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Young jazz singer Cecille McLorin Salvant sounds wise beyond her years

Is it a crime for someone so young to be so talented? That’s a rhetorical question when considering the manner in which Cecille McLorin Salvant approaches her craft. It’s easy for concertgoers to revel in her subtle phrasing and the way she packs each note and every syllable with meaning, but it’s the sort of thing that one is more used to hearing from someone with years of experience in how to turn a lyric into truth.

Talking (or writing) about her specific skills will only hint at how far along artistry’s path she’s sped for jazz fans that haven’t heard McLorin Salvant in concert. For those attending this year’s Art of Jazz season finale, the proof was in what they heard from the singer and her band. Suffice to say that the series closed out its 15th season on a high note.

Her range, the way she shifted from one end of it to the other and the spare, waste-no-moment approach McLorin Salvant took to every song, investing emotion and power to the lyric, cooing, whispering and doing whatever was necessary to draw the listener into the lyrics was truly impressive.

The set list drew heavily from cinema and Broadway, including classics from Pal Joey (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”), Cinderella (“Stepsisters’ Lament”), West Side Story (“Something’s Coming”), and Kiss Me Kate (“So In Love”). Pop tunes from the 1930s, like Blanche Calloway’s “Growlin’ Dan” and Bert Williams’ “Nobody” were revived and given new life. Songs associated with Barbra Streisand (“When In Rome”) and Shirley Horn (“He’s Gone Again”) were given worthy treatments and “John Henry,” the old folk/blues classic, was given an arrangement that packed even more emotion into the text than what most folks could imagine.

While McLorin Salvant was the focus of the concert, it would be hard to overlook the quality of the musicians working with her. The rhythm section of bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Peter Van Nostrand locked the framework of each tune into place; everyone knew where the “beat” was and someone was always “home” taking care of it. If it wasn’t Sikivie, it was Van Nostrand, and if those two were taking a few bars off, one could be certain pianist Aaron Diehl was there to support the voice or shape a solo phrase into something extraordinary.

Prior to the concert, Macy Favor, the longtime jazz radio host and raconteur, engaged in an audio memoir session with series producer Bruce Eaton. Tales of the musicians Favor had interviewed ran alongside stories of his early years when he played in high school bands alongside Ahmad Jamal and other Pittsburgh-based jazz legends in training.

The most newsworthy event of the evening happened between the conversation and the music, when Eaton announced that he has stepped down from the position he held for the past 15 years to focus on, as he noted, “other things looking ahead.” While he received a number of standing ovations from the audience he has served for so long, no successor was mentioned, even though some of the folks honoring Eaton did talk about the series continuing.