Singer Cecile McLorin Salvant is poised to become the next big thing in jazz. Only 23, she echoes a lineage of greats from Bessie Smith to Betty Carter. On her new album "Woman Child" (Mack Avenue), she also shocks you with a racist number from the 1930s, "You Bring Out the Savage in Me," yodeling like Tarzan in the chorus, infusing "Savage" with irony, letting the listener feel the discomfort -- but embracing the tune, too. She is soulfully hilarious.
Salvant grew up in Miami and attended a university in France, where she studied law and at age 18 wandered into a jazz class -- where a fire was lit. Five years later, her life has changed. On Wednesday, she makes her Bay Area debut, singing at the SFJazz Center. Later this year, she tours with Wynton Marsalis.
I spoke by phone with Salvant, who described her family's musical tastes: her Haitian dad's folk singing, her mother's Sarah Vaughan obsession, her own teenage love of grunge:
Q Out of all that listening as a girl, what did you love the most?
A I can't say there was one thing. There were just those songs. When I was around 14, there was this Sarah Vaughan duet with Billy Eckstine, where they sing "I Love You," and I was listening to that over and over, all the time, and thinking it was really corny and great. But I also listened to a lot of Pearl Jam at that time; loved Pearl Jam. And who was that guy who was the frontman for Soundgarden? I remember going to one of his (Chris Cornell's) concerts in high school and loving that, too.
Q Let's hear about your belated entrance to jazz.
A For three years I was completely hesitant about even pursuing a career in jazz singing. I met my teacher and started singing jazz at 18 in France, and I was studying law there and also doing classical voice and thinking that I could probably not deal with the lifestyle of a jazz musician and deal with the loneliness that is required to be a good one. Because you spend a lot of time practicing alone, and you have to be able to deal with solitude and self-discipline and teaching yourself, and I didn't know that I could handle that.
So for a while I was clinging to this idea of keeping to this academic route or doing classical voice, and it wasn't until 2010 that I decided I might make a go of singing jazz professionally.
Q You were a middle-class kid. How do you relate to all this old blues, to Bessie Smith?
A In a sense, it came more easily. What I thought was really fun and interesting about this music was that the people playing it or singing it are in their 20s or 30s. They're going to parties, they're hanging out. It's definitely like young-people music. They may have had older people in their audience, but it was raucous, fun.
Q And what's the essential part of jazz that you love?
A Just on a physical level, the rhythm. When there's really a groove that's set in, a swing that really feels good -- if the music was just that, it would be enough. And then, the element of surprise. When you listen to Louis Armstrong play a melody or sing a melody, a lot of times you'll hear this humor in the music -- which is really beautiful given the amount of struggle and the amount of sorrow that a lot of these musicians were living through day to day.
You can sit down with this music and intellectualize it, like the great European repertory, and then the next moment throw the table down and just dance to it -- that's something that I find absolutely brilliant.
Q What's your most important goal as a musician?
A The main thing is to generate deep, deep emotions in people and to get them away from their everyday lives. That's why I go to great art or great music. That's what I'm striving for -- for people to feel how I feel when I'm in front of a great painting or hearing great music, which makes me feel at a deep level, a level that I don't even know has words to describe what's there.
Q Are you surprised by the attention you've been getting, the success you're quickly having?
A Yeah, it does come as a shock to me, the great response that's been coming for the past couple of months or year. We're all pretty humble people, almost to our detriment. So it takes a couple of times for my mom, dad and sister and me to realize what's going on. It has been a shock in a way.
SALVANT AND HER TRIO
When: 7:30 p.m., June 19
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25, 1-866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org