LENOX — There’s a natural inclination to want to label artists by genre. But some singers consistently expand the boundaries of their craft, necessitating frequent reevaluation.
Cécile McLorin Salvant keeps her audiences on their toes. On her most recent album “Ghost Song,” which she will perform selections from at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on Aug. 21, the singer/songwriter charts a path that weaves from smooth, reflective jazz to snappy Sondheim-style dialog to quirky riffs from “The Wizard of Oz.” She mixes in some Brecht-Weil and yearning torch songs, briefly channels Laurie Anderson, then ties it all up with the pure, haunting tones of an unaccompanied Irish sean-nós lament.
“There will [also] be songs from my upcoming album, songs we’ve never recorded, and songs from previous albums,” she promised in an interview by email.
Salvant will be accompanied by her five-piece band: Sullivan Fortner on piano, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, Alexa Tarantino on flute, drummer Keita Ogawa, and Marvin Sewell on jazz guitar.
Now a week shy of her 33rd birthday, Salvant, over the past decade, has been showered with honors. Winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2010, at age 21, brought her both widespread attention and a recording contract as part of the prize. Five years later, she won the first of three back-to back Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album, for three consecutive releases. Receiving a MacArthur Foundation grant and Doris Duke Artist Award in 2020 has allowed her to develop her latest project, a feature-length animated film titled “Ogresse,” which she will direct.
Born and raised in Miami, Fla., to a Haitian doctor father and French educator mother, Salvant grew up in a home filled with music, from classical jazz to Cuban rhythms to hip hop. She played piano and sang in a choir, and at age 18 moved to France to study a heady mix of voice and French law.
While she cites Sarah Vaughan as her early influence, she clearly has embraced artists from a wide range of musical expressions,
A prolific recording artist — she now has six albums to her name — Salvant has toured extensively across the U.S. and Europe, including frequent visits to France where she sings mostly in French, her primary language. She will tour there this fall, then head to Spain before returning home to New York City.
When the pandemic shutdown forced her to stop touring, Salvant used the opportunity to work on “Ghost Song,” a sweeping, eclectic contemplation of ghosts, nostalgia and longing for lost loves and roads not taken.
Its theme was inspired by the classic Emily Bronté novel “Wuthering Heights,” which she read during the pandemic. Salvant performs a striking interpretation of Kate Bush’s ethereal 1978 hit song of the same name on her far-reaching album.
She included her version of “Optimistic Voices” from “The Wizard of Oz,” she said, “because of the strength, absurdity, hope, and wild joyful news in the lyrics.”
For the first time, Salvant was able to focus on an album as a stand-alone project, she said, “rather than a document of a band.” It’s an evolution of her musical work, she noted.
Salvant is also a visual artist, often working with large scale textile drawings. Even in the midst of a hectic schedule, she still finds time to express herself through her art.
“I embroider every day while listening to music,” she said. “My drawings come from a deeper place that I don’t understand and I love them for that.”
The concert marks Salvant’s Tanglewood debut, and is presented by the Tanglewood Learning Institute.
“She’s such an unbelievably gifted person,” said Asadour Santourian, who as recently appointed BSO vice president, Tanglewood Music Center & Learning, leads the Learning Institute. “She’s got a great musical background, her training is piano and voice and composition, and she writes and composes her own lyrics and music.”
Salvant was already well known to BSO President and CEO Gail Samuel, who joined the orchestra after a 25 year career with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ultimately overseeing the Hollywood Bowl and The Ford open-air performing spaces.
A long-time champion of Salvant, Samuel presented the singer multiple times in Los Angeles, including as the opening act for veteran rocker Bryan Ferry and also singer Cyndi Lauper.
“When Gail arrived here over a year ago, she impressed on my colleagues Sue Elliott and Tony Fogg that Cécile should really have a place in the TLI season,” Santourian said.
Alongside acclaimed musicians, this year’s TLI lineup embraces a widening spectrum of distinguished presentations, including Native American musician, author and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner interviewed by NY Times Chief Theater Critic Jesse Green.
“Cécile makes a similar musical statement, she has achieved so much in the time that she has risen to her current fame and stature,” Santourian said.
Not only is she an original voice, he added, but, as Wynton Marsalis said in a 2017 New Yorker article, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” Salvant toured with Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
While the TLI occupies the state-of-the-art Linde Center for Music and Learning, Salvant will perform in Ozawa Hall because of the band’s sound requirements and to give her the acoustic space. “Ozawa Hall is much more complementary to this kind of sound world,” Santourian explained.
“I think original voices fit in the Tanglewood ethos, and Cécile is certainly very much that,” Santourian said. “She shares the joy of life-affirming music, and we’re also very much in [that] world. There are a number of elective affinities that make her a natural for this spot.”
“As we look to the future, we plan to bring other artists who represent that life-affirming music,” he added. Including, he anticipated, more jazz. “We endeavor to continue to offer a range to our audiences,” he said.
Santourian is looking forward to hearing Cécile perform live for the first time. Earlier this year she appeared at Berklee Performance Center in Boston, just as he arrived there to take on his new BSO role after two decades at Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. He was still getting his bearings, “so I missed her,” he said.
“But not this week. I will be there,” he vowed. “I think [Ozawa Hall audience members] are in for a transformative evening with this composer, artist, performer, gifted jazz singer, and they’re going to be taking a journey, exploring realms beyond jazz. Those who love it, purveyors of jazz, [and] those who want to try something new I think are going to be equally bedazzled.”
IF YOU GO
What: Ghost Song” featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant
Where: Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, 297 West Street, Lenox
When: 8 p.m., Sunday Aug. 21. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
Reservations and information: 888-266-1200, bso.org
COVID protocols: Masks are highly recommended.