Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin Salvant sometimes seems reluctant to reveal what she might think of as a voice that is too perfect—so exquisite that it might bar access to the perversities that also inevitably shape our lives. She never wants us to luxuriate in sound that is only beautiful. And her own vocal sounds are never merely “beautiful.” Her music always urges us to apprehend complexity and contradiction—that which can be simultaneously beautiful and a reminder that historical promises of expanding freedoms often reside within what has been marginalized as bizarre or even evil. She is, without a doubt, her generation’s most accomplished jazz vocalist, and easily could have continued along the trajectory of performing and recording standards, punctuated by her own and other compositions both within and outside the borders of the genre. But given the immensity—the breadth and depth—of her artistic vision, that would have been equivalent to aesthetic perjury. Mélusine, Salvant’s most recent album, is a bold declaration that she is willing to answer the call of her expansive imagination, especially when it urges her to transgress borders based on language, genre, cultural tradition, and historical time.

Mélusine traces the legend of a woman who is vulnerable, powerful, and tragic. This legend, rooted in European folklore, and related to siren tales that traverse multiple cultures, depicts a woman, whose lower extremity periodically assumes the form of a serpent. But this is her secret that can never be revealed—female power whose very condition of possibility is secrecy and concealment. Salvant articulates this European tale with the story of Damballah and Ayida Wedo, so central to Haitian Voudou. Interweaving songs from different time periods and different cultural traditions, the result is a captivating musical narrative that tells us something about the way the harmonies and dissonances of human history figure into our contemporary experience.

When Salvant performs in France and in Francophone countries, she often understandably foregrounds French language songs. In the US and other Anglophone countries where she performs mostly in English, we have also had the opportunity to hear her perform many songs in French. “Si J’etais Blanche” a song associated with Josephine Baker and which reveals the psychic toll of racism, and “Doudou,” which she includes in this album, are two striking examples. But with Mélusine, a compilation of archival, contemporary, and self-composed songs, we are able to experience the resonances of Salvant’s superlative storytelling almost entirely in French, Haitian Creole, and Occitan. Mélusine draws upon the mythical traditions, folk, and music cultures associated with these regions.

Salvant herself has remarked that the language of performance matters. But I don’t think she is primarily concerned about direct comprehension of the lyrics, but rather with the ways in which the narrative and sonic cultures associated with the particular languages evoke meaning that can be enhanced or diminished through performance. Indeed, she has had an abiding interest in how different languages sound in music. Precisely because of her deep exploration of storytelling through music, Salvant is always attentive to the impact of innovative narrative strategies on the entire work. Thus, we are not only ushered across linguistic borders, but as she inhabits songs performed in French differently, we get to experience a small piece of that cultural difference. As she wants us to acknowledge, we hear, feel, sense that difference, even if we cannot necessarily express it in analytical terms. It is a different aesthetic terrain, and even those unfamiliar with the musical cultures of Haiti or Occitan, and their spacial and temporal differences, or of French culture, which is deeply influenced, of course, by its frequently unrecognized racial and colonial margins, will nevertheless appreciate the difference.

Indeed, Cécile McLorin Salvant’s music thrives on hybridity and difference. Like Audre Lorde illuminates in Sister Outsider, Salvant knows that “[i]t is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”. And it may indeed be Salvant’s embrace of anti-racist feminism that, in part, pushes her to explore spacial, linguistic, cultural, and temporal difference. Or perhaps vice versa: she is drawn to search the musical archives for rudiments and traces of feminism precisely because she is drawn to hybridity and difference. As she has noted on many occasions, she issues from a family that is transnational, transracial, and transcultural. While some might assume that such contexts are bound to generate insurmountable barriers and irreconcilable contradictions, she discovers expansiveness, creativity, and possibility. In fact, what is implicit in her musical embrace of feminism is an approach to it that is about much more than gender and about much more than securing rights for people who identify as women and/or gender nonconforming.

There is, in fact, a methodological dimension to Salvant’s embrace of feminism: it is not only about advancing the effort to secure rights, opportunities, and reparations for people who have been historically marginalized because of their gender (and also race, class, sexuality, etc.), but rather also about how to discover meaning in those imaginative dimensions of our life—worlds that have been entirely marginal to the various processes of meaning-making. In fact, in mining the marginal, feminism often uncovers insights that are far greater than those generated by attention to the center. So Salvant conjoins elements of old legends and songs with new and forward-looking musical insights to produce extraordinary new stories. She discovers collective desire, hope, and possibility in the storytelling of ordinary people. And she turns our attention to the fact that so much of the history of the human imagination has been expressed through music.

In her recent projects Cécile McLorin Salvant has brought us stories of some of the vengeful lovers, gendered monsters, and hybrid humans who often populate fables, folk tales, and old ballads. Mélusine reveals Salvant’s profound engagement with the archives of the fantastical in history and her phenomenal capacity to reanimate diverse musical genres—from baroque to twentieth century popular song—in a relationship of mutual enhancement. Her interest in history is also in a history that has not yet unfolded. And she recruits fantastical dimensions of our historical past in order to forge sonic echoes of more habitable possible futures.

March 2023

Please note: Biographies are based on information provided to the CSOA by the artists or their representatives. More current information may be available on websites of the artists or their management.