To say Cécile McLorin Salvant was great in her Kilbourn Hall performance Sunday evening would be an understatement. She understood, inhabited, and delivered the Great American Songbook like no one else I've ever heard. In fact, you could say she excavated forgotten parts of it and struck gold. I thought I knew it pretty well, but she sang some songs I'd never heard, like her opening number, "They Say It's Spring." It was one of those wonderful narrative songs that revealed itself only with the final word.
She followed that with a brilliant classic by Bert Williams who, she explained, was black and performed in blackface. The song, from 1905, was "Nobody" and McLorin Salvant lived it. She sang songs made famous by Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and story songs like "Guess Who I Saw Today." Her vocal range, from way down low to the register of angels was impressive but her emotional range was far wider. She packed more into one word than most singers put into a whole song.
Her band was excellent but like McLorin Salvant, pianist Aaron Diehl was beyond superb. It was Diehl who supplied the crucial dynamics -- from thunderous chords to complete silence -- that formed the foundation for McLorin Salvant. On "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," he played as if his fingers were stuck in a music box pattern. On Bessie Smith's "What's The Matter Now," he somehow made the piano sound like a very old 78 rpm record. When he took off on a solo, he was breathtaking, playing impossibly complicated runs with both hands simultaneously.
For her encore, McLorin Salvant chose a song from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella." But, true to form, she did not identify with the beautiful heroine. She sang the ode to spitefulness and jealousy, "The Stepsisters' Lament."
The second breathtaking pianist I heard Sunday evening was Gerald Clayton at Hatch Hall. His set was Keith Jarrett-like, that is he improvised so much that even recognizable tunes were tough to decipher. The one that came closest to its original form was "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" but even that melody was taken down dark alleys and up grand boulevards. He ended with a magnificent rendition of something that sounded like enhanced Chopin, but he never announced what it was.
My last stop of the evening was Christ Church where Euan Burton and his quartet were already into their set. All of the band members were good, but it was the pianist, Tom Gibbs, who shone brightest. Euan's compositions had a way of building to crescendos that took them into ecstatic territory.
Monday night I'll be at Kilbourn Hall checking out the trio of Vijay Iyer, who grew up in Fairport and is now one of the leading pianists in jazz. I'll also hear Kari Ikonen at the Lutheran Church and the Julian Lage/Nels Cline duo at the Little Theatre.