Aaron Diehl presents Jelly & George feat. Adam Birnbaum & Cécile McLorin Salvant at SFJAZZ

Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin probably wouldn’t be your first idea for a pairing of two great jazz composers. Both are indeed great, but they never knew each other as Jelly Roll was in New Orleans while Gershwin was in New York City. However, they are contemporaries, born only 8 years apart from one another.

Aaron Diehl in his most recent series of concerts takes on the pairing with a playful and often humorous approach. Diehl’s piano playing along with Adam Birnbaum’s is impressive. Although Diehl is the bandleader the two pianists work together closely, complementing each other and graciously handing off the spotlight often. It was on a beautiful, slow and quiet early Gershwin piece that this became extremely evident. You know a good team of musicians from how quiet they can get together, and wow they got quiet. Diehl and Birnbaum softly and deftly handed off flourishes between each other for quite a long time. The two pianos continued to impress throughout the night.

Diehl’s band is exceedingly lively and virtuosic. I was truly floored by the rhythm section (Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums) and the brass (Corey Wilcox on trombone and Bruce Harris on trumpet) and a single clarinetist (Evan Christopher). The clarinetist, Christopher, showed his chops very early in the night with the craziest clarinet solo I’ve ever heard. Lively and high and low. I’d actually never heard such gorgeous high notes from a jazz clarinet before. Diehl gave Christopher ample opportunities to solo throughout the night, and I was so glad (@@@Glasper). The trombone, Wilcox, only took one solo all night, but I was floored. Mostly by how loud and powerful he was. I’m usually more impressed by how quiet a brass instrument can get, but I have to say Wilcox’s power in his solo took my breath away. All together trombone, trumpet, and clarinet got reeeeeally quiet at times. Most notably during Jelly’s Whiny Boy (more to come on this tune).

I’m not ignoring the rhythm section. They were not the stars of the show and mostly played quietly, setting up their comrades’ solos (each were given only one short solo). A highlight of the whole night though was Leathers’s solo. He played an incredibly free and wild solo that was pretty different from the rest of the program. It was a thrill. At one point he lifted up his snare drum and yelled into it.

Many came to the show for one reason and one reason only: Cecile McLorin Salvant. Salvant was prominently featured on the bill but only ended up singing on probably a third of the tunes Diehl’s band played. Oh did she deliver though. Undoubtedly she’s one of the few who gives Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday a run for their money (not that it’s a competition). Salvant was playful and fun while undoubtedly masterful showing a superhuman command for the lowest notes. Salvant really shined as a performer on Whiny Boy (Jelly Roll), a pretty explicit song. She sang beautifully and conveyed the humor of the thing brilliantly with impeccable timing. It’s cool to see a jazz vocalist consider timing as a device of humor (something you’d of course expect in musical theatre but maybe not at a jazz show today).

What ultimately ended up being so illuminating about the particular program for the night is something quite obvious. New Orleans and New York sound so damn different even though they both got the blues so hard!

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