Just 24, Cécile McLorin Salvant sings really, really old songs.
How old? Decades older than she is. Songs like “St. Louis Gal,” recorded 90 years ago by Bessie Smith. “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” cut by Valaida Snow in 1935. The 1906 hit “Nobody,” sung by Bert Williams, a black minstrel who wore blackface. And “John Henry,” a song so hoary we’re not even sure how old it is.
To Salvant, who makes her Minneapolis debut Sunday at the Dakota Jazz Club, they’re all still fresh — partly because she began exploring them so recently, and partly because of how she perceives them.
“When I listen to Bessie Smith, I hear a young woman,” she said. “It’s party music for young people. The people who were listening to it at the time were my age. They were getting drunk and doing completely crazy things. … A lot of people look back at that music and think that because the music is old, the artists who recorded it must have been old. But they weren’t. They were super young and really excited.”
Salvant is enjoying the kind of success that most jazz singers only dream of. At 21, she came out of nowhere — more accurately, Miami via France — to win the plum Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in Washington, D.C. Her first U.S. album, “WomanChild,” was nominated for a Grammy in December — a month she spent touring with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Her travel schedule zigzags across continents and oceans, from top clubs to major festivals.
Her penchant for old songs took root in her family and flowered in the care of a French musician. Salvant was born and raised in Miami to a French mother and Haitian father.
“Everybody in my family just loved to listen to all kinds of music,” she said. “We would go from classical music to funk, Appalachian music, fado, Senegalese music, Sarah Vaughan. Whatever was good was listened to and maybe even danced to.” She started piano lessons at 5 and was singing with a children’s choir at 8.
After high school, Salvant went to France to study political science and law. She signed up for classical voice classes — opera repertoire — at a nearby conservatory. Downstairs, in the basement, reed player Jean-François Bonnel taught jazz. “My mom said, ‘Maybe you should go and sing for him. Just do it for fun.’ I thought I would do jazz as a hobby, much as I would have done a pottery class or a theater class.”
Bonnel later told the New York Times, “I asked her to sing me a song, and she sang ‘Misty,’ and I thought, ‘There she is!’ ” He assigned her a long listening list: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Babs Gonzales, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and more. Not long after that, Salvant sang her first jazz gig with Bonnel’s group. In 2009, they made an album together, “Cecile.” That was her entree to the Monk competition that lit the fuse.
In Salvant’s voice, a complex, elastic instrument with a 3½-octave range, you can hear her many influences. It’s as if Bessie and Billie, Betty and Abbey, Ella and Sarah got together in jazz heaven and said, “There’s someone down there singing our music. Let’s send her a big bolt of everything we’ve got.”
Yet her voice is her own, with a velvety flutter that sends chills up your spine. It’s a serious voice, and playful, a storytelling voice that isn’t concerned with being perfect — although it can be.
“To me, the really important thing is the feeling of the song,” she said. “It’s never about being technically brilliant or pretty. Sometimes it’s working the ugly out, for that to convey a certain message.” She can change the same note midway through from bright and spacious to gritty and dark. If you go, listen for that: the things she can do with a single note.
Salvant has been called an old soul, and it’s easy to forget when you hear her sing that she’s 24. She sings with such confidence and command over her material — her neglected, now resurrected material — that you can hardly believe she’s only been doing this a few years. When told she’s being hailed as the future of jazz, she brushes it off. “I sing this music because I love it, and I share it because I think it’s a great art form. I’m so new at this that I don’t really have an agenda yet.”