Cecile McLorin Salvant and the future of jazz

International jazz vocal star Cecile McLorin Salvant rolled into town on Aug. 18 as a part of the San Diego Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights series. It was a double-bill program curated by scene-maker Gilbert Castellanos that also featured two iterations of the International Academy of Jazz San Diego, performing inside and outside of the Embarcadero Marina Park South.

As patrons filtered in before the main event, they were treated to music by the 10 a.m. ensemble, which featured the alternating pianos of Brenda Greggio and Bennie Simon, with the upright bass of Dharma Dorazio and the drums of Wesley Biasi supporting the saxophones of Alexander Pruetting and Nick Caldwell. I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of a blues, but it was obvious from the crowd reaction that the Academy players (who ranged in age from 11 to 15 years old) acquitted themselves admirably.

Inside on the main stage, the International Academy of Jazz’s prime ensemble opened the show in startling fashion as the image of 12-year-old bassist Johnny Murray flashed across the huge screen behind the performers as he dug into the introduction to Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” a cappella, opening a swinging floodgate of sterling solos from tenor saxophonist Sean Lambert, vocalists Zion Dyson and Emma Christie-Foster, pianist Edward Gabrielyan and tenor saxophonist Alvin Paige -- all propelled by the wildly infectious drums of Johnny Steele. Steele is 16 years old, Paige is 14, Gabrielyan 16, Foster 17, Lambert 17 and Dyson 15.

Foster and Dyson took charge on Horace Silver’s “Come on Home,” alternating between Foster’s solid pitch and the more adventurous scatting of the latter, yielding to Paige’s full-bodied, super relaxed essay and the gravelly honking of Lambert, all anchored by the lucid harmonic landscape of Garbrielyan.

17-year-old double bassist Angelica Pruitt replaced Murray on an appropriately lilting version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” joining voices with Foster and Dyson in three-part harmony and demonstrating a mature approach to building cogent lines.

Steele made the most of his moment in the spotlight with an amazingly hip distillation of the Art Blakey spirit on Benny Golson’s “Blues March.” This cat is already gigging with Castellanos, traveling to Los Angeles for lessons with drum legend Jeff Hamilton and it doesn’t take a genius to predict good things in his future. Equally amazing was the performance of Paige, who brought the house down in a raw exchange with Steele, indicating a potential monster in the making.

It was quite a performance from everyone in the Academy, and they earned the long and tumultuous applause that followed their exit from the stage.

As great as the kids were, this was a night that ultimately belonged to the headliner, Cecile McLorin Salvant. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about the singer before her San Diego debut, but to say she knocked it out of the park is a considerable understatement.

Fronting a finely tuned trio comprised of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers, Ms. Salvant proved to be quite the consummate performer/storyteller, transforming a wide variety of materials into a highly personal narrative that seemed to be perfectly tailored to her aesthetic.

Opening with “Nobody,” Salvant came across as confident and conversational, exploiting every ounce of nuance from the lyric with a natural command of pitch, vibrato and almost operatic sense of delivery. It was a very strong opener.

It is rare to hear a singer with such fluent command of enunciation. Even on really wordy songs like “I’ve Got Just About Every Thing I Need,” one could clearly hear every single word she sang without question, allowing the audience to really take in the songwriter’s intention. In that respect, she reminded me of both Johnny Hartman and Joni Mitchell.

Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” began as a duet on a seldom heard verse with the high-octane accompaniment of Diehl, who continued with ebullient input matched by the burning contributions of Sikivie and Leathers. They both ratcheted the singer into a swing climax of sorts, whereas “Wives and Lovers” balanced baroque piano against the singer’s precise control of dynamics from whisper to roar.

Throughout the evening, Salvant made you think about the stories behind the music, whether it was the suave, swinging bon vivant attitude of Bob Dorough’s “Devil May Care,” the campy jive of “Trolley Song” or the vaudevillian double entendre feel of “Sam Johnson’s Blues.” Salvant told stories, using her glorious instrument to communicate with the audience in a way that sets her apart from other gifted singers.

Even though I began the evening with only the sketchiest notion of what was to come, I am definitely a believer now.  

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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