As the trio plays the intro to “Wives and Lovers,” her nonplussed demeanor and polished white glasses provide no clue of what is to come. Then Cecile McLorin Salvant steps forward. With growl and bite and pop and light she reimagines each phrase – lending a sardonic girlishness tinged with wistfulness to the well-worn classic. It is a revelation.
Recently hailed by The New York Times as “the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade,” Salvant is the 20-something face of jazz, right now. She also may be its harbinger of hope, for those with an ear for innovation. “Nobody really knows what jazz is today,” Salvant says. “I feel like there are certain elements that definitely embody jazz – having that constant tension, that constant contradiction between honoring your history and moving forward to find your own voice. Having a strong swing rhythm is the embodiment of jazz – that earthy rhythmic element is essential for me in jazz.”
As a writer, singer and bandleader, Salvant toys with the conventions of jazz, alternating between shifting time signatures and rhythms in her originals and leaning on the genre’s storied connection with the Great American Songbook.
Salvant is at the forefront of a trend in jazz – young female artists taking their conservatory-training to forge the roads less traveled, the ones that steer them away from being tagged the next Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday.
These talented women with the desire to lead are bending the rules of previous generations of jazz artists, charting courses inspired by independent rock acts, drawing musical inspiration from revered singer-songwriters and century-old song traditions, and also seeking guidance and camaraderie from other women – both as mentors and bandmates.
“The energy is different when you work with a great all-female band,” says Berklee-educated saxophonist Grace Kelly, another great new light in this upstart era of jazz. “It makes me try to inspire and work with young women and girls. Los Angeles-based for the last three years, Kelly cites drummer Terri Lynn Carrington as a mentor who included her in an all-women band made up of Esperanza Spalding on bass, Dee Dee Bridgewater singing and Geri Allen on piano.
“I understand how important it is to have role models,” Kelly says. “I’m starting to see more and more girls picking up the trumpet and saxophone. And when I do middle school workshops, it’s becoming more and more balanced, which is so great.”
Salvant and Kelly, as well as recent Concord Records signing Kate Davis, a bassist; and pianist-singer Ariel Pocock started young, recorded and toured while still in college and, with degrees earned less than five years ago, each is putting her education to different uses.
The songs on Salvant’s third album, recently Grammy nominated for best vocal album, were developed while she and her band, led by pianist Aaron Diehl, were on tour.
“We got to know each other well in a short period time,” says Salvant. “It raises the comfort level, and it adds to the spontaneity and element of surprise that I find so important in jazz. Play with people long enough, you develop a sound that goes beyond the sound of each individual musician.”
Salvant covers Bacharach and David’s “Wives and Lovers,” the Judy Garland hit “The Trolley Song” and Blanche Calloway’s “Growlin’ Dan.” Her choices are the result of extensive study: Once she identifies a song, she traces its lineage and the roots of its inspirations. It has led to her studying the music of minstrel shows, vaudeville and blues.
“I like humor,” she says. “I like songs with something a little absurd that are layered, ones that have a self-deprecating element that I can connect with.
“I’m really interested in the super racist songs from the late 19th century – it’s all part of our history. I learn a lot every day about crazy things that went on musically over the course of 100 years.”
As a writer, Salvant hopes to one day write a musical, though today she wonders if she has the chops. Musical theater is a considerable influence on her, which she acknowledges plays a role in her own writing.
“So many influences are [present], but I don’t let any of them become the driving force when I sit at the piano to write a song,” says Salvant. “I go with my intuition and then edit a lot.”
Alto saxophonist and singer Kelly, 23, found a fan in Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch series of detective novels, who wrote Kelly into several stories of the jazz-loving cop. Now a series on Amazon Prime, she will be featured as a performer in the second season of Bosch.
Kelly is returning the favor, creating her first theme-based album, Trying to Figure It Out, with songs inspired by Bosch that will be released Feb. 19, timed to the premiere of the series. The album is a significant stretch for her: acoustic jazz, cinematic compositions driven by mood and sound effects, groove tunes and improvised elements. Nylon magazine premiered the first track, “The Other One,” in November.
“It’s definitely rooted in jazz – the whole idea is to go jazz and beyond,” Kelly says of Trying to Figure It Out, which will be her 10th album overall. “The big thing I learned from my last tour is that how you [record] is not necessarily what you do live.”
Case in point: A new recording with her New York band replicated the concert version, and she tossed it, rearranging the song and re-recording it in L.A.
“The great thing about growing up is my comfort in the studio: I can bang out a take with confidence within three performances. They’re the freshest, most sincere takes.”
Bassist Davis, 24, used YouTube to get attention in 2014, but it took some determination to not let her video success trap her.
In late 2014, Davis posted a jazz trio version of Meghan Trainor’s hit “All About That Bass” that did not convey her aspirations as a songwriter-performer.
“I had a lot of people trying to turn me into someone I wasn’t to capitalize on ‘All About the Bass’,” says Davis. “People saw that – a girl singer with an upright bass – and saw dollar signs. Concord made it very clear: ‘We want to work with you on music that reveals a career evolution.’”
In college, Davis expanded the scope of her listening – alternative rock, bluegrass, country – exploring artists who use “their tools for good and beauty”: Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey. The next step was figuring out what it meant for her art.
“The challenge was to use the upright in other styles,” says Davis. “I guess the idea of being limited to one sound was not what I wanted to be. I was 19 or 20 when I made that decision.”
“Recently I’ve been writing on guitar. There’s something wonderful about not being a virtuoso on the instrument you’re writing on. You have to hear your way through a song.”
YouTube creates pop sensations by the boatload and occasionally a genre-specific musician can generate label interest from a posted video. Clips of Pocock performing jazz standards as a teenager attracted the interest of Verve Records in the U.K.; they signed her to a deal soon after she started at the University of Miami.
“They wanted to get the ball rolling fast,” says Pocock, 22, who graduated in May. “I found the producer [Matt Pierson], and I was ready to go into the studio when the branch was [shuttered]. Fortunately, I was able to get the fee from the contract and make the record anyway.”
Justin Time, the Montreal-based jazz label, released the album Touchstone in September after signing Pocock. The label’s locale has led to her taking numerous gigs in Canada; she is booked for the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in May in Michigan and is hoping to create a tour in the northern Midwest around those dates.
Now living in Durham, N.C., Pocock is working more as a writer. “I feel strongly that I want to follow piano and voice, not one or the other. While I’m really inspired by Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman, I’m also writing a lot of modern jazz instrumental pieces. I’m definitely exploring a lot of things right now.”