The young duo, exquisitely artistic-looking and effervescently endearing in their charisma, played two shows at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater Thursday night. This performance acted as a jam session elevated to its highest form. As I walked into the theater, a jolly usher handed me a program and with a wink said, “The program is, there is no program.” Cécile McLorin Diehl and Aaron Salvant riffed off of each other for which song they wanted to perform next. It was obvious how well the couple knew one another. Within a few seconds of suggesting a song, the two were off and running with one fabulous arrangement after the other.
When I think of jazz, the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily the storytelling. I think of smokey dark rooms with men crouched over their instruments all in rhythm with each other. With the performance by Diehl and Salvant I saw a new side of jazz. Each song was a story. Salvant was constantly making specifically informed choices with her voice to tell a story. It wasn’t just the lyrics. She would cry out one section and chew the words out in another. At her most passionate, her voice enveloped the Mendelssohn with a warmth I did not think could be mastered by someone at the age of 30. Salvant’s velvet voice shifted qualities effortlessly and with complete control. It wasn’t her standing and singing before us, her whole body contorted and shifted to compliment the sound.
Diehl matched her in artistic mastery, but was far more subdued in his performance. He only stood to bow once during the show when he modestly gave us a smile, but the rest of the show we only got to see his profile as he concentrated on the keys — this added to the enchantment of his sound. When the lyrics fell short as a result of their old-fashioned nature, Diehl filled in the subtext. In a song like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wives and Lovers,” which is obviously past its time, Diehl was able to reinvigorate the story through his musical accompaniment. It made these beloved standards relevant again; his performance was not just a rote rendition but a commentary on the place of these songs in the world today.
Even though I am a lover of the “Great American Songbook,” I can’t help but cringe at how outdated some of the songs are. Diehl reworked these tunes into ones worthy of the 21st century again. By manipulating the music that backdropped lyrics about a cozy “cottage for two,” Diehl illustrated the coercive themes present in many of these songs, exemplifying how vocal jazz can survive the rapidly-changing culture.
The second-to-last tune they played was in honor of their friend who was a drummer. Salvant didn’t go into what happened, but it was obviously something tragic, because the following performance was incandescent. Even with the flu going around and people coughing throughout the night, there was not a single sound through the 10 minute segment. The room was silent in reverie.
The way Salvant set up the evening allowed for that sacred experience at the end. Throughout the show, she spoke to us as if we were a close friend she had just met at a coffee shop. She spoke about awkward romantic experiences, her favorite artists and her friendship with Diehl as if we deserved to know, and not like we all bought a ticket to see a Thelonious Monk winner. She was charming, endearingly innocent and authentic.
Both Salvant and Diehl are off to the next town, but their impact will stay with me. The good news is, Salvant was here last year, too, so chances are she will stop by again. Hopefully along with Diehl.