Jelly and George with Diehl, Birnbaum, Salvant

University Musical Society presented “Jelly and George,” a program celebrating the music of Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on February 19. The main performers were pianists Aaron Diehl and Adam Birnbaum, and vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, plus a standard trad jazz group, with Diehl also serving as music director.

Diehl and Birnbaum are both modern jazz pianists and added many of their own touches to Gershwin’s Preludes, which opened the afternoon’s concert. Diehl wants to do more than a revival of the music of these two masters, hoping to show how Jelly and George can provide a framework for modern sensibilities from bebop up to today. “Jelly Roll Blues” brought in the full band, and I was particularly impressed with Riley Mulherkar’s gutsy trumpet sound on this tune and on “Black Bottom Stomp.” Salvant is a talented and unique vocalist and gave great renditions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the lesser known Gershwin song “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”

The highlight of the evening was the first of three encores: “Embraceable You,” with Salvant alone with Diehl on Michigan Theater’s 1930s organ. It seemed as if the discovery of a built-in organ presented a fresh challenge to these creative artists and took them away from the prepared program. Salvant sang with gusto and perfect pitch and Diehl gave the organ a sound that I have never heard in the many decades of movie-watching at the Michigan.