Written by | Ray Cornelius 

April is Jazz Appreciation Month and yours truly caught up with one of the music genre’s rising superstars—Cécile McLorin Salvant. The 26-year-old classically trained pianist and singer has taken the industry by storm and is quickly becoming one of the most sought after artists with her unique vocal stylings, signature eyewear, and retro fashions.

Salvant first burst onto the scene in 2009 when she recorded her first album, Cécile. Although she had been training, singing, and performing since the age of eight, this was her first professional project. A year later she competed in the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for vocals and walked away with the first place prize and a recording contract with Mack Avenue Records. In 2013, she released her second album, WomanChild and received her first Grammy nomination the following year.

In 2015, Salvant released her second album under Mack Avenue Records titled For One to Love and earned her another Grammy nomination and her first win for Best Jazz Vocal album.  With success like that, you would think it has gone to her pretty little head. But for Salvant, the accolades and sold-out performances around the globe are more than she could have imagined for herself growing up in Miami, Florida with her French mother and Haitian father.

“I didn’t know this would happen and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had ideas but it was all very vague. I will say that everything has been like a wonderful pleasant surprise one after another,” said Salvant during our recent phone interview.

When asked what she thought about critics comparing her sound to the greats like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Billie[Holiday], Salvant immediately credits her mother’s love for mainstream jazz and Sarah Vaughn as a point of reference. It was something in her voice that gave Salvant permission to sing without boundaries.

“I love listening to Sarah Vaughn a lot because my mom loved listening to her. I think for me, the appeal was she was so virtuosic and I really appreciated that. I really loved how she could do anything with her voice and make any kind of sound and had this incredible range. So it was really the quality of her voice that fascinated me. Having come from a classical background, I felt that she too was this classical singer that was never able to do classical and somehow ended up doing jazz.”

When I asked Salvant her opinion about what “jazz is and isn’t,” she had no problem giving me her “two cents” about the decades-long debate among musicians and enthusiasts.

“Everything is kind of changing and fusing with other stuff,” said Salvant. But jazz is one of those things that is free and you can go so many places with it. The danger in that is you end up mixing it with so much that we kind of lose what it is and we don’t know what it is anymore. You’ll go to a jazz concert and you hear it and it sounds exactly like hip-hop or this 1960’s semi-soul Motown funk thing. And that can be kind of tricky.”

Salvant performs tonight at Atlanta’s Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State at 8 p.m.  Check out her video for the single “Wives and Lovers” below and click here for other tour dates.

Photo Credit: WNYC.org