If you go to hear Cécile McLorin Salvant at Kilbourn Hall, you might find yourself squirming in your seat. McLorin Salvant has no qualms about singing songs like "You Bring Out The Savage In Me," a tune few have dared to touch since Valaida Snow sang it in the 1930's.
"I've had time to delve into the history of early 20th-century American music, vaudeville, minstrel shows, coon songs, and some jungle music," McLorin Salvant says. "I discovered this fascinating repertoire."
Ironically, she might not have heard these relics of American culture if she had not gone to study law and classical voice in France. At Darius Milhaud Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence she met saxophonist/clarinetist Jean-Francois Bonnel, who recognized her potential and lent her recordings of great jazz singers. She devoured them.
Born in Florida to a French mother and Haitian father, McLorin Salvant grew up listening to the music her family played. She heard jazz, Portuguese, Senegalese, and Haitian music along with 1990's R&B, hip-hop, and pop. With friends she listened to the Spice Girls, boy bands, grunge, and, she adds, "classical music of course."
But her own style is informed by past generations: "Louis Armstrong — especially his early stuff," McLorin Salvant says, "Bessie Smith, Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Blanche Calloway, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Babs Gonzales, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, and Peggy Lee. And Blossom Dearie really influenced me a lot."
McLorin Salvant's repertoire is unlike any other in jazz today. It's as if she's confronting America's troubled legacy in a way that still reverberates.
"I don't know why I have such a fascination with coon songs, these extremely racist songs, written and sung by people who played in string bands," McLorin Salvant says. "If I were to hear those live in some random bar, I would probably be scared but there's something about them ... I can't get enough. I'm going to try to find more and more. On my computer I've been collecting the covers of sheet music of various coon songs. Just the way they draw black women; it's incredible, it's crazy.
"I'm curious about that part of history and the entertainment industry, people wearing blackface for their shows and how crazy it is that you would be stereotyped for a white audience to laugh at. And then they love you, but you're also black — the complete irony of that situation. And, at the same time, how strong you have to be; in a sense you're transcending your whole condition doing that, but in a sense you're perpetuating it.
"It's very weird to me and it raises a lot of questions. Obviously black face is taboo today but there are several instances even now in music and movies and where certain people are portrayed in a very stereotypical way and they're doing it knowingly."
Of course, not all of McLorin Salvant's repertoire is controversial; she also mines the great American songbook. While the title tune of her latest album, "WomanChild," is an original, it's the only song she wrote on the record.
"I try to write my own songs but I have really high standards," McLorin Salvant says. "The covers I choose to sing are written by some of the most amazing songwriters who really honed their craft, people like Cole Porter and Richard Rogers.
"I think there's something odd about being in your own thing all the time, performing your own music. There's something great about that when you can really share something personal and authentic and genuine but there's also something nauseating to me about being in my own self with my own ideas all the time."
In 2009, McLorin Salvant released her debut album in France. But it got nowhere in the U.S. The following year she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition.
"I was really shocked and scared. I didn't expect anything like that to happen. I thought suddenly everything was going to change. I was going to have more responsibilities, I wasn't ready and I didn't know anything about music. A month went by and things were moving forward in a gradual way, so I relaxed."
Things did change, but in a positive way. She was able to embark on an American musical career. "It opened a lot of doors that were closed to me. I met my manager at the competition and musicians who have invited me to perform with them."
But having resurrected century-old songs from obscurity, McLorin Salvant is well aware of how fleeting a performance can be.
"You're working with time and things are passing by you. You can never really hold it for long because the music just keeps going with time. So it's this very elusive thing and I absolutely love it."
Cécile McLorin Salvant performs Sunday, June 22, 6 and 10 p.m. at Kilbourn Hall at Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street. Tickets are $25, or you can use your Club Pass. Cecilemclorinsalvant.com.