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Cecile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl a dynamic duo at Jordan Hall

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl at Jordan Hall.
Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl at Jordan Hall.Robert Torres

Cécile McLorin Salvant went big in 2019. Chosen best artist in DownBeat magazine’s annual critics poll, she spent a good chunk of the year working with larger ensembles than she tends to: collaborating with Darcy James Argue on her long-form work “Ogresse,” touring with both the all-women supergroup Artemis (whose debut album is expected this year) and with Christian Sands and the Monterey All-Stars (their Boston stop came in March).

On Friday at Jordan Hall, however, the Celebrity Series of Boston presented her in a thrilling duo performance with her longtime accompanist Aaron Diehl.

The format heightened the focus on Salvant’s penchants for shifting dynamics and storytelling — the latter both literal and in her gift for inhabiting the lyrics of the songs she chooses to sing. Salvant’s voice is a phenomenal instrument, but those other, more theatrical elements are equally arresting.


Salvant, 30, made self-deprecating fun of an original she opened the set with, one she had written years earlier as “an overdramatic reaction” to a romantic situation. She turned to Diehl and asked whether the next song should go up or down emotionally, and when he pointed his hand way up, she chose “Devil May Care” — whose title, she deadpanned, has been her New Year’s resolution the past three years.

They followed with a more downbeat number about romantic obsession, Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” Salvant commenting afterward that an alternate version of the tune had included the lyric “My wife thinks I’m crazy, but I’m mad about the boy.”

Next came the Bert Williams classic, “Nobody.” Salvant spoke of her fascination with the “subterranean stories” of lesser-known figures from jazz’s past, praised Williams as an incredible satirist with a biting wit, but admitted that finding he’d been a Black man who performed in blackface “hard to understand and to swallow.”


Such ambiguity was absent from the jubilant “Jeepers Creepers,” and then Diehl got a tune to himself. He chose Fats Waller’s "Viper’s Drag,” explained that “viper” referred to marijuana, and, assured that the substance was now legal in Massachusetts, joked, “Well, I wish I had known. This would have been a very different concert.”

Diehl, whose trio album “The Vagabond” comes out Friday, demonstrated his own flare for pyrotechnics and musical dynamics, shifting abruptly at one point from double-time stride to a soft, slow passage. Salvant, who’d watched while seated beside the piano, then took her own a cappella turn on the murder ballad “Ornie Wise,” eschewing her mic for most of it.

The mood brightened only gradually on the final two songs of the set (there would also be two encores). Salvant sang most of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” with her eyes downcast, in stark contrast to the way she moved her focus around the hall locking eyes with audience members through most of the night. But then she clang, clang, clanged the clouds away with “The Trolley Song.”


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Jordan Hall, Feb. 7

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.