For Salvant, coming into herself as a multidimensional artist has had a feeling of return. “It’s like this weird optical illusion, I guess, where it does feel like suddenly now I’m beginning to be on this quest — and in fact, I was always on it,” she said. “I remember lists of things I wanted to do as a kid: I wanted to be a playwright and I wanted to be an actress, and I wanted to design the sets of the plays that I wrote.”
Salvant grew up in Miami surrounded by music, but she didn’t take an immediate interest in jazz. Her parents and grandparents, who hailed from Haiti and Guadeloupe, listened to some, but it struck her as belonging to a culture that wasn’t fully hers. “For me, it started off as thinking that it was completely dead and dried up,” she said. “There was something almost as exotic about it as the Paraguayan folk music that my mom used to listen to. It was just one of many world musics in the house.”
At university in France, taking classical voice lessons while studying political science and law, Salvant felt herself being pushed toward jazz — partly because of others’ expectations, she said, but also by her own curiosity. “I was in a music school where there was a jazz program, and I was the only” — she hesitated — “American there. And they’re like, ‘It’s your music, you need to sing,’” Salvant said. “It’s so strange. It’s like that in-between space of: This is an exotic thing, but this is also the way in which I connect back to the country that I was born in, and this homesickness that I felt.”
Jazz also proved a worthy outlet for her historical drive. Even now, as she has delved into more personal songwriting, that hasn’t meant abandoning her interest in the archive; much the opposite. “There’s something about us being so obsessed with our own time. I think that’s the tendency, and it’s so self-centered, so narcissistic in a way,” Salvant said. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s been around for thousands upon thousands of years, a lot of storytelling devices. And in a way, it’s quite humbling, and also really inspiring.”
It was her love of Baroque “mad songs” — a genre with its own troubling history, related to the exploitation and othering that mentally ill patients were subjected to in 17th-century England — that led her to write “I Lost My Mind,” from “Ghost Song.” It starts with a verse of jazz-genre balladry (“Here am I, lounging on the sands of my hourglass/Watching the time drip, sand sketching strange glyphs/Feeling my mind slip off a cliff”), then dissolves into an echoing incantation over Aaron Diehl’s pipe organ. Salvant’s voice, overdubbed upon itself, deadpans: “I lost my mind/Can you help me find my mind?”
On “Ghost Song,” she’s also on a mission to punch up the jazz ballad for the 21st century, and she does two covers that could well become new standards: Sting’s plangent “Until,” and Gregory Porter’s triumphant “No Love Dying” (which she and Fortner deftly combine, on Track 2, with “Optimistic Voices,” a chipper tune from “The Wizard of Oz”).