Monday, April 15, 2019


Vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant
Many jazz singers have complete command of the bandstand. Watching greats such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy, and Rene Marie work the stage, and an audience is like watching a Broadway production. Then you have jazz singers such as Liz Wright and Gretchen Parlato who stand before the microphone and sing their butts off and that’s it. If it weren’t for their seductive and alluring voices, they would bore you senseless, but at their performances, you are enthralled from start to completion by every lyric they sing. The multi-Grammy winner Cecile McLorin Salvant fits in the latter category. Unlike Bridgewater, Lundy, and Marie, Salvant doesn’t possess much flash or sass, but the stagecraft she lacks she makes up with the purest voice in jazz. Salvant played the Michigan Theater Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s all-star touring band, backed by four top jazz musicians on the scene pianist Christian Sands, the band’s musical director, trumpeter Bria Skonberg, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Jamison Ross. The two-hour concert started with Salvant refashioning Betty Carter’s “I Can’t Help It,” getting the near-capacity crowd ready for an afternoon of a hodgepodge of music. After singing two songs, Salvant set in the audience and watched her band-mates stretch out on some standards and some originals. Each member shared equal time in the spotlight. Aldana, a rising talent on the saxophone, showed her virtuosity on her original “Castle,” and Ross, the singing drummer a la the late Grady Tate, gave the audience a taste of his vocal gift, belting “A Sack Full of Dreams.” Sands delivered the singular mic dropping moment, taking the piano through a cross-fitness workout on a classical piece. I interviewed Sands two days before the concert, and he said he initially planned for a career as a classical pianist, but an instructor pushed him into jazz because Sands had a bad habit of improvising while playing classical pieces, which is a felony in classical music circles. This iteration of the Monterey Jazz Festival touring band is the youngest in recent memory and includes more accomplished women musicians than in past tours.  Overall, however, the concert lacked cohesion, and it was clear the band hasn’t been touring together long. Salvant said the band toured for a month, which isn't sufficient time for musicians with such distinct chops to gel as a unit. The set list was all over the place with music by Donny Hathaway, Betty Carter, and standards and originals sprinkled here and there. The saving grace, however, was watching Salvant do her thing.