By the time Carmen McRae comes to the final lyric of “Trouble Is a Man” during a performance on the ’60s show “Jazz Casual,” she’s relayed the gamut of emotions experienced by the song’s protagonist—a woman whose love interest has failed to keep his promises. “Trouble is a man I love,” she finally sings, lengthening the word “I” in a way that implies regret, pain, anger, frustration and eventually, the tenderness she can’t let go of.
“She just brings everything, all the meaning out into that song,” says Cecile McLorin Salvant, the 25-year-old singer who, since winning the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, has been hailed repeatedly by critics as a bright new light in vocal jazz. “I sing that song by myself at home—I’ve never performed it live—but it’s really informed and touched and moved me just as a person.”
Born in Miami to parents of French and Haitian descent, Salvant transitioned from classical voice and piano to jazz while living in Paris. And if her Grammy-nominated U.S. debutWomanChild is any indication, it was the right move. Salvant’s impressive technical chops are matched by an uncommon devotion to great storytelling. She inhabits the characters about which she sings, conveying their emotions and narratives as much by careful phrasing and use of her expansive range as by language.
“Anytime I sing, I try to really get to the sense of the lyrics,” she says. “That is something that’s really important to me, and it comes from extensive Carmen McRae listening, but also Billie Holliday and Abby Lincoln and all these singers who were able to make you feel beyond the music what the story is.”
This year, Salvant is channeling that energy into telling her own stories. She’s currently working with a new batch of original compositions, most of which center around love—and not the warm and fuzzy kind.
“They’re about yearning for love and lost love and love that is not mutual,” she says, adding that her trio—pianist Aaron Diehl, drummer Lawrence Leathers and bassist Paul Sikivie—helped her feel comfortable getting more personal.
Still, the stakes are probably high for a singer with Salvant’s propensity for exhuming the core meaning out of a song and expressing it through her voice, as if by osmosis. Now, with each new song about some painful aspect of love, the real-world experience is buried within her own heart.
“It’s not a story, it’s me speaking in my voice—and that’s hard to share,” she admits. “You’re afraid of what the reactions can be.”
Salvant’s new work, along with a handful of jazz standards, are due out on a sophomore Mack Avenue Records release in August.