Perhaps it’s her gargantuan talent, or a fervid childhood imagination fueled by fairytales and folk legends, but somewhere along the line Cécile McLorin Salvant acquired an abiding fascination with myths and monsters.
“The stories are vibrant and colorful,” the three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist and composer wrote in an email. “They are relevant and evocative. There are layers of meaning within them. I think we are all drawn to mythologies.”
The lure may be universal, but the 33-year-old Salvant’s gift for transforming shadowy archetypes into extraordinary music sets her in a rarified realm. She presents her latest conjuring at a four-concert SFJazz Center engagement May 5-7 that focuses on music from her new Nonesuch album “Mélusine.”
Based on a folkloric legend that circulated widely around Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, “Mélusine” tells the story of a maiden cursed as a child by her mother to turn into a half-serpent every Saturday. Reflecting the Miami-reared Salvant’s French and Haitian heritage, the project draws from a millennium of sources to weave a fantastical tale detailing Mélusine’s doomed marriage, which she consents to on the condition that her husband never see her on the shape-shifting day. The honeymoon doesn’t last long.
Salvant came across the story while “collecting female monsters,” she wrote, though she’s equally deft at creating her own larger-than-life narratives. Her jazz operetta “Ogresse,” inspired by Caribbean folklore, gothic fairytales and Salvant’s fecund subconscious, tells the racially charged story of a lovesick “chocolate brown” giantess and her ill-fated romances.
She wrote all the songs for “Ogresse” working with arranger/conductor Darcy James Argue to create an evening-length jazz-chamber piece. The production’s March 11, 2020 Bay Area premiere was hours away from showtime when SFJazz cancelled the concert due to the surging pandemic (yet to be rescheduled, it’s still officially listed as postponed).
“Mélusine” is a very different beast. The album features five Salvant originals and interpretations of nine songs, mostly sung in French along with English, Haitian Kreyol, and Occitan. Part of her alchemy stems from how she repurposes classic Francophone songs, like the opening track, “Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?” (Is This How Men Live?), which was a signature piece for poet and musical provocateur Léo Ferré.
His version, which was also associated with Yves Montand, is a jaded existential reverie that mentions a lover named Lola. Salvant changes the name to Mélusine, which sets the album’s world weary mood. The song had been in her repertoire for years, but “when I was in the studio I thought it would be good to change the name so it could follow the story line,” she wrote.
Rather than presenting “Mélusine” as a set song cycle, she treats the material like moveable chapters in a larger conversation with iconic French figures, like Charles Trenet’s breezy invitation “La route enchantée” and “Il m’a vue nue,” a saucy confession made famous by Mistinguett. The album closes with two 12th century songs by female Occitan troubadours, though Salvant’s father translated the concluding piece, “Dame Iseut” into Haitian Creole.
While “Mélusine” is an emanation of her Gallic soul, she never sheds her jazz identity, changing up the music night by night, presenting “a mix of songs from not only this album but all my albums and things I haven’t recorded,” she wrote.
“It’s never very calculated. It depends on the night of the show, where we’re doing it, what energy the audience is bringing to the space.”
Her flexibility depends on her stellar band, which features Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour bassist Yasushi Nakamura, Ghanaian-born, East St. Louis-raised djembe master Weedie Braimah on percussion, and Oakland-reared drummer Savannah Harris, a rising star who’s also performing with Israeli bassist Or Bareket at San Francisco’s Black Cat May 11-13.
The key player is 36-year-old New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner, an accompanist hailed by his peers as one of the generation’s exceptional talents. He’s been an invaluable creative foil for Salvant over the past decade, including her 2018 Grammy-winning duo album “The Window” and last year’s Grammy-nominated “Ghost Song.” She credits him with coming up with the synth textures on the 17th century chorale “D’un feu secret,” which abruptly changes the course of “Mélusine’s” narrative.
“He also was a great sounding board for ideas when I was in the process of putting the album together,” Salvant wrote. “He is constantly surprising us musically.”
The Bay Area will have to wait a while before meeting Salvant’s most ambitious creation, “Ogresse,” but in the meantime Mélusine provides a fascinating look at her expanding musical menagerie.
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CECILE McLORIN SALVANT
When: 7:30 p.m. May 5-6, 3 and 7 p.m. May 7 (May 5 concert also live streams)
Where: Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $40-$125, www.sfjazz.org