Throughout their musical partnership (including 2015’s Grammy-winning “For One to Love”) pianist Aaron Diehl and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant have shared a knack for the theatrical — she with her choice of material, from early folk, blues, and vaudeville to Burt Bacharach, and he with his orchestral arrangements at the keyboard. At a Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Berklee Friday night, they were able to maximize their theatrical flair, in an evening that was as musically broad as it was emotionally deep, focused at every turn on narrative.
The program was “Jelly and George,” for Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) and George Gershwin (1898-1937).” The usual setup of McLorin Salvant and Diehl’s working trio, with bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers, was for this project expanded to an octet, with trombone (Corey Wilcox), clarinet (Evan Christopher), trumpet (Riley Mulherkar), and a second pianist, Adam Birnbaum.
The second keyboard added another orchestral layer to these pieces by two pianist-composers, especially during the three duo-feature Gershwin preludes. But Diehl and Birnbaum also had plenty of fun trading lead and rhythm figures or, in one dreamy moment, unfurling chromatic scales like one continuous bolt of multi-colored silk.
Subsets of the band varied the arrangements, making cross references between Morton’s sophisticated New Orleans barrelhouse and Gershwin’s Broadway swing, with plenty of contrapuntal interaction among the horns, each piece colored by different mutes and sure dynamic shifts.
Although McLorin Salvant was featured on only five songs in the roughly 90-minute set, she was the binding agent. Her taste in rarities came through in Gershwin’s “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me” and Morton’s “I Hate a Man Like You.” Those songs showed off McLorin Salvant’s ability to modulate her voice like a horn and shade lyrics with ambiguity, provocation, and humor (“When I met you, I thought you was right/You married me and stayed out the first night”).
But the showstopper was no rarity: “My Man’s Gone Now,” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” Here McLorin Salvant’s wordless moans behind “old man sorrow” were like the chill wind in a graveyard at night, her final realization shattering. It capped a night of peerless musical storytelling.
Aaron Diehl presents “Jelly and George”
Featuring Adam Birnbaum and Cécile McLorin Salvant
At Berklee Performance Center, Feb. 17.Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.