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A jazz night all about the songs

Bassist Christian McBride at Sanders Theater.
Bassist Christian McBride at Sanders Theater. (Robert Torres)

A couple of songs into his set on a double bill with Cécile McLorin Salvant at Sanders Theatre on Friday night, bassist Christian McBride joked about how difficult it is to follow singers. Vocalists, he said, have the advantage of words when they tell their stories. It’s bad enough, he said, when the singers are middle-of-the-road. But when they’re as good as McLorin Salvant, that mountain you have to climb suddenly becomes Kilimanjaro.

McBride and his trio (with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.) proved themselves equal to the task of matching McLorin Salvant and her band (pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummer Pete Van Nostrand) in this Celebrity Series of Boston concert. What’s more, these two artists were of like minds. This show was not about jazz abstraction. It was about songs — mostly American vocal music from Clarence Williams to Michael Jackson. It was fun, and swinging, and deeply cultured.

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McClorin Salvant has vocal chops to spare, a big, beautiful voice that she controls with little evident effort, and singular interpretive skills. In her unexpected phrasing, you felt the coy anticipation in “The Trolley Song” (originally from the film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” sung by Judy Garland), the sexual jealousy and bawdy humor in Williams’s “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (“she shivers like a jelly on a plate”), less bawdy jealousy in “The Stepsisters’ Lament” (from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”), and ’60s romantic ennui in Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Wives and Lovers.”

Plenty of bass virtuosos can play high, hard, and fast, but McBride makes his instrument sing at any tempo and in any register. His pizzicato solos unfolded in conversational bursts, his tone pliant and sinewy, and his bowed solo on “I Have Dreamed” (from “The King and I”) was detailed and eloquent. Owens’s syncopations, meanwhile, had the kind of gravitational force that could pull you out of your seat. And Sands deployed a broad vocabulary that extended from the churchy chords of “Down by the Riverside” to the legato lines of Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life,” and the more abstract challenges of Thelonious Monk. Determined, he said, to bring “a little Roxbury” to the hallowed halls of Harvard’s Sanders, McBride ended with the theme from the 1976 Richard Pryor comedy “Car Wash,” and here he got everyone in the hall to sing the words.

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Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com.