Young jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant put on a sassy performance at the Cistern last night with the first jazz concert of the Spoleto Festival’s 2012 Wells Fargo Jazz Series. Backed by pianist Aaron Diehl’s terrific trio, Salvant and the group bounced through a dynamic set that tackled selections from the great American songbook.
Still in her 20s, Salvant made a huge splash in the U.S. jazz scene in 2010 when she won first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, and on Friday she delighted the folks at the Cistern.
Under the moss-draped oaks, Spoleto jazz series director Michael Grofsorean and this band delicately slid into the bluesy opener “You Came a Long Way From St. Louis” as Salvant sauntered on stage, wearing her trademark white frame glasses.
Many local jazz fans in the audience were surprised to recognize veteran Charleston drummer Quentin Baxter behind a five-piece drum kit at stage left. We’re guessing he was a last minute replacement for Diehl’s regular timekeeper, Lawrence Leathers. Surprisingly, Baxter fit in well, playing each song as if he’d been rehearsing with the group for months. The Charleston drummer and upright bassist Paul Sikivie clicked well, too, on both the show’s blues standards and soft, whispery ballads.
Recent collaborators, Salvant and Diehl displayed a groovy chemistry together. Dressed in a black suit and seated with perfect posture, the bandleader looked a bit formal and still in the early moments of the show, but as the evening progressed, he displayed his fiery and percussive chops on the keys. He was a wildman. Salvant traded smiles, glances, and riffs with the pianist throughout the set.
Salvant led the trio through a surprisingly blues-based set, touching on a lot of vintage material from the 1930s and ’40s, embracing the songs with an emotionally charged sense of innocence, bending notes, exaggerating melodies, and emphasizing the depth of lyrical lines. Initially, it seemed like she was overdoing it, but her animated style quickly caught on.
The singer’s story about the old folk-blues tune “John Henry” (a la Big Bill Broonzy) seemed a little corny and long-winded, but her and the band’s version was soulful and swingin’. During their cover of Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Got to Give Me Some” — one of several unexpectedly lyrically risque songs of the show (and there several) — Salvant squealed about getting cream from the ice cream man, cryin’ on bended knees, and going crazy for sugar lumps (the final verse went, “Jay bird said to the peckerwood/I like to peck like a pecker should/But give me some, yes give me some/I’m crazy about them worms, you’ve gotta give me some”). The band grinned sheepishly while the crowd hollered and applauded. Another sexy highlight of the show was “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” an old favorite by vocalist/trumpeter Valaida Snow, which Salvant sang with a sultry swagger.
Throughout the concert, Salvant showed off an incredible range and a genuinely emotive style, plus she added a few touches of Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald along the way. By the time she and the band closed the show with a softly rendered Billie Holiday tune, the crowd was on their feet with a standing ovation.