Newport Jazz Festival 2014 Concert Review

Real music lovers can find the melody in everything. From the park to the concert hall, our friend Nelson Brill is always on the hunt for great sound. In this article, Nelson recounts performances from Cecile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival.


by Nelson Brill         August 23, 2014

The 60th Anniversary edition of the Newport Jazz Festival shot out of its blocks on Friday, August 1st with a runner’s glee, firing on all cylinders in the mid-day heat of a beautiful day in Newport, Rhode Island. There was a sense of anticipation at the crack of the start gun, because this was the day set aside for showcasing new and vital artists on that joyous marathon of human endeavor we call Jazz. And, as if the radiant heat of the sun was not enough, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant took the stage at the Ertegun Fort Stage with her trio and performed a set of such charisma, joy and radiance that there was a feeling that nothing was impossible, nothing unobtainable, in this gathering of friends and music to celebrate Newport Jazz this year.


Ms. Salvant’s eclectic set began with the original composition and title track from her glorious debut album, Woman Child [Mack Avenue Records,] here given a rendition filled with exuberant scatting and bursts of vocals that traced high arcs and deep, shadowy attacks. “Woman Child” displayed one of Salvant’s most stunning vocal gifts: her ability to be absolutely sure of pitch and phrase (and so light on her feet) that every vocal soar and swoop is effortlessly mercurial and self-assured. Her pitch definition and control reminds one of a bird in flight (thinking here of a Belted Kingfisher, a sleek blue and white bird frequently found hovering over small ponds to catch small fish): starting out on a solid branch (of one pitch and tone); then flitting to many heights and depths inventively and effortlessly (over a creative range of notes and pitches); then returning to the precise branch and height as before, (that same first note and pitch) with complete control and ease.

Appropriate to her “Belle of the Ball” role in her Friday set at Newport, Salvant re-invented Richard Rodger’s snazzy little ditty, “The Step Sister’s Lament” (from the television version ofCinderella), and turned it into a frothy (vocal) dessert filled with buoyant lyrics and sweet, biting sarcasm. Her ability to mine the emotional depths of her chosen songs was also beautifully displayed by Savant’s rendition of the sardonic tune, “Nobody” (taken fromWoman Child and written by Bert Williams, a black comedian and actor in the early 1900’s who was the first to break into the world of white vaudeville) and “What’s The Matter Now”. On both tunes, Salvant sang with deep intonation and feeling. Her deep gospel-inspired vocal plunges contrasted with the biting lyrics of these songs that she delivered in quick, clear diction- like gleaming shards of glass. A final highlight to her set was her inventive take on “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” a song made famous by Billie Holiday. Salvant unfolded this ballad slowly and deliberately exploring all of its nooks and crannies. At one point, she scatted and cooed with sweet inflections and then held a solid high note for a (seemingly eternal) period of time; all to hit home her charged delivery of this smoldering ballad. She left the stage with the crowd still buzzing about her dazzling vocal presence and the extraordinary beauty and winsome nature of her performance.


Salvant could not have orchestrated her feats of magic at Newport without the sympathetic partnership of her superb trio, which included her longtime collaborator, Aaron Diehl, on piano; Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums. Throughout the performance, Sikivie slowly unfurled his bass lines with ease and Leathers’ drums were a solid foundation. Leathers’ solo on “Moonlight” matched Salvant’s vocal fervor with his own roving invention that combined soft bass drum rumbles with crisp snare snaps.


Finally, no review of this performance can overlook pianist Aaron Diehl. He proved again at Newport that he is one of the most brilliant (and dapper!) pianists of his generation. (


Like Salvant, (with her pliable and mercurial vocal instrument), Diehl brings a lyrical suppleness to his piano that is delectable. He possesses an extraordinary light and swinging facility (and a way with subtle exploration of a given melody) that immediately lures one into his creative artistry. For instance, in their set at Newport, Diehl was first the epitome of simplicity in his duet with Salvant on “Nobody”: a simple run here, a lacy twirl in the high register there; all that was needed to create a spare and evocative canvas for Salvant to paint upon. In contrast, on “Moonlight,” Diehl let loose with a furious piano solo taking the bluesy melody for a workout through his creative mill. He combined furious runs in the treble region with open blocks of chords in the bass to romp through this bluesy theme. Most vitally, he never lost sight of the rudimentary melodic roots of the song underpinning his creative flurry.


Diehl’s new release, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative [Mack Avenue], is its own audiophile gem, busting at its seams with the creative energies of this talented young pianist. In partnership with his trio (themselves all young lions of their craft): vibraphonist Warren Wolf (who was last seen in Boston at last Fall’s Boston Beantown Jazz Festival –– performing with sax player Mike Tucker in a great full throttled performance); bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green, Diehl creates a recording of inspiration and virtuosity. The recording quality is superb, providing an up front perspective and layered, airy soundstage. It allows the listener to explore and appreciate the multitude of gifts Diehl and his band mates bring to these tunes. One of these virtues is a special percussive style of playing that Diehl shares with his trio here. There is a great fit between Wolf’s percussive attack on his vibes and Diehl’s light percussive touch on piano, heard on Milt Jackson’s “The Cylinder” and Diehl’s “Stop and Go.” Wolf splashes on his vibes with showers of quick, pungent sounds while Diehl compliments with a lightness of attack on his piano that swings in bold rhythms and kinetic note choices. Diehl switches gears on Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman” to bring out his incandescently beautiful melodic side: slow brewing and light piano touches that draw the listener into Diehl’s supple, lyrical explorations of these melodies (accented by Wong’s radiant touches on bass with deep plucks and bowing). Diehl and his compatriots can also take a classical piece, like Maurice Ravel’s “La Tombeau de Couperin” and turn it into a fairyland adventure filled with light, swirling dance motion and piano and drum solos that take flight with notes sprayed like filigree around a circular, waltzing rhythm. The cohesiveness of this trio unit is uncanny on the Ravel piece, each player listening intently to the other and working in perfect synthesis as the meters shift and the circular dance proceeds to its glorious conclusion.


Diehl’s sparkling re-invention of the Ravel led to a listen of a new favorite Ravel recording: Ravel’s Bolero recorded in 1979 with the London Symphony orchestra conducted by Andre Previn. This particular recording was issued this year on XRCD by Hi-Q Records [find it at Elusive Disc,] and mastered at the JVC Mastering Center in Japan by Shizuo Nomiyama and Kazuo Kiuchi. (Kiuchi is also the founder of Reimyo and Combak Corporation [] and his Reimyo KAP-777 solid state amplifier is a new reference here at bostonconcertreviews – review forthcoming). This new XRCD recording ofBolero is a sonic marvel. It delivers a deep, layered and airy soundstage; a riveting portrayal of instrumental colors and textures; and it comes tantalizingly close to capturing the full dynamic capabilities (and dynamic shadings) of an orchestra. Your system will have a field day with this marvelous recording by the JVC XRCD team, who continue their illustrious history of audiophile quality recording production.


If you would like to read more reviews like this one, visit Nelson’s blog at


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