Cécile McLorin Salvant
Dreams and Daggers
Air Date: September 2, 2017
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. At Freihoffer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, over a beautiful weekend at the Pavilion Grand Hotel, unsung musicians enchanted the audience. The discovery of jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant was a rare display of timeless jazz, as profiled in the New Yorker magazine. On stage, Salvant projects confidence and subtle theatricality. Offstage, she’s warm, smart, and funny, but also reserved, her voice more nasal than smoky. Recipient of the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album, Salvant’s For One to Love was released in 2015. Her latest album- Dreams and Daggers- recorded at the Village Vanguard with the Catalyst Quartet will be released this fall. The Saratoga Festival was an enticing showcase of novel talent, and I urge you also to check out British/South African band Shabaka and the Ancestors, whose creator we hope to host in the coming months. Today is a tantalizing Ella Fitzgerald for the modern age. A scholar and practitioner of jazz whose exhilarating command of- actually communion with- the craft, the New York Times praises- welcome to you.
SALVANT: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
HEFFNER: It was such a pleasure listening to you at Saratoga, and you told me, minus a drummer, you were immaculate nevertheless.
SALVANT: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Take us inside a performance, how did you prepare for that performance?
SALVANT: Uh, well, I’ve been singing with the same band for about three or four years. And we’ve done countless tours, uh- been away from home together, traveled together, so it’s kind of like a family. Uh- the pianist is Aaron Diehl, the bass player is Paul Sikivie, and the drummer is Lawrence Leathers. And so, uh- at this point before a show, a lot of time is spent joking around and kind of getting our minds off what we have to do, which is perform. And then we kind of get in to the zone when we get on stage. Um- yeah, we’ve had a really-really great run as a band.
HEFFNER: What is the zone for you? Is it a Zen-like state? We’ve had artists here who describe it that way, as some kind of catharsis. But what is it to you?
TERESA MOSES For me it’s like an emptiness. It’s like becoming the sound that you’re creating. Um. It’s almost like losing your body and losing who you are and just fully becoming that sound, becoming that moment, that story. Letting that take over you, and letting the communication with the audience take over. So it’s like an emptiness. It’s like I don’t exist anymore.
HEFFNER: To the audience you most definitely exist and shine in a way I hadn’t heard since my grandfather- original host of this show- introduced me to Ella Fitzgerald.
SALVANT: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Do you derive inspiration from Ella, who I think recently celebrated an anniversary of her birth?
SALVANT: Yeah. A hundred years. I absolutely love Ella. Ella was the singer that I learned so many standards through. When I first uh- started singing Jazz in France, when I was 17 years old, she was the one I listened to. Those were all of the definitive versions. And her diction is impeccable, improvisation is amazing. Her rhythm. I mean, and just such a joyful performer. So yeah, Ella was one of them among many. Many. Because the great thing about Jazz is that through maybe a century of music, there were so many incredible artists- geniuses- people who each had a really specific voice. Uh- and it’s really fascinating and exciting to delve in to that.
HEFFNER: You add humor to that. Is there a particular artist that has influenced your rendition of jazz combined with a humorous outlook on the world?
SALVANT: Uh- I’m not sure it’s one particular artist. I do love to laugh. I love comedians, I love standup comedy. Um, and I also love kind of the tradition in American entertainment of having music and humor and comedy be put together. You know, going back to vaudeville days. Um- of course one of my favorite performers is Bert Williams, who was an amazing comedian. And he was a black man who wore black face, which is so crazy to us today. But this was something that was done quite often. And he was one of the most famous and loved entertainers of his time. And he was very, um- torn by doing this. But also very funny. Um. Of course Fats Waller is another one that I think of- just a hilarious singer, pianist, composer. Always making jokes and yet at the same time playing this incredible music. And it goes on and on. I mean, you can find hints of humor here and there in a lot of standards. Like, if you think about some of Cole Porter’s uh- classic songs. A lot of them are really funny.
HEFFNER: Well, you’re making your mark on this great American songbook, and as I said in the intro, there is a riff you do in your concert that is mind-bogglingly funny.
SALVANT: Thank you.
HEFFNER: At the same time, sensual, soulful, with a lot of rhythm and blues. Um, but folks have to go to the concert to hear it. Maybe you can give a preview. It’s kind of like the shapes of humanity. And the evolution of those shapes from birth to death?
SALVANT: A little bit, yeah, I guess so. Uh- that’s a beautiful way of putting it. It’s actually. I think the song that we laugh the most- I mean, one of the songs that we really have a good time with is called the Ballad of the Shape of Things. And it’s sort of about adultery and a woman who um- takes revenge, uh- in whatever way you might imagine. And it’s kind of just really- it builds to this kind of funny climax. And it’s one of the songs I love to sing. There are a lot of songs also- these like- early blues from the 20s that have a lot of innuendo because they were, you know, made in such a way that they could be played on a radio but it’s just this- it’s some intense lyrics, intense messages. And they’re funny. So I don’t know. I think it’s important in life but also in art to be able to laugh. And you can get a lot of interesting messages across when you say them with a laugh and when people laugh at them.
HEFFNER: Dreams and Daggers.
HEFFNER: Enchant us more.
SALVANT: Dreams and Daggers is the upcoming album, um- I’m really excited about it. Um- it’s a double album. So 21 songs, I believe. Uh- part of it was recorded live at the Village Vanguard with my band, part of it was recorded in a studio in New York with a string quartet. Um- there’s some original compositions, there’s some old vaudeville songs, there’s some jazz standards, there’s some French songs. Um- there’s some Langston Hughes in there. It’s really a mix of all the- all the things that I love that are important to me, and always showcasing the sound of the band that um- that’s been with me for the past four years.
HEFFNER: I was amazed at how prolific you were. Are you producing a second track, a second disk of nearly two dozen songs because you haven’t- you didn’t make a CD in 2016, so you’re going from 2015 and you felt like in 2017 you had to double down?
SALVANT: Well, it’s um- I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t record in 2016. I think it’s- every time we record, we end up recording 20 tracks. Like even in ‘15, even in ‘13 when I recorded. It always ends up being about between 18 and 20 tracks. And we always have to, you know, dial it down and pick 12 out of those or 10 out of those, and it’s always like so difficult to choose. And this time we were performing live- we had two sets a night. Uh- for three nights we recorded. So that’s so much music. You know? So we had maybe- we recorded maybe 30, 40 songs. So we already narrowed it down to get to those- those 15 that were live, and then the five in studio with the- or the 6 in studio with the string quartet.
HEFFNER: To synopsize, put Dreams and Daggers in contemporary relevance. Why dreams? Why daggers?
SALVANT: Well, I was fascinated with the idea of a dream- like a dream that you have at night while you’re sleeping, you know, and the whole idea of sleeping in to another world. And how that’s still linked to your waking life. Uh- but also the idea of a dream as a hope. Um- and so those songs expose those two elements of dreams. And the daggers, to me, um- it was taken from one of the lyrics in the song. In one of the songs I wrote. But a dagger, to me, is something that you can use against others but also against yourself. And- as a defense or as an attack. And so the idea of the songs that I sing as being both political songs- songs about identity, songs about self-worth, about um- self-hatred, self-love, all of those things are kind of comprised in the ideas of Dreams and Daggers.
HEFFNER: Wow. You said to the New Yorker, in what was a scintillating review, which you haven’t read yet, um- but you did tweet it- uh- in a phone conversation with the author of the New Yorker story after the presidential election, you said that the current political landscape is making me feel like I want to be messier, sing more political songs, write more political songs. And this was after you had just given a lecture on the history of race and women in popular culture in upstate New York. Um- how do you think that was integrated in to this album, and how are you- you probably already recorded some of what’s in the 2017 album, but what does more political- messier- look like?
SALVANT: It looks like really talking about questions- I mean, I think for me, political is a certain word and it has a certain weight to it, but beyond that really getting down to the idea of identity, because I think identity is really something that shapes politics a lot. And um- the idea of what it means to be an American person today. A black person in America. A woman in America. Uh- all of these things are fascinating to me, and there are a lot of questions that I have. And so delving in to those questions more through my music is very important to me, and is really where my heart’s at right now. Rather than singing, you know, love songs about a lost love. For me, singing a love song that also has this undercurrent of like- this tension of like- what does it mean to be a human, what does it mean to be who I am today, and what weight do I have to carry with those things? Um- I think that’s important. And you know, I think about somebody like Solange who just came out with her record, A Seat at the Table, uh- I think that came out last year. Uh- which was such a striking album to me because it was so political. And I think- I think it’s in the air. I think people are really delving in to that musically. I think about D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar. Um- it really excites me to see music come out like that, and this is the music that excites me to sing, too.
HEFFNER: Bravo, Brava, because when we had 9th Wonder, the Hip Hop Professor and DJ here, who has produced for Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, he was expressing the same shared sentiment of- there’s nothing wrong with explicit or implicitly political speech, expressions of political identity and sentiment in music, and we agreed that until recent months and years, there had been maybe- a shyness that grew in the ranks of Hollywood and there was a void, and it was being filled now by the likes of you, Cecile, and uh- Chance the Rapper.
SALVANT: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.
HEFFNER: But it is exciting to hear from you that candor and openness about purpose. It’s just- more than laudable, because in application you’re moving people with the sound and the voice.
SALVANT: I mean, you know, to me it’s just- I think music is an expression of who I am. And it’s just a- it’s an extension of it. And so- I sing things that I think about, things that I feel, and things- you know- things that I would talk about in life. So it’s- it’s not that I do it on purpose or that it’s artificial. It’s just- these are the things that are on my mind. These are the things that interest me and excite me, and this is what I want to share with people.
HEFFNER: And you’re free to riff at any point, if you want to, to give our viewers a taste. But, no pressure.
SALVANT: OK. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: I- we didn’t discuss beforehand- it’s so organic exchange that we didn’t talk about whether you wanted to riff from- on shapes. But if you do, you’re welcome to. Uh- and I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, though, I wanted to just- from this New York Times review, give our viewers a sense of your voice. When the New York Times reviewed you, they said you are in communion in the craft, the way you listen, supple, well-trained voice with spot-on pitch. Uh- her low notes go from husky to full bodied, her high notes float purely and cleanly. When she scats, it’s not an ego trip, but a musical game where notes and syllables get to shape shift. Shapes. Back to shapes.
SALVANT: That’s sweet.that’s a really nice quote, thank you.
HEFFNER: Well, thank the New York Times, and I guess you can thank us too, but when you think of the history- because you study and lecture on jazz, um- what do you hope to revive in the contemporary culture that may be- may have disappeared, or may not be as visible anymore when you think about Smokey and Ella- is there something that they possessed and imparted that we can recreate for the next generation?
SALVANT: I don’t know what I hope to revive, but these are the things that interest me in life. Um- I like human things. I like hand made things. I like things where you can feel the touch of a human being. This is why I love acoustic music. I love instruments. I love being able to have that immediate connection which we cannot have behind a screen. Uh- so this is why the, you know, the idea of live performance, with acoustic instruments, with a certain amount of error- human error- is something that’s really interesting to me and really important to me. Uh- and I think it’s important to a lot of people. You see it in food, too, you know? A lot of people are getting interested in cooking again and going to the market and getting organic things, and I feel like I want to feel that in music and culture as well. And I think it’s- it’s needed.
HEFFNER: So there is a comeback in the works.
SALVANT: Uh- I don’t know. But I’m hoping.
HEFFNER: A comeback of certain things.
SALVANT: Of certain- of certain fundamental ideas, of certain ideas, of coming back to simpler things and coming back to- to- communion with- with people. Uh- actual people, not-
HEFFNER: Emojis or bots.
SALVANT: Exactly. I think it’s- I think we have to inevitably get to that, because we’re moving so far in one direction of just like- being individualistic and being behind our screens that I think when people do go see a live show, and when people do go have a home-cooked meal somewhere, that they really- they feel it and they appreciate it, and they realize that it’s part of being human.
HEFFNER: When you hear other performers, uh, in the live setting- I was asking you before where your favorite place is to perform- do you absorb something that is more than transitory? Because that’s what I always ask artists who are on the show. How can that musical power expand in to hearts and minds and retain the organic quality you described during a film shoot or a live concert but then be embedded in our soul, our consciousness. Is there any guidance you would give us on that?
SALVANT: That’s very interesting. You know, I think- I was talking to a pianist, a friend, about this. Um- the idea that music is fleeting, just like life, just like anything- is such a beautiful and precious thing. And I do like the idea that you can go see a live performance and then it’s done and it’s over, and all you have is your memory of it, which is fading. And that’s an extremely important thing for us to remember and to have and to live with- the idea of everything be fleeting and ephemeral. And I think music has lost its quality because we’ve recorded it. Because we go to gigs and we record the gigs so we can keep it, because we want to keep it. but I think the beautiful thing is that we don’t- we can’t keep it. We can’t touch it, and we can’t hold on to it. It just- it happens, and then it’s over. You know, and I think that’s beautiful.
HEFFNER: And what would be your hope, that in a political fashion? That an alliance of artists of your ilk would band together and form- not a political party, but some kind of meaningful discourse that can be constructed and reconstructed for posterity so that the politics of music- because the politics of music may aught not be fleeting?
SALVANT: Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, it’s- it’s the whole idea of the thing itself goes away, but it leaves you- there’s a residue, right? There’s something that it leaves you with. There’s an impression, and the impression is more important than whatever thing itself is. You know? Um- and I think- I think the mere idea that music is outside in a way, of the political realm, but still very much linked to it, is important- it’s an important thing for people to have this transcendental art form, moment, where you can get out of your daily frustrations. Get out of whatever, you know, political landscape is today and kind of get more involved and in touch with what it means to be a human being in a society with people. Uh- I think that’s really important.
HEFFNER: If we think of landmarks, milestones in music history where that social consciousness was galvanized- I want to hear what you think, but you think of Michael Jackson and company- celebrities- we are the world- and you think of will.i.am. Yes We Can.
SALVANT: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
HEFFNER: To your mind, where are those triumphant moments where the history was dictated in some way by the music as much as the music being dictated by the history? And do you have hope that in a culture that is so desensitized and numb to every moment because of the millisecond media, that we can create anew that kind of political charged moment again through music?
SALVANT: Uh- one of the things I think of a lot- this is going further back- is Abbey Lincoln- who worked- she was a wonderful jazz singer. She worked with Max Roach, who was a great jazz drummer. And they did something called the Freedom Now suite. And she is screaming- this is in the 60s. She is just- incredible in talking about being black, in being African, and- and retribution and all kinds of like- really intense, kind of- you know- almost off-putting, I imagine, to some people, messages. And that bravery is something that I always look back on. Of course I think of Nina Simone as well. Um- I think we’re in a different time, and I think we’re going to just have to figure out another way of reaching people. Of doing that. Um- we’re in a time when, yeah, when I feel like a lot of the people in the generation below- I guess, I don’t know what I am. I’ve heard I was a millennial, but I don’t know. You know, whatever. I’m like on a cusp-
HEFFNER: We’re old school now, we’re- old school millennials.
HEFFNER: If- if that.
SALVANT: If that. But I feel like the people coming- you know, people coming up, 18 year olds, 20 year olds that I see-
HEFFNER: That’s a different- they’re different beasts.
SALVANT: They’re different beasts, completely. But they’re super politically charged. They’re really open, they’re really- like all of the ones that I meet are really, you know, I feel like I’m super old school when I talk to them in terms of just openness and acceptance of people. And so I think- I think we’re going in a good direction in that sense. And I think music is accompanying that. You know, I see- even somebody like Tyler the Creator, who just came out with an album and- addressing things like homophobia on his album, as a rapper- that’s something that 20 years ago, I don’t know- like I’m not sure that a famous rapper like him would have come out with an album like that. So I think we’re- I think music, it’s still- it’s still having those messages, it’s just packaged in a different way, it’s just getting to people in a different way, and that’s kind of disorienting for me, definitely.
HEFFNER: For me too. But we see forward progress.
SALVANT: I think so.
HEFFNER: The hope- even as it’s a community today, a new generation that socializes digitally almost exclusively.
HEFFNER: Um- what’s next for you, what are you anticipating for the tour of this Dreams and Daggers album, what do you hope to accomplish in this tour that you might not have in prior tours?
SALVANT: Uh- coming up next, we’re going to be performing a little bit in the United States. We’re going to play at the Hollywood Bowl, uh- opening for Bryan Ferry. Um- then we’re going to go tour in Europe. Um- I’m really excited for this tour, and it’s going to be just- it’s just going to be us playing, like we usually do. Nothing too dramatically different. Um- just like a family reunion kind of, because I haven’t been performing with my band too much lately. So it’ll be sort of- yeah- reunion vibes. And then next year, which is something that I’m working on now- I’m going to perform this sort of song cycle, cantata- jazz cantata- I’m not sure what you can call it- about an ogress. So I’m writing all the music for that now. And so that’s kind of going to be the new venture in to, you know, undiscovered lands. So we’ll see if that even works. But I’m excited- I’m excited to alternate between familiar things and completely scary, new, maybe failure things, too.
HEFFNER: Beautiful. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Cecile.
SALVANT: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you enjoy us again next time for a thoughtful and soulful excursion in to the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind. To view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.