Encountering Jazz with Cécile McLorin Salvant at La Jolla SummerFest

Can jazz and classical music co-habit congenially on the same stage? La Jolla SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan set out to answer that question in the affirmative in Wednesday’s (August 7) concert, the opening salvo in Barnatan’s new Synergy Series. Combining disciplines and art forms provides the mainspring to this series, and upcoming programs in the Synergy Series will feature music and painting as well as music and dance.

Cécile McLorin Salvant [photo (c.) Mark Fitton]

This first musical offering turned out to be more a showcase for the three artists on stage, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianists Aaron Diehl and Barnatan. Winner of the 2010 Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition, McLorin Salvant’s laid-back vocal approach recalls the insinuating phrasing of Sarah Vaughan tempered with the breathy intimacy of Blossom Dearie. She wooed her audience at The Conrad with deft self-effacing humor as she introduced each number on the trio’s 90-minute set.

Barnatan quietly opened the program with his aptly understated account of Chopin’s familiar E Major Etude. As he cadenced the first section, McLorin Salvant and Diehl came in with the same music supplied with a text for the singer by Bob Russell and Paul Weston. Nothing new here, of course—Chopin has always made for an easy transition into the pop realm: “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” anyone?

McLorin Salvant quickly dispelled that Chopin dream state with Leonard Bernstein’s snarky “I Hate Music!” sung with appropriate brassy attitude, only to return to the Gallic languor of Francis Poulenc’s “Hôtel,” a classic cabaret standard from his song cycle Banalités.

Her two pianists quickly established their “more than accompanist” roles. With alarming ease, Barnatan dashed off Earl Wild’s extravagant toccata on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” and Diehl countered with a multi-hued fantasy that he attributed to jazz icon Art Tatum on the Dvořák tune known as “Goin’ Home.” Audience members with a long memory no doubt recall the summers when Wild lent his celebrity to La Jolla’s stages and watering holes. Later in the concert, the two pianists collaborated in a robust account of Darius Milhaud’s “Brasiliera” from Scaramouche, an effervescent work for two pianos filled with the rhythmic propulsion of Braziian traditional music.

“My Man’s Gone Now” from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess gave McLorin Salvant the opportunity to probe the emotional scope of this aria, a harrowing song of sighs and screams given an equally turbulent, orchestral accompaniment by Diehl. The two pianists collaborated seamlessly to create a shimmering, Impressionist texture to Jimmy Rowles amazing song “The Peacocks,” while McLorin Salvant wove an incandescent spell communicating its enigmatic lyrics.

Two songs evoked mid-20th century urban sophistication: Benjamin Britten’s snide, devil-may-care cabaret song “Tell Me the Truth About Love” and a dramatic soliloquy from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene recounted in the exquisite words of Langston Hughes. McLorin Salvant gave the latter a haunting, confessional interpretation. It remains a mystery to me why America’s opera companies, in their search to find works outside the established European canon that relate to the American experience, continue to completely ignore Street Scene and that rich catalogue of works Weill wrote for the American stage in the 1940s.

Bernstein’s Candide has enjoyed successful revivals since the composer’s demise in 1990, but its hit aria “Glitter and Be Gay!” has always been a favorite among singers. McLorin Salvant’s coy, pert approach, almost eclipsed by Diehl’s florid pianism, made a favorable impression, but dropping the aria’s flamboyant finale was disappointing.

McLorin Salvant offered one of her own quiet songs as an introduction to her dramatic account of Henry Purcell’s famous aria from Dido and Aeneas “When I am Laid in Earth.” To end the concert, the trio took its cue from Nina Simone’s version of the Donaldson-Kahn popular song “Love Me or Leave Me” in which Simone migrates into a Bach Invention in the middle of the song. (This is easily found on YouTube.) Diehl and Barnatan did work up an exciting Bachian concerto interlude to McLorin Salvant’s sassy if matter-of-fact take on the ballad. As an encore, she offered the eden ahbez classic “Nature Boy.”

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society as part of SummerFest 2019 on August 7, 2019, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla. The festival continues through August 23, 2019 in this venue.

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