Once upon a time, jazz singing looked like it was in danger of fossilization, but those days are gone.
Granted, the early stars of the genre—notably Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald—set the bar so high that for a long time the best most new voices could hope for was emulation, or perhaps incremental progress. Today’s singers, though, are opening up their idiom to entirely new possibilities, writing long-form compositions that go far beyond the formalized structures of the Great American Songbook, and sourcing their repertoire from writers from outside the jazz and Broadway pantheon.
Cécile McLorin Salvant and Fay Victor are two artists at the forefront of this new movement, and although they’re very different they have more in common than the fact that they’re both playing Vancouver this month.
The 30-year-old McLorin Salvant, the Miami-born daughter of French and Haitian parents, says that although she doesn’t feel qualified to identify any new trends in jazz singing—“That’s more of a musicological question,” she notes—she does see her peers becoming increasingly open to all forms of music.
“There’s less of a concern about the era in which things are made,” she reports from Miami, where she’s visiting family. “I mean, if I think about somebody like Veronica Swift, the wonderful young jazz singer, I think of somebody who loves Marilyn Manson and who loves Jo Stafford and who loves Anita O’Day. For those three names to be in the same sentence is something that I think is really special about this new generation of musicians.…It’s become so easy to mix everything up together in a sort of cocktail of sorts—if that makes any sense.”
It would certainly make sense to Victor. Although at 54 she’s a generation older than McLorin Salvant, she describes her approach as “everything is everything,” a direction she learned not from YouTube and Facebook but from time spent in Amsterdam, where she was introduced to the late pianist Misha Mengelberg and his genre-smashing ICP Orchestra. (Artists, not coincidentally, who have had considerable impact on Vancouver’s own eclectic creative-music scene.)
“Seeing them live for the very first time, I was just amazed,” Victor reports from Marin County, California, where she’s enjoying a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. “They did a Monk tune, they did a Dixieland tune, they did something from Herbie Nichols, they did improvisation.…I had never seen that before, but it all made sense—and the audience was going crazy, in a good way.
“A light went off, like ‘Wow, you can do this,’ ” she adds, laughing. “And that was a really great moment, because I was really bored with jazz singing!”
McLorin Salvant, in contrast, wasn’t exposed to much jazz early on. Her original intent was to sing classical music, and just over a decade ago she was studying operatic and art-song technique at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory in France. The residue of that training, she explains, is an ability to inhabit a song—whether it’s from Tin Pan Alley, Motown, or her own pen—in a heightened, theatrical way.
In classical music, she explains, “You are constantly dealing with context. The context of a character is extremely important in the work that you do, or at least the work that I did with my teachers. We were constantly discussing what happens to the character before and after the aria, because essentially you’re a performer of a play, a theatre piece, right? I remember that being able to sing the song was almost like a treat, after having worked on the diction, really worked on the vocabulary, and really understanding each and every word, no matter what language it’s in.”
McLorin Salvant was able to put those lessons to good use in Ogress, the music-theatre piece—with arrangements by former Vancouverite Darcy James Argue—that she debuted in New York City last November. Based on both American and Haitian folk-storytelling styles, her fairy tale is already being hailed as a vocal tour de force with a feminist edge. “I sing all the parts,” she says. “There’s about five or six different roles, including the narrator. And it’s about 90 minutes long, just straight music with no interruptions. So it’s extremely draining—both physically and emotionally draining.”
Victor is finalizing a long-form project of her own, although it might be more appropriate to describe it as a collection of 45 very short works. Inspired and horrified by the political situation south of the border, she’s developing a project called Mutations for Justice, Mantras for Change.
“It’s a coping mechanism, honestly,” Victor notes. “But also, more importantly, it came out of this idea that there’s this bombardment of information, and it’s hard to decipher what’s real and what’s not. Then the idea came to kind of make the pieces memelike: very small compositions, sometimes just one line repeated over and over again, other times giving a bit more information.
“For example, I wrote a piece talking about immigration, and my distillation of it is they’re trying to get all the brown people out,” she continues.
“Last year at [New York’s] Winter Jazzfest we did this piece, and at the end I had 300 people all singing it with us—and I think that’s really powerful.”
Victor plans to present her song cycle in venues across the U.S. prior to the 2020 presidential election. McLorin Salvant, in turn, hopes to develop Ogress into an animated feature, noting that touring with a 13-piece jazz orchestra plus a string quartet is financially impossible. And both artists are looking forward to their Vancouver shows, which will feature what the younger artist calls the “casual and conversational” setting of improvised music—McLorin Salvant with the Aaron Diehl Trio, and Victor with the exceptional pianist and composer Myra Melford.
Jazz singing may be changing, and growing, but that intimate aspect of the art is here to stay.
Fay Victor and Myra Melford appear at the Western Front on Thursday (October 10).
Cécile McLorin Salvant and the Aaron Diehl Trio play the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts next Wednesday and Thursday (October 16 and 17).