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Authentic Early Jazz, From A 23-Year-Old 'WomanChild'

Cecile McLorin Salvant's new album is titled <em>WomanChild</em>.
John Abbott
Courtesy of the artist
Cecile McLorin Salvant's new album is titled WomanChild.

Jazz musicians Cecile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl, both in their 20s, have already racked up major industry prizes. But they took radically different paths to get there.

Diehl, a Juilliard-trained piano player, was performing church hymns at Mass from age 8. He says he was "that weird, nerdy kid" who loved classical music growing up. Salvant studied baroque music in France before a professor there persuaded her to try singing jazz.

Together, they riff like a pair of old souls who came together after years. But that's not really the case.

"Our first meeting was a 21st century [meeting] through Skype," Diehl says in an interview with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish. "So we didn't actually formally meet until several, several months later."

Diehl plays on Salvant's debut album, WomanChild. At 23, Salvant plucks tunes from the early days of jazz — a long way away from her own teenage fixation on grunge rock.

"I try to routinely go back to my 15-year-old self, and I try to make music that will also draw that type of person in," Salvant says. "All the while still being very authentic, and trying to be excellent at it."

"Yeah, I like how Cecile used the word 'authentic,' " Diehl says. "Because for me, I want to create an insatiable appetite for jazz, where the music can be accessible to a wider audience, but the music should always have a high level of quality and authenticity."

Pianist Aaron Diehl performs on Cecile McLorin Salvant's new album.
John Abbott / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Pianist Aaron Diehl performs on Cecile McLorin Salvant's new album.

Diehl and Salvant may be young, but they evince great awareness of jazz history. Diehl also released an album this year, The Bespoke Man's Narrative, which draws largely from the work of pianist John Lewis and his band of many years, the Modern Jazz Quartet. And Salvant elected to record songs that might be seen as controversial today — songs like "Nobody," by the black minstrel performer Bert Williams, and a number called "You Bring Out the Savage in Me."

Salvant says she first heard "Savage" while listening to Valaida Snow, a female trumpet player, singer and bandleader who was popular in the 1930s.

"When I first heard it, I couldn't help but laugh, because I thought, goodness, how racist to be a black woman singing, 'You bring out the savage in me / You can be my ape man,' " Salvant says. "And I just immediately wanted to sing it, because it was so completely absurd and outrageous. And I wanted to be able to laugh about it, too."

So are songs like this part of reclaiming a legacy?

"I feel that it's important to capture as much of the language of jazz as possible in order to create my own unique identity," Diehl says. "And so, even more so than the social connotations associated with certain pieces, certain periods, I think about the music as a language, and how I can study and use the evolution of the language to my benefit. And distill that in an emotional way that reaches the listener."

In studying that history, Salvant and Diehl found themselves affected by the personal predicaments of their jazz heroes — people like Bessie Smith or Charlie Parker or Bud Powell, who created under immensely different circumstances.

"When you read about some of these musicians' lives, and the context in which they were playing and learning and studying the music, it's pretty amazing, and it's pretty sobering and humbling," Salvant says. "Just hearing the amount of stress and difficulty in which they were playing inspires me to work even more."

"And what they sacrificed in their lives," Diehl adds. "It makes the responsibility for me even greater to be a steward of the tradition of jazz."

On WomanChild, historical memory doesn't trump other considerations.

"For me, choosing songs that were maybe written in the '20s, '30s and '40s — I choose them because they're good songs," Salvant says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.