The weather was perfect, the Duke Gardens performing space was packed, and director Aaron Greenwald looked pleased. With the feel of a neighborhood picnic, this outdoor series has become a summer staple. Duke’s Music in the Gardens series brings families with young children, summer students, dancers from ADF, neighbors, and friends to gather weekly to enjoy a mix of popular musicians and rising stars. On tour with her new album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, roots musician Leyla McCalla performed selections from her first two albums on this night. Fellow trio members, Daniel Tremblay (banjo, guitar, vocals) and Free Feral (viola, vocals), rounded out the group that made for an ideal outdoor summer ensemble.

McCalla opened with the title track from her new album as she struck an elegant pose, playing with a widely-spaced, spiccato-like bouncing bow, one of the extended performance techniques she employed. Immediately heard was the percussive influence of African story-telling. I felt the soothing rock of jazz-infused, folk-inspired music, from Tremblay’s ringing triangle that summoned the music of silverware placed on the table (“Le plats tous mis sur la table”) to McCalla’s high-pitched ostinato on the guitar, resembling the sound of the African mbira (thumb piano).

Switching to banjo, McCalla stood tall with perfect posture and a twinkle in her eye as she introduced “My Mother,” a Haitian troubadour song and coming-of-age story between mother and daughter. The bittersweet lyrics reminded me that gender issues are universal.

As librettist, Alice Goodman remarked, it seems that “. . . art is political.” Our young songwriter tried to avoid it, but McCalla clearly penned lyrics that cross the line, especially in this second album. Music helps us feel difficult issues without the full-frontal assault of newsprint and talk shows. Call and response, with audience participation seemed an appropriate way to engage us. Bringing global issues to the fore, she sang in Haitian Creole (“Weighing Coffee”) reminding me to be thankful for my “morning Joe.”

McCalla’s vocal quality is naturally light, sweet and creamy. Her vocal inflections are historically delicate without the over-projection adopted by pop-singers, which lend to her authenticity. However, on this evening’s performance, I thought she tried a little too hard. Perhaps there was a technical problem for the sound engineers – a challenge for outdoor, on-the-road artists and their partners. Nevertheless, every tune, from a tribute to Langston Hughes (“Heart of Gold”) to the encore (a two-step instrumental) helped to create a string of pearls and summer memories for music lovers.  

McCalla’s trio played well together. Like brother and sisters, they anticipated every move, knew where to hold back and lean forward. Feral played some great solos (“Love Again Blues” and “Far From Your Web”) and melodic counterpoint (“My Mother”). Tremblay played sweet rhythm guitar and a relaxed, authentic banjo style. Like a hand-made basket composed of sweet grass, their sound is original, yet familiar – the kind of music that has staying power. 

When the last Locopop was consumed and sleepy children were headed home for bed, tired parents yawned with memories of beautifully performed music still playing in their heads. It was twilight – fireflies danced in the grass, and this listener rode home with a smile.

McCalla will proceed to the Mid-West and across the pond later in July. You can find her schedule on her website. You can also find her new album at Amazon on jazz village/Harmonia Mundi, or on iTunes.

Music in the Gardens continues this summer with more calendar information to be found here.