Cécile McLorin Salvant has the type of voice that could lead a singer to stop trying, and the fact that she hasn't — that she's only working and thinking harder — demonstrates just what a talent she really is.
Born in Miami to a French mother and a Haitian father, Salvant first turned heads five years ago, when she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. In 2013, she released "WomanChild," a Grammy-nominated collection of standards and lesser-known material on which the beauty of her singing wasn't an end goal so much as a starting place, a comfortable entry point into a deep consideration of the songs and their layered meanings. (One example: "You Bring Out the Savage in Me," a ripe jungle-love fantasia written in the early 1930s.)
Now Salvant, 26, is back with an even stranger — and, yes, more beautiful — follow-up, "For One to Love," which, like "WomanChild," mixes music you're likely to know (in this case, show tunes such as "The Trolley Song" and "Stepsisters' Lament") with stuff you haven't heard before, including five arresting Salvant originals. It's hard to decide in which setting she sounds more impressive.
Certainly, her feel for subtext makes her one of the smartest (and funniest) interpreters going. In "Stepsisters' Lament," from "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella," the wide-open quality of her voice makes you believe she's identifying with the song's narrator, who can't understand why men routinely opt for "a frail and fluffy beauty" over "a solid girl like me." And perhaps she is: The next song, after all, is one of her own, the wistful "Look at Me," in which she asks a longed-after pal, "Why don't you look at me the way you look at all the other girls?"
But of course Salvant is also inspecting the Broadway tune's musty sexual politics, an effort she redoubles in "Wives and Lovers," the early-'60s Bacharach-David hit about how married women mustn't forget to keep tantalizing their husbands.
"Day after day, there are girls at the office," she sings, lowering her voice to a confiding murmur, "And men will always be men." Behind her, Salvant's invaluable pianist, Aaron Diehl, plays a creeping minor-key figure that lends the music a touch of paranoia — think "Mad Men" reimagined as a kind of workplace thriller.
You can sense Salvant further pondering the way men and women interact, and how gender roles have evolved (or not), in renditions of "Growlin' Dan" and "What's the Matter Now?," a pair of vintage blues in which she cycles through accents and vocal mannerisms as though she were Nicki Minaj.
Does all this make Salvant, scheduled to perform Sept. 16 at the Hollywood Bowl, sound like an academic or a drama kid? I suppose either of those titles suits a singer for whom music seems part of some larger cultural project.
But just as you think you've got her pegged, she hits you with her song "Left Over," a devastating voice-and-piano confession that depicts Salvant as a woman infatuated with a guy who may not even know her name — a woman so desperate that she welcomes the presence of the guy's girlfriend because of what it does to his face.
"To see him smile, the way he smiles when she's near," Salvant sings, her voice cracking, not even bothering with beauty now, "To get what's left over, his surplus of love."
It's powerful enough to give you pause before you listen again. But you will.