Cécile McLorin Salvant seeks to spread jazz to new generations

Jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant will perform on Sept. 14 at Schwab Auditorium.
Jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant will perform on Sept. 14 at Schwab Auditorium. Photo provided

Grammy Award-winning and highly touted jazz artist Cécile McLorin Salvant will kick off the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State’s new season on Sept. 14.

Audiences familiar with McLorin Salvant’s work already know to expect a unique performance, with one of the artist’s trademark moves being a tendency to switch up her set list as the mood strikes.

“I typically don’t prepare a set list until maybe an hour before the show,” McLorin Salvant said. “I want to keep it fresh and also make the set list reflect how we’re feeling that day… If I prepare it advance, and we get there and it’s just not the vibe to sing or to play a certain kind of song, it’s just counterproductive.”

For a peek at McLorin Salvant’s repertoire, she references “folk music and blues, to original compositions to vaudeville things, maybe one or two things in French.”

The performance comes shortly before the release of her next album, “Dreams and Daggers,” recorded live at the Village Vanguard.

“When we had the opportunity to perform at the Village Vanguard, it seemed like the perfect place to record, just because it’s such an iconic place and so many recordings have been made there by our heroes,” McLorin Salvant said. “It’s a little bit of an homage to them and an homage to the place.”

While recording, she set out to make “an album of contrasts.”

“I wanted there to be contrasts thematically, contrasts in terms of texture and sound, and beyond that, I really didn’t want it to be contrived,” she said. “It’s a various perspective album dealing with questions of identity, questions of all these steps of conscious things that happen in a woman’s mind, dealing with love, standards of beauty, fears, pain, fun, laughter — all of that went into the album.”

McLorin Salvant said she draws her inspiration for her shows, albums and life in general from other artists of all kinds — from musicians to visual artists to writers.

“All of that kind of shows up in what I do,” she said. “These days I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Sexton. She’s this wonderful poet that I’m obsessed with now, so I’m sure in some way, she’s inhabiting me and she’ll show up in what I do, even if it’s not in a very obvious way.”

McLorin Salvant thinks her own inspiration carries on to the inspiration she and her band feed the audience. While there’s not a particular emotion or takeaway she aims for audiences to leave with, she does want them to walk away with a “strong feeling” — negative or positive.

“Of course, I’d love for people to leave feeling happy or joyful or forgetting a little bit of their problems, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of our problems, too,” she said.

Called a “millennial shaking up the jazz world” by Vanity Fair, McLorin Salvant said there are many obstacles standing in the way of reaching most millennials and the average consumer in general, despite music’s power to cross generational and cultural boundaries.

“We live in a time where people need some kind of visual, attention-grabbing thing to catch them,” she said. “I think a lot of people are just following whatever is on the Top 40. Unfortunately, whatever is on the Top 40 is not the highest quality art ... So you have this general atmosphere of young people being fed a certain kind of music, and it’s hard to access other (genres). Even with the internet, there’s so much out there, it’s hard to find what you like, or even know what you like.”

Then there’s the reputation of jazz music, that it’s too difficult, intellectual, boring or just for older people, she said.

“There’s just a lot of things going against millennials getting to jazz, but thankfully things are moving and changing, and people are paying more attention,” McLorin Salvant said. “Hopefully with time, we’ll be able to connect with more young audiences.”


▪ What: Cécile McLorin Salvant

▪ When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14

▪ Where: Schwab Auditorium, University Park

▪ Info: www.cpa.psu.edu