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A Holiday Jazz Benefit Concert with Mary Ellen Desmond, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany
330 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
December 16, 2007

Perhaps like this writer, there are those who are not especially fond of the holiday music that blares everywhere from late November through the New Year. Besides the intrusive, repetitious re-playing of a dozen or so hackneyed songs, the renditions are usually commercial and lack musical sophistication. Thus, it was a pleasure to attend a Christmas concert with outstanding jazz musicians where the emphasis was on swinging jazz and not on holiday "flutter."

For several years, Philadelphia vocalist Mary Ellen Desmond has been making an annual benefit of this concert for the St. Luke of the Epiphany Hospitality Program, which serves HIV-AIDS victims among other needful individuals in the area. Desmond is a vocalist steeped in jazz and with a superb soprano voice. The instrumentalists for this occasion (Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Tom Lawton, piano; Lee Smith, bass; and Dan Monaghan, drums) are top Philly musicians who often accompany Desmond on her regular nightclub gigs. Together, they provided a feast of traditional holiday songs, jazz standards, and some less familiar tunes to make for a lively, swinging jazz set that somehow felt remarkably appropriate in a beautiful antiquarian church setting going back to the mid-nineteenth century. If anyone needs to know that jazz has spiritual roots, let them hear jazz in a religious setting—a perfect match of music and place.

In addition to the traditional holiday tunes like "White Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Desmond and the group did some less familiar seasonal numbers such as "I'll Keep You Warm in December" and "Let's Start the New Year Right." Included were some all-weather swinging standards like "I'm Beginning to See the Light," though "Better than Anything" featured lyrics re-written by Desmond with holiday themes. Two rarely heard songs, the haunting melancholic "Winter Moon" by Hoagy Carmichael, and "Snowed in with You," a tender ballad popular in Germany, moved the performance toward a deeper sense of quiet reflection. For an encore, an up-tempo, lively version of Frank Loesser's "What are you Doing New Year's Eve?" capped the festivities. To say the least, the concert was received with a degree of audience enthusiasm not usually experienced in this formal church setting.

The "swing" in the music was driven by Lee Smith on bass and Dan Monaghan on drums. Monaghan stayed in the background, taking no solos (on account of the sanctuary's reverberant acoustics?), but his rhythm partner took up any solo slack while, as usual, falling little short of perfection. Smith, in fact, absolutely shone on bass, with a rich, cello-like sound and masterful technique, including stunning rapid-fingering facility. Pianist Tom Lawton took an upright piano and gave it the sound of a grand, his style on this occasion, at least for this listener, almost mystically evocative of Oscar Peterson. Larry McKenna's saxophone playing, especially on ballads, was, as usual, warm and richly evocative. And Mary Ellen Desmond, whom I've followed over a few years, just keeps maturing as a vocalist. In the encore, she showed a mastery of the high register that I'd never heard from her before, lending some stiff competition in that respect to Roberta Gamborini.

Kudos to this group for a lively performance true to the jazz idiom, and for their generosity in volunteering for the benefit of a worthy neighborhood cause—additionally a reminder to all in attendance of the love and service that is the very soul of this season.


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