The interpreter

October 24, 2013
(J.R. Photography)
(J.R. Photography)

Cecile McLorin Salvant came to D.C. in 2010 to compete in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. The youngest finalist at 21, she was “extremely nervous.” And she sang her way to the prize.

“I just really tried to get into the music and song and not focus on the idea that I’m singing and that I’m nervous,” Salvant says.

With her rich, nearly three-octave voice — by turns brassy, sassy and sweet — and a love of old jazz, Salvant is now routinely likened to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. “To even be compared is a little bit crazy but very flattering … and intimidating,” she says.

If she’s intimidated, she doesn’t show it. Salvant tackles the music of the past with an authority unusual in a performer so young. And she makes no apologies for her vintage taste. “Every artist has to draw from something that came before,” the Miami native says. “Nothing can be made from nothing.”

When she finds a song she’d like to interpret, she listens to as many versions as she can find. Then she adds her own spin, zeroing in on “the actual meat of the song, the lyric, the melody, what the songwriter was trying to do.”

She wasn’t immediately sold when she heard the 1930s song “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” recorded by African-American singer Valaida Snow. At first, she was struck by “how racist” the lyrics were. One line is “Just like Tarzan, you’ll be my ape-man.”

Her first reaction was “I’m not singing this song — it’s completely crazy.” But she also found it “very funny, completely absurd,” with a kind of “ironic wink at this whole jungle culture concept.” So she recorded “Savage” for her new album, “WomanChild,” taking charge of the lyrics with her customary dynamism and using the range of emotion in her voice to let the listener in on both her outrage and her bemusement.

Salvant isn’t just a jazz fan. She sang baroque music when she was in college. And she’s an admirer of current performers like Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom, though she’s not inclined to attempt their music. Their songs are “so completely personal and based on their lives and experiences, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable getting into that.” Old blues songs, by contrast, “have this more universal appeal — they were made for a lot of people to sing them.”

And when Salvant sings them, they sound like they were written in 2013.

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Sat., 8 p.m., $25; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)

Marc Silver has been watching TV since the days when people wrapped aluminum foil around TV antennae to improve reception.
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Kristen Page-Kirby | October 24, 2013