cuba. They lived in South America. So she spent some time in France but she really has one of those childhoods where it’s like three years in a place and then they move.
EI: Why were they moving around so much?
CMS: My grandfather worked for UNESCO, and they were also really politically active and intense. I think another part of it was that they were mixed couple; my grandmother is a white French woman and my grandfather is black from Guadeloupe. They wanted to see the world and follow their instincts politically, since they were hardcore communists.
EI: Where did your parents meet?
CMS: They met in Haiti. my grandmother was living in Haiti. My mom went to live with her for a little bit and she met my dad there.
EI: How soon did they move to Miami?
CMS: Oh, they moved to Chicago first, then they moved to Miami, so I suppose a few years after this. Five, six years.
EI: Port cities always have so many different things going on. You told me another time about all the kinds of music you heard as a kid.
CMS: Yeah! Off the top of my head I would say definitely there was a focus on vocal music and folk music. Some Senegalese Griot music; Fado, Cape Verdean music, Appalachian, bluegrass, Uruguayan folk music, Paraguayan folk music, folk music from south America. A lot of different stuff, but mainly local music.
A lot of Haitian music, Caribbean music, that kind of stuff too. And of course your your typical pop hits. R’n’B, hip hop, that type of stuff. So that was all kind of in my mom’s and dad’s world. Sarah Vaughan was also just really really present in the house.
And then my sister would listen to like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, and I was like, “She’s so cool! Marilyn Manson is so scary.” My sister was very cool and very into grunge, also very into Bob Marley. So I also had that sort of feeling of looking up to an older sibling for their radical tastes, being afraid but curious. I had a little Fisher-Price cassette player and would sometimes steal her cassettes but would get in trouble — had to make sure she wouldn’t find out a cassette was missing.
EI: Did you play some instruments growing up?
CMS: I started at the piano, I was either three or four, and I played until I was 18. And that’s basically the only instrument. I was dreaming of being a violinist or cellist or harpist or something, but piano it was and piano it stayed.
EI: How far did you get at 18 in terms of the repertoire? Were you playing European classical repertoire?
CMS: Yes, I was. I practiced about an hour a week hurriedly before the lesson. I was so not into it. I was brought up in a group of friends where all my friends had piano lessons at first: all together in this annoyance. Eventually everyone around 13 started dropping like flies. They would just quit and they’d tell their parents like, “I don’t want to play anymore,” and their parents would be like, “OK, whatever you want.”
And I thought, “I’m going to do that too.” And I’d go up to my mom and be like, “Mom, I’m quitting, I don’t want to play the piano anymore,” and she’d say, “Ah, funny,” like, “I don’t know what you think this is, but this is not negotiable, you’re doing it.”
So I kept going and I was reluctant but still there was some pleasure, once you learn a piece, finally memorize it and get it into your fingers and can perform and play it.
I would say I’m a pretty lazy person and I’m not a deep practicer. It’s kind of against my nature I guess.
Every year there were piano exams.
EI: Like a final recital?
CMS: Yeah, a jury member comes and judges you on your playing, they grade you or whatever. And every year you have to present ten pieces memorized and do some scales and whatever. They’ll tell you if you can go to the next level, I guess.
When I was maybe 13 or 14 I was in a car on the way to the exam. Someone was driving me. It wasn’t my mom. But anyhow, I was on my way to this exam and I thought, “I don’t know any of these pieces by heart. I’m not ready for this. I really need us to be in a car accident right now.” So I kept being like, as we were driving, “Car accident, car accident, car accident, car accident, car accident.” I was doing a little car accident dance.
EI: This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard.
CMS: Oh, it’s terrible! And sure enough, we hit a car. Now, everyone was fine; I didn’t say fatal car accident. It was just like a little bumper thing or whatever. It was perfect, thank you! “My evil, evil spirit has been rewarded.” They postponed the exam for a week after that. It was like they gave me life, I was practicing, practicing, practicing all day and I actually did really well on the exam!
EI: Do you remember what the pieces were?
CMS: Not for that one exactly, but every year was similar, always a Bach fugue, a Chopin nocturne, something by Albéniz or Lecuona. Typical stuff.
EI: And your mom was the Sarah Vaughan fan.
CMS: Huge Sarah Vaughan fan!
EI: If I can be stereotypical for a moment, I think in France there’s this real understanding and love of jazz standards. They love that stuff. They have for a century. I don’t think there’s a classic French film that doesn’t have jazz on the soundtrack.
CMS: I lived in the US until I was 17 and I didn’t even think it was a possibility to be a jazz singer. It was not something I was aware of, and I certainly didn’t think as a 16-year old it was a possibility. I was far more interested in listening to Pearl Jam and I’d say this with a healthy amount of shame, Dave Matthews Band.
EI: Well, the Dave Matthews Band can jam.
CMS: I was into it, I was into Soundgarden, that whole thing, I had a mohawk, it was a whole situation.
When I moved to France I went to this conservatory where there were auditions for classical voice. I wanted to be a classical singer for a really long time. “This is really voice at its limit. You’re really pushing it, it’s like ballet for the voice, going to the extremes of what a voice can do in terms of projection. You get into characters and wear costumes. It’s just insane. It’s amazing.”
It was kind of a dream.
When I went to auditions for the classical voice program at this conservatory in Aix in the southeast of France, I was with my mom and my mom said, “You should go to a jazz class. You should just go meet the jazz teacher, let’s go,” and I was like, “Oh whatever, OK, I know ‘Lullaby of Birdland,’ I’ll sing that.”
I was 18. So I go to see the teacher and I start singing “Lullaby of Birdland,” and he said, “OK now take the solo. Like improvise on a chorus.”
And I was like, “What? Like what, chorus? I don’t understand what you’re, like like I don’t even know what this is.” All I knew of jazz vocals was listening to Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson and just hearing them sing beautifully.
I was really not thinking about instrumental jazz much, other than Thelonious Monk. I listened to Monk because I thought it was badass and really nice, but I wasn’t really paying attention to how things worked.
So eventually this teacher said, “You really need to come into this class, like you need to do this.” But was really more into classical music anyway, and I was in a political science school and studying law. “I don’t have time for this. It’s nice but I’m not into it.”
And then I saw him in the street and he said, “You have to do it. I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
I went to the audition and it was a bunch of young, cool-looking kids. There are a lot of guys, at least versus the classical student body, which was all these sopranos, like girls in a certain kind of vibe… Suddenly here’s a group of people that are young, that are interested in jazz. There are some banjo players, what’s going on? And that’s when it occurred to me, “Oh, this is something that people are into here, at least in this country, you know.”
I had no idea of any kind of scene in Miami. Otherwise I probably would have gotten into it.
EI: Have you spoken to Joshua Redman about any of this? Something similar happened, he studied Social Studies and Law at Harvard but people started showing up and saying, “Hey man, you need to play some music.”
CMS: I never really talked to Joshua Redman. I’ve only seen him a few times… but I went to the New School for a semester and he gave a talk there, and I was very surprised to see that we had a similar kind of reluctant immersion, like, “Oh, I guess I’m doing this now.”
He didn’t sound like all the other jazz musicians I’d been talking to at the time: “I’ve been determined to do this since I was 5 years old.” There’s another path. It was interesting to hear him talk.
I was essentially following passively what my parents wanted me to do, and still to a certain extent I feel like I kind of just am accepting the flow of where things are going.
EI: Even to this day.
CMS: Even to this day! I met this teacher who said, “You absolutely should do it,” and I was like, “OK.” I’ve just been saying “OK” for the last 10 years, and it’s been really great.
I feel really lucky because I’ve had really great opportunities, but not all of my eggs are in this basket. It’s more like beautiful gifts that I keep enjoying. I love music, and I love a lot of other things too, and this just happens to be the thing that I’m doing because it just sort of presented itself in a really natural way.
EI: But at the same time I know you’re a worker and I know that you once you decided on jazz, you put in some serious time getting it together. I’d love to hear about some of what that process was like and what you checked out.
CMS: I was really lucky to have the teacher that I had. He’s a saxophone and clarinet player, his name is Jean Francois Bonnel, and he’s essentially really the only teacher I had in jazz. I had a few moments with other people. But he was really the main one, and all he did is just give me a bunch of records to listen to and then ask me what I thought about them and asked me if I wanted to sing a song from them. And then forced me to play the piano.
You have to keep in mind for those first four years that I was really checking out jazz and getting into it, I was also studying political science. I was also in a law school–first year, second year of law–and I was doing classical voice and baroque voice. So there was a lot going on and I’m a procrastinator. So there was a lot of watching Seinfeld, and last minute freaking out before an exam or before a recital.
But I do remember listening to records. I felt really homesick and I think listening to music was just the most amazing thing. It didn’t feel like it was work. I suppose it might be considered work because I was inevitably doing a lot of research and finding out a lot of things and checking out how people were, but it didn’t feel like I was “checking it out.” It just felt like, “I need this for my own sanity.”
I was listening to everything that Ella recorded, I was listening to Bessie Smith’s recordings nonstop, Billie Holiday nonstop.
I would get hooked on one song and then listen to it all day for like weeks, but it felt almost like this compulsion, almost like I needed it.
So I think that was the initial thing, and also getting into the piano and getting into composing at the piano and being kind of put into some rough situations piano-wise. Eventually I did the Monk Competition, 2010, but I was still in my small music school in France. After I did the Monk competition, I went back to my school with all the other students and my teacher was like, “OK, you won the Monk competition so you’re not singing anymore, you’re just going to exclusively do piano trio stuff for the year and for your exam.”
And I was like, “Yeah but I’m terrible at this,” and he was like, “I don’t care. Figure it out. You’re not going to sing right now. You can sing on one song every now and again.”
EI: What a mean teacher! But I guess he was right to tell you that?
CMS: YeahI Otherwise I wouldn’t have played any piano, and I’m glad that I got that experience. It’s nice to have a side view of it from another perspective. Doing some really terrible piano trio stuff and transcribing some piano stuff and trying to transcribe some James P. Johnson very slowly gave me this whole other respect for instrumentalists. It gave me a peek into what that could be.
Every time I record, there’s always like one song where I sing and play. Sometimes like once every three years I’ll sing and play onstage. And when I compose that’s exclusively what I do, is sing and play and figure things out that way.
EI: Let’s talk about a couple of singing pianists. One of my favorites is Shirley Horn.
CMS: Yes! I grew up listening to her, but I had no idea that she played the piano. When I found out she played the piano and it blew my mind. And then started really getting into her piano playing and checking out out her just accompanying. She does that record with Carmen where she’s just playing and just putting that real specific vibe on it, and I love it.
EI: Billy Hart is convinced that Shirley Horn was an influence on Herbie Hancock, in terms of the actual voicings, because they double billed at the Vanguard. Miles got a lot of tunes from Shirley Horn, she was an important resource for Miles in general, and maybe Herbie got some stuff from Shirley the way that Red Garland got stuff from Ahmad Jamal.
CMS: I love that.
Singing piano players: someone else I think of that I love and actually love his piano playing more than his singing is Nat King Cole. And I actually feel like Nat King Cole is one of my favorite pianists of history of jazz.
EI: He’s the one we lost. We lost him to the singers!
CMS: I know! His piano playing is amazing! It’s amazing. It’s amazing.
I think of, of course, one of my top, biggest like queen idols is Blossom Dearie.
EI: She could really swing, too. She had a really special vibe.
CMS: That’s really what interests me is like the special, special vibe. And also she just was so great at choosing repertoire that had a little edge to it, that had something to it.
EI: Provocative. There was something a little provocative about Blossom Dearie.
CMS: Totally. There’s so many more…Lil Armstrong, of course.
EI: I don’t know if I heard Lil Armstrong sing so much, but I love her piano playing.
CMS: Oh my gosh. So nice. She has a song called “Harlem on Saturday Night,” there’s a song called “Just for a thrill,” that she wrote that Ray Charles then played and sang. Amazing, amazing, just really great. She has one called “Brown Gal, Chocolate Gal.” It’s so good. I wish there were more recordings out there of her singing and playing and just her band and her vibe, because it’s just really nice.
EI: She was really kind of in the shadow of Pops considering how talented she was. I sort of heard that she had a lot to do with getting him on the path to a career, too.
CMS: Yeah. There’s also Nina Simone. What a piano player!
I’ve been really getting interested in people who can’t really sing but who are singers. I really love to hear all the flaws. Like I think about somebody like Elizabeth Cotten, who was a great guitarist. Amazing. Her voice was a strange kind of voice of a grandmother, even when she was young, and I love that so much.
I don’t know why I got off on this tangent…
EI: No, this is the stuff we should be talking about. The whole history of American music is powered by people that have a different kind of connection to music than purely professional.
CMS: I’m very interested in folk music and folk art, probably more so than I’m interested in more “developed” (quote unquote) forms. I like the music of folks, I like to hear what a song passed down from generation to generation, to people who couldn’t perform, couldn’t sing. I don’t even want to say it that way— these are just people in their homes dealing with music on a personal level, in their communities, without breathing technique and virtuosity into it.
Yes, technique and virtuosity is very interesting to me and I think it was the focus at some point, but these days I’m just really interested in folk and naif art in all forms. And storytelling in that kind of form.
EI: If someone has their little one piano piece that they play and if you hear from a distance, like you can hear from the next room, it can sound incredible. It’s amazing the power an amateur doing their one thing in music can have. A concert pianist could not get that emotion out of a piano.
CMS: Totally! Or if they do get that emotion out of the piano, it’s because they are a genius.
EI: They’ve gone the long way around.
CMS: Right! Yeah.
I was talking to this musicologist and he studies something like “pop music of the Renaissance.” What we have today are things that the masters wrote, but what I’m interested in is what people played in their homes.
EI: We only have the academic record, we don’t really have the local record.
CMS: Exactly. So he’s spending his life basically researching what people were playing and singing in their homes long ago, especially in times when there was no way of listening to music other than making it yourself. I’m just very interested in that kind of do it yourself, almost janky vibe. Of course I love a good virtuoso and I love a show of technique, but these days I guess the folk element is what’s interesting me.
EI: Music has always had this non-professional role in the community, and voice was always the first instrument.
CMS: We all have it. We all can do it. It’s not like playing saxophone or trumpet. We all can sing a song. It’s maybe not going to be great, but that’s all something that we can do for free for our enjoyment, for other people’s enjoyment.
EI: I love seeing community theater, like a community musical. That’s the best. Nobody’s a pro, but the feeling can just make you cry.
CMS: Yeah! I love it. I feel like that’s something that I’m more and more interested in and definitely thinking about it for future projects. Like maybe writing a song and having like a friend sing it that’s not really a singer. When I hear a singer, I don’t want to hear, like, “Oh wow, what a great singer.” I want to be floored by the song, or by the feeling of it. I don’t want to know that they were able to technically do it. That needs to be an afterthought. I think a lot of technique is most clichéd thing.
We heard Igor Levit last night, and I loved that. [Levit played Bach/Brahms, Beethoven, and Rzewski at the Greene Space.] I love somebody who’s just kind of throwing it all away, throwing the control away, giving themselves up to whatever it is. And it almost feels like the more technique you have, the more difficult that becomes. You really have to just be in a state of abandon to allow that to happen. It makes for some really beautiful musical moments.
EI: Let’s talk more about the jazz singer tradition. Sometimes for DTM I do a kind of word association where I say a name and then the interviewee responds. You want to try that a little bit?
EI: All right, let’s talk about Bessie Smith.
CMS: Bessie Smith to me was a tough sell. I was told that she was good. I was told that she was the Empress of the Blues. And when I heard her I thought, “What is this racket? It’s loud. The recording is terrible.” And then I started to check her out and just really spend some time. I was curious about it because I really didn’t like it. The more time I spent, the more fascinated I was, and then there was a shift. I don’t know what happened, but I started just becoming completely enthralled. The power, the vulnerability, the interpretive power. She’s such a great interpreter of music. There’s this deeply rooted country blues mixed with some vaudevillian city stuff. It feels like fusion to me.
EI: It’s true, there’s some city slicker stuff in there.
CMS: There’s total city slicker stuff. There’s variety in the material, like a song where she lists all the different ways she’s just going to kill herself. I’m gonna throw myself off the hill, I’m gonna drown myself in the water, I’m gonna sit under a tree and put some hammers on the top of the tree and wait for the wind to come. And she’s just like going on and on about how much she’s going kill herself and how she’s going to do it. She has other songs about swamps and floods and going to Florida and going to hell and I’m going to prison. There was this era in the blues thing where it was really theatrical and there was a lot of different subject matter that was really exciting. She really sang a lot of different songs, but at first I guess it sounds very the same when you don’t know how to listen.
EI: You could say that about Bach, too.
CMS: You could say that about anything. You could say that about literally any music that you hear.
I started learning about her life and the way the show was performed. It’s was in a circus tent sometimes with dancers and a whole to-do. She was insane and intense, just like the time period she was in. There’s so much that comes to mind when I think of Bessie Smith, it’s like a well that never dries up.
EI: “Backwater Blues.”
CMS: Oh my gosh, with James P. Johnson, right? The best, I mean, woooo!
EI: Some people wrote in a book that James P. Johnson couldn’t play the blues, and that he doesn’t sound so good with Bessie Smith.
CMS: It’s so interesting. That’s a thing that I kind of love. Somebody always has some shit to say, and it’s great. I’m glad for them, that they had that boldness, that they had that opinion.
EI: James P. can play the blues all day long as far as I’m concerned. But when you talk about theater and the city, you do hear that in James P. Johnson.
EI: I think Bessie is such a great combo with James P. He’s sort of like the most advanced of that city side and she’s the most advanced of that, whatever you want to call it, “shouting.”
CMS: When I started to really get into it, I would write down who was accompanying her every time, and I found that consistently my favorite was James P Johnson, because there’s a theatrical quality. It’s just so creative and so supportive; also it has its place.
EI: For me some of the best James P. in terms of feel is the stuff with Bessie.
Let’s move on to Billie Holiday.
CMS: Billie Holiday. Also somebody that took for me some time to appreciate, mainly because of memories of hearing her when I was a kid and thinking that she sounded like an old witch. Listening especially to her last recording, just feeling like “ugh,” this is depressing and she’s just this old cranky lady.
Eventually really got into it and really got so excited and so energized by her whole approach. Energized in a way that I didn’t feel probably again until I listened to Betty Carter for the first time.
Also the idea that people “got it.” I think of that with Monk sometimes, too, like, “This person was a popular musician!” This wasn’t somebody doing some weird shit with two people in the audience; this is somebody that people loved.
How did the people know to love this? Now we have years to look back on it with a bird’s eye view and be like, ”She sounds great,” but at the time… When this shit came out everyone else was singing like Ruth Etting or Mildred Bailey. Now, I love Mildred Bailey, but to have somebody sing like Billie Holiday next to that, to me it’s just insane. She’s just radical. Billie is radical to me. And this is not even talking about interpretation and how she uses emotion and puts emotion into what she sings; it’s just the approach is so radical and insane, and so from this folk tradition to me, mixed in with the city stuff mixed in with the theater.
And you know I wonder sometimes, how must she have felt about her own voice, you know which couldn’t do that much, and yet it can do everything.
She still confuses me and I’m still confused about her, and fully…just attracted, like there’s something undeniable that draws me to every time.
EI: Her rhythmic thing is so deep.
CMS: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. It’s so deep. It’s so, so, so deep.
Billie kind of brings me back to Ethel Waters. I don’t think Billie ever mentioned Ethel Waters, but I think Ethel Waters was one of Billie’s big influences. I could spend hours talking about the radical fusion of Ethel Waters.
EI: That’s someone I don’t know so well. Why don’t you give us a couple of Ethel Waters tracks that we should go listen to.
CMS: Well, there’s one that I really like, from a movie, “Darkies Never Dream,” which is kind of, you know, tough, but it’s great. Oh my gosh. She does “Birmingham Bertha” which is really good. “Sweet Man Blues” is really good. “Oh Daddy” and “Come up and see me sometime.” She has some stuff with James P. Johnson which is highly recommended because you hear that interaction and how she approaches it. It’s brilliant. I feel like she’s the first jazz singer. It’s fusion. it’s like full and pure, crazy fusion. You have the folk element, country element, you have this whole influence from these white Vaudevillian singers. You have the rolled “Rs” sometimes and you have this undertone of some church stuff. It’s a lot. It’s really rich and really deep. And she has this interpretive power, like she’s such a great interpreter of music and of words. It’s also theater, which I love.
EI: How about Ella Fitzgerald?
CMS: She’s the one that I first remember hearing all these standards from. It’s almost like a dictionary feeling. If someone mentions the title of standard you don’t know yet, you say, “All right, let me listen to the Ella version.” This is the definitive, classic version, like you get a stamp.
But I never connected and I still don’t connect with Ella the way that I connect to some other singers. I love her, of course she’s great, but you know it’s like with friends. I really gravitate towards people with some deep darkness and issues. For singers, l like those who are almost problematic in their approach to singing. Ella to me feels really buoyant and joyful, I haven’t really gotten that darkness from her. And I wonder if it’s just that my ears are not open enough, or maybe she just wasn’t going to share that part of her with the audience. Of course there’s something very important to have that kind of figure. But I feel like I’ve always needed a little bit more nastiness. I don’t think anyone could possibly say that Ella is nasty in her singing.
EI: Another singer told me that they thought Ella had the best technical equipment.
EI: Perhaps Ella relates to Oscar Peterson. I am someone that does not really respond to Oscar.
CMS: I’m also someone who does not respond to Oscar..
EI: Of course he’s great, but whatever you said about Ella, I would say about Oscar for me.
CMS: Exactly. Everybody knows he’s great. Like, it’s fine. It’s unanimous…but is he your dude though? I don’t know. He’s not my dude at the piano, definitely not, but I enjoy him.
I’m all for liking everything. It’s all good, and I’m glad that it’s all there, and I’m glad that if I want to I can go to that.
But as for her technical proficiency, yes, but of course I want to say Sarah Vaughan. She to me is the virtuoso. She’s the virtuoso singer. She has it all.
EI: Give us five or ten favorite Sarah Vaughan performances.
CMS: There’d be something from Brazilian Romance, her last album, which I hated, I loved, then hated, then I love again with more passion than the first love. I love that whole record so I’m just going to put that whole record in there. I’m going to go back all the way to “A Night in Tunisia,” which is called “Interlude.” The way that she does it is so strange and amazing and kind of scary. It’s really early Sarah Vaughan, it’s nice to get those two extremes. Of course “Send In the Clowns” is necessary. “Maria” is great, too. “Jim,” with Clifford Brown. She has an album called Slightly Classical which is really really great. I love it all.
EI: Did you listen Jo Stafford and other 50s people?
CMS: Yeah I love Jo Stafford. She really sings some great songs, too.
EI: The arrangements are so great on those records.
CMS: Yeah, beautiful.
EI: And Doris Day is someone that people give respect to.
CMS: I love Doris Day. I love Doris Day. Now if we’re talking about Doris Day then I would feel bad not talking about Judy Garland. She is a big part of Hollywood, but Judy Garland stretched way beyond that scene. She is someone I consistently go back to.
EI: Well, if you want to talk about complex emotion…
CMS: Yeah. Darkness. That’s the one.
EI: Let’s get back to some more jazz and talk about Nancy Wilson.
CMS: I met Nancy Wilson in California, and it was very strange. She didn’t talk about music at all! She was just happy to be retired and be with her family. It was amazing to see because I was expecting somebody who was going to be telling all these stories about singing and what it was like way back when, and she’s like, “I don’t even have my recordings. I don’t even know where they are,” and then she really left that life behind and she’s just being a grandma. There’s something beautiful about this, like, wow, you can do that? I thought that was impossible. But she’s playing with her grandkids and offering me a sandwich? I’m like, OK, great.
There’s a lot of different ways to live, I guess. People do a lot of different approaches.
EI: I’m sure you’re hip to this, but I’m very interested in the way some of the major singers influence the major instrumentalists.
EI: And of course Bessie and Billie, there’s essentially no jazz without those two. But then there’s Nancy Wilson. In my opinion, part of the DNA of most 60s and 70s jazz is Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley.
CMS: That’s very true. That recording, it’s just one of those unanimous ones where anybody you talk to on the scene, if you ask, “Give me three your favorite vocal jazz albums,” they’ll name that one. It’s just so insanely good. And I feel like she never really sang that way ever before or after that. They really brought something out of each other in that session. Yeah, I love that recording so much.
Recently I started listening to another one that I had forgotten about. To me, it’s like a seminal vocal and instrumentalist collaboration album. But really it’s actually just Max Roach’s album, We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, with Abbey Lincoln. That to me is just like the pinnacle. And he changed her life. He really changed the way she approached singing, which I’m so happy for.
EI: Those pre-Max album LP covers, you can’t even look at them and understand what’s going on. “Wait, that’s Abbey Lincoln?”
CMS: Yeah, she was like on the way to being like a black June Christy or Julie London but something happened.
I don’t mean to make it sound as if Max Roach made her the artist she was. I think he did have a certain influence, but this without taking away from her responsibility for her artistry. Either way, there is no autonomy in art. I almost feel as if he were her muse in a way, and that she was his. I’m also well aware that he was abusive with her. I once read an angry letter she wrote him at the Library of Congress.
EI: I love that Coleman Hawkins participates in those revolutionary dates with Abbey and Max. Hawk plays great, too, especially on “Left Alone” from Straight Ahead.
One thing I really admire about you and about Aaron Diehl and some other people younger than me, like the best of your generation, is a determination to think about it as all a lineage. It’s really interesting that Hawk takes that incredible solo on a sort of ultra modern, dark jazz piece. There’s nothing more modern than Abbey Lincoln singing “Left Alone.” But then you got like Hawk in the mix, and it’s just so hip.
CMS: To me it is like a big bowl where everything is just mixed together, rather than looking at it like this linear like, “This happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” “This master influenced this.” To me, it’s far more exciting and interesting to see it as this giant mashed potato casserole. Like it’s all intermingled and we’re traveling back in time and forward in time and in the present and in the past, and we’re creating tunnels between these things, and it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. It’s all one big mashed thing. That’s the way I try to look at art and listen to music. Growing up, that was how I experienced music, because we listened to all kinds of different eras and styles, and I didn’t know that one thing was more important than another.
EI: You mentioned visual art: I know you’re a visual artist as well.
CMS: I mean, that’s a bit heavy. I like to doodle around and paint a little bit sometimes.
EI: But somehow I feel this is part of the bowl.
CMS: Yeah, it’s all in the same kinda bowl. It’s a bowl, I don’t know, is it a soup? It’s a soup in the bowl. It’s a bowl and inside there’s this really good broth and a bunch of things mingling with them.
I’m now working on this song cycle, and I’m going to somehow use visual art in that in some way. I have to figure it out.
EI: It’s your songs and your lyrics?
CMS: Yes. It’s my lyrics and music. It’s a story about an an ogress. Music and lyrics by me, arrangements by Darcy James Argue, and illustrations that I have to figure out how they’re going to be presented.
EI: I can easily see you helming a musical.
CMS: Thank you! That’s exactly what I want to do with this, turn it into a musical, then design the costumes and design the set and just really get into it, but that’s going to take years. That’s going to be a project.
EI: I think you’re situated in a place where you can do that if you want. I hope you do.
CMS: I hope so, too.
EI: So much jazz is pretty boring to the general audience, but everyone loves a musical.
CMS: Everyone loves a musical. We’re in a good time, there’s space for a semi- jazz musical. There are so many types of musicals now, from traditional “Broadway!” type of singing to R&B in the The Color Purple. I feel like it’s fine, we can do it.
EI: If I don’t cry during a musical, they’re doing it wrong. I have to say I almost always cry. I’m sure you can make me cry! I’m looking forward to it.
Well, we’re getting there. To close up, maybe just one more name to riff on. There’s something in your sound that reminds me a little bit of Betty Carter.
CMS: Thank you. Jesus. It’s another radical, that’s another just, “What the hell is going on. You got to be insane to do that.” Like no sane person would be able to go for that. She goes for so many things.
And of course, what do people say when they hear Betty Carter, they say, “Look, she’s just another member of the quartet. She’s playing with the band, she’s making the band sound good, they’re making her sound good.”
It feels like this is finally the real jazz singer, really the spirit of jazz is in her. She’s just completely free and a great improviser, really into communicating with the music and with everyone that’s on the bandstand with her.
Betty Carter has a certain iciness and a certain roughness that at first is kind of off-putting. But then she gets you. She’ll get you, she will get you at some point and it’s amazing when she does. For me it was like a seduction with Betty Carter, like a real seduction where you’re charmed by someone into deep love. At first you’re like, “I’m not into this person,” but then, “Oh, what are these feelings.” And it’s so much because of just risks and it feels like she’s always on the edge of something, and she’s always just going for the least easy solution. She’s not going to give in and just sing a song in the nice easy way. She’s really taking us to some far out places and I love that about her. I love how she works with the bands. I love her compositions.
EI: I think you’ve inherited this approach, because your bands are very great and very swinging, and I know they respond to you in the moment and it feels like the way a jazz group should be working.
CMS: Thank you. That’s super nice. Part of it is probably because I feel so close to those guys, and I trust them a lot. If I’m like a guest on another gig or something, I don’t get into that too much because I’m scared and I’m nervous. With them, it’s like we know each other, we trust each other, we’ve had our tough moments, we’ve had our issues. We’re back on the bandstand, there’s something really powerful, and I feel like that can only happen if you’re with a band for more than two weeks. A lot of singers, they gotta just figure something out because like everybody’s working and you might like one musician, he plays on the record, but then you play with other people.
EI: Well, I have to say, some singers don’t want to hear that much from the band, either.
EI: Some singers just want a backdrop.
CMS: I don’t even know if I’d sing if it was just a backdrop. I’m a singer, but I don’t really feel like a singer. I feel like I’m an audience member, I’m a listener. I like art and I like to appreciate the art. If I could just sit back and listen to whatever it is that they’re into, that’s where I feel the most myself and that’s where I feel the happiest. I don’t sing around the house unless I have to compose something. I’m perfectly happy just listening to a bunch of music and being around it as an audience member, as a fan. I feel like that’s my natural state, that’s what’s normal.
Being on stage I’m selfish. These guys are great, I want to hear what they’re going to do. I want to be surprised by them, I want us to interact, I want it to be like a vibe. It’s not cabaret! I mean, I love cabaret and I’m not mad at cabaret, but it would be such a shame to have Aaron Diehl, Paul Sikivie, Lawrence Leathers or Kyle Poole or whoever’s playing the drums at that time–it would be a shame to just have them be a nice and easy backdrop. That’s crazy. When I play duo with Sullivan Fortner, it’s same thing. “This is an insane person playing, let’s hear what the insane man has to say. Let’s listen, let’s hear him out.”
When I say he’s insane, I mean it feels like he has access to so many different elements, senses, spaces, times, simultaneously. And then he shares them with us. It would be pearls before swine if that were a backdrop barely given any mind.
EI: The best jazz musicians always work on multiple levels. Today it’s been a real pleasure learning a bit more about how your aesthetic comes together in that mysterious bowl. Thank you Cécile!