Venice

Spring 2015

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GIANT STEPS Rising jazz star and Miami native Cécile McLorin Salvant finds her way home. BY BOB WEINBERG PORTRAIT BY JOHN ABBOTT 88 Venice A mob of jazz lovers spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach last April, eagerly awaiting admittance to Cécile McLorin Salvant's sold-out show. The vocalist, who won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010 and earned a Grammy nod for her 2013 release "WomanChild," also happens to be a Miami native. Friends and family, she acknowledges with a laugh, made up a good portion of the audience. "I could definitely feel it," she says of her warm reception. "That was a crowd that really knew me well." The concert was a triumphant return for the 25-year-old New York City resident, who will perform on May 9 at a South Florida JAZZ concert at the The Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center in Fort Lauderdale. Backed by a piano trio last April, Salvant charmed the Colony Theatre audience with a jazz interpretation of the show tune "If This Isn't Love," injected coy sensuality into the standard "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and elicited laughs with her woeful, hangdog rendering of Bert Williams' "Nobody." Five years earlier, the singer had performed at the nearby (and now defunct) Van Dyke Cafe, and more recently with Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. But this marked the first time she came home with her own musicians, playing repertoire from an album that won her international acclaim. A captivating presence in her trademark white-framed specs and close-cropped hair, Salvant deserves every accolade. Her flexible instrument easily settles into the contralto register of Sarah Vaughan, and she can conjure the playful exuberance of Ella Fitzgerald or the sultry bluesiness of Billie Holiday. While she's included tunes from Holiday's songbook on her recordings and recently performed a Holiday tribute in the Appel Room at Lincoln Center, Salvant admits she didn't always appreciate the tragic singer, whose centennial was celebrated in April. The rawness of Holiday's voice didn't appeal to Salvant as an 8-year-old girl listening to her mother's records. "I used to think she kinda sounded like an old witch," she says. "I would be a little disturbed by her voice." However, Salvant did find plenty to like in her mom's collection, which included titles by Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson. The daughter of a French mother and a Haitian father, Salvant graduated from Miami's Coral Reef Senior High School. She sang with the Miami Choral Society from a young age and studied classical voice at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, France. While there, she trained with reed player Jean-François Bonnel. Each class, he would bring his eager pupil a stack of 10 to 15 jazz CDs, from which she would select repertoire. She soon began performing outside the academy and recorded her first album backed by Bonnel's quintet. "I gravitated toward jazz, mostly because I was getting so much encouragement from him," she says. "Eventually, jazz became something I embraced wholeheartedly. I was finding all this great music, and I was playing with bands and getting paid. So it seemed like it was just welcoming me." The welcome would only get warmer. In 2010, on a whim, she entered the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. A launching pad for jazz stars such as modern masters Joshua Redman and Jacky Terrasson, the Monk Institute's international contest is one of the industry's most prestigious. "Nobody knew who I was," she says. "I didn't know any American musicians. I was just going for the hell of it. And I was really nervous and intimidated by everyone—the singers, the judges, the audience. But it was great because I also got to meet a lot of wonderful musicians that I ended up singing with later." The impulsive gamble paid off in the form of a victory. With backing from pianist Aaron Diehl's trio and a guitarist on some tracks, Salvant's 2013 album "WomanChild" more than lived up to the hype. Her delivery on material such as Bessie Smith's "St. Louis Gal," Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" and her own quite modern and emotionally riveting title composition, radiated confidence and maturity. She's since recorded a follow-up, to be released later this summer. Salvant is looking forward to her South Florida return in May, to see her nieces and go out for dim sum with her folks. The unassuming singer seems somewhat startled by her success, even as the validations keep coming. She topped four categories in the 2014 DownBeat Critics' Poll and was recognized as Female Singer of the Year and Upcoming Artist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. "It's definitely been good with this album," she says. "I had never won an award before [the Monk competition]. So, just the fact of getting first place, and whatever that might mean—whether it be the Monk competition or anything else—just made me excited. It was a crazy thing for me."

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