Jelly and George brings two composers together for one evening

Aaron Diehl’s jazz concert delivers an outstanding jazz repertoire

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Aaron Diehl presents Jelly and George featuring Adam Birnbaum and Cécile McLorin Salvant at Berklee presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Photo Credit: Robert Torres

Aaron Diehl presents Jelly and George
Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston
Berklee Performance Center
Feb. 17, 2017

Two guys walk into a bar. They might even be frenemies, as pianist Aaron Diehl joked to the audience, but they would have something in common — jazz-imbued music. If Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton and George Gershwin had met in history, the result would be spectacular.

Enter Diehl, who presents the closest thing to such collaboration between the two: a repertoire of pieces from these two renowned composers in one concert. Calling upon the spirit of the early 20th century,  Diehl and Adam Birnbaum opened the evening with a piano duet of experimental, unsettling rhythms. Full of elegant trills and syncopated chords, the two piano lines interlaced in an intriguing fashion in Gershwin’s Prelude No. 1.

The duet was soon joined by Paul Sikivie on the bass and Lawrence Leathers on the drums, followed by Riley Mulherkar on the trumpet, Evan Christopher on the clarinet, and Corey Wilcox on the trombone. 

When vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant joined in, her rhapsodic voice enchanted the crowd. Salvant’s lilting vocals were reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald’s, with equal lyrical sensitivity and emotional expression. Her style, however, was clearly her own. Salvant’s sultry singing was more subdued in Gershwin’s “Boy! What Has Love Done to Me!” but her voice took on a life of its own with Morton’s “I Hate a Man Like You.” She bellowed Morton’s lyrics with a remarkable dynamic range and clarity. Her guttural delivery of the repeated “I hate a man like you!” delivered the same raw emotion that permeate the lyrics. It is no wonder the vocalist has been critically acclaimed in recent years.

The pianos’ chemistry found its brilliance in later pieces, particularly with Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2, but with the horns carrying the jazzy groove, the performance hall was colored with a newfound sense of thrill. In Morton’s songs “Mississippi Mildred” and “Black Bottom Stomp,” the various solo parts of Mulherkar’s trumpet and Christopher’s clarinet invigorated the atmosphere. Other notable selections included Gershwin’s “Ask Me Again” and “My Man is Dead,” both performed with the same vigor as the previous songs. Salvant’s vocals once again took center stage with Gershwin’s lyrics.

After a standing ovation and two encore performances, it was clear that the concert had something for everyone. The stage where Morton meets Gershwin linked two composers known for innovation in jazz. This haven of lyrical and instrumental intrigue enthralled both the music lover and passerby.