As readers of my other All About Jazz contributions may surmise, I take jazz perhaps all too seriously, regarding it as an art form masquerading as entertainment. (Certainly, this dour quality of mine is no way to win friends and influence people, but there it is ;-). A few years ago, I heard Mary Ellen Desmond sing at Chris' Jazz Café¬ and I thought, "She's an artist- she knows her music." That assessment has been more than validated by her solo CD, "Darn that Dream" and the more recent duet album, "Peggy Lee - Rosemary Clooney Tribute," with co-vocalist Meg Clifton, both of which I've reviewed for this website. Meg's seductive style and smokey sound complement Mary Ellen's brighter, straight ahead approach in a way that leads to both a great pairing of sets of vocal cords as well as richness of interpretation.
So when the opportunity arose to hear them on a laconic end-of-summer Labor Day weekend in a jazz festival format at a location (the Brandywine River Valley) of natural beauty and historical significance, I jumped at the chance, and took my wheels out of Philly to the Chadds Ford Winery in Chester County, PA. Music, history, relaxation, sunshine, nature. All healing the savage urban beast; all seeming to belong together in some way.
As it fortunately turned out, given that Hurricane Frances was wreaking havoc in Florida, it was nevertheless a picture perfect day in Chadds Ford. The winery is to be found in a small cul de sac off Route 1, and the grounds give the feeling of an English countryside town with a few small buildings, some gardens, various pebble pathways, and an inn amid clusters of trees (think of Little Giddings in T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets.") The festival area was set up with the sound stage abutting the winery, a tent covering the stage, some tables and chairs for the picnicking and wine tasting audience, and a scattering of the same outdoors. It was as relaxing a situation as one can have. I said a brief hello to Mary Ellen, who was busy checking out the microphones, and plunked myself down at a long table where I was quickly surrounded by Mary Ellen's husband, himself a jazz fan of no small musical intuition, and some other die-hard Desmond supporters. I thought to myself, "If I have to pan this performance, my life is at stake :-)" Fortunately, Mary Ellen, Meg, and the backup quintet- consisting of Victor North, tenor sax, Tony DeSantis, trumpet and cornet, Steve Myerson, piano, David Brodie, bass, and Jim Schade, drums- gave a swinging, stellar performance in both of two sets.
One of the details that gave the sets a special quality was the choice of tunes. All standards, they nevertheless covered a variety of moods and tempos well-balanced throughout the afternoon. From swinging versions of "Blue Skies" and "That's All" (both by Mary Ellen) to a very fast paced, frenetic, almost existentially chaotic "Alone Together" (by Meg) to the classic melancholy ballad, "Bye Bye Blackbird" (done sweetly yet soulfully by Meg, with great improvisation by pianist Steve Myerson), to an "outahere" Basie-like swinging version of "Route 66" (duet by Meg and Mary Ellen), there was sufficient variation and artistic nuance to keep me attentive for over two hours of active listening. Surprisingly, only one song- "It's All Right with Me"- was from the Tribute album. For me, this was fine, because I'd listened to the album many times, but I did feel the audience lost an opportunity to preview some of the numbers- especially the ballads- from the CD. Mary Ellen later told me that she and Meg decided on more upbeat, swinging tunes from the "Great American Songbook" to go with the picnic atmosphere. Logistically, this was the right choice.
One of the ways that Mary Ellen and Meg show their consummate professionalism is the way they work with their musicians. They operate as part of the group, which in this instance thus became a septet of sorts, coordinating with the guys throughout, and allowing numerous opportunities for each and all of them to solo. It also helped that the Festival producer, Glenn Farracone, a professional drummer and music educator, arranged the stage so that each musician had a clear space for himself, rather than being bunched together as so often occurs. Thus, we the audience could see and hear each instrumentalist clearly, allowing us to appreciate each of their strengths as musicians. As a result, we really had the feeling of a jazz group rather than just singers strutting their stuff.
I had never heard either Tony De Santis (trumpet) or Victor North (sax) before, and my feeling was one of appreciation. Both are consummate professionals who give an impression of great skill and musical resilience. De Santis has the fine tone, articulation, and virtuosity of a classical musician, with vague shades of Bix Beiderbecke and Chet Baker somewhere in the mix. His soloing on the big band swing era tune, "Stompin' at the Savoy," was excellent, with fine articulation of rapid runs and the right placement of notes within the chord structure, neither too simplistic nor too far out and modernist. Indeed, I'd never heard a small group do this tune before. This crew managed to get it to swing conservatively, just the way it should. Victor North is a thoughtful, contemplative saxophonist who starts slowly, and waits for just the right inspirations to happen. He listens to, but never imitates his fellows. He soled marvelously on "This Can't Be Love," with a hint of Coltrane and Dexter Gordon here and there. At first, I thought he was a bit on the stiff side, but as the performance progressed, I grew to like the pensive way he constructed both solos and accompaniment.
The rhythm section had the right touch for an afternoon jazz picnic- light, not heavy, and with a certain restraint when needed, but able to "blow" intensely when the music called for it. For example, Steve Myerson's piano playing was just terrific. I flipped at a point where he did a short improv of parallel octaves on "Blackbird," a difficult maneuver at the least. Bassist Dave Brodie did some great improvising on "My Romance," where Mary Ellen and Meg allowed each sideman to solo and trade some eight and sixteen bar segments. Brodie and drummer Jim Schade provided solid bass and rhythmic backing throughout, adding just the right touch of embellishment when needed. They worked well with the vocal duo to build power and get the group swinging, yet they could back off in a mellow, cool way for the ballads and the bossa nova number, "The Little Boat."
All in all, it proved to be a very enjoyable and artfully put together afternoon, leaving me with the odd but warming feeling that art can be entertaining and entertainment can be art, something I don't easily own up to. I liked seeing Mary Ellen coming into her own, loosening up and gaining confidence. She and Meg work together like a charm, and one hopes, given their individualistic nature and commitments, that they will continue to devote time to their duo performances. Mary Ellen- believe it or not- sings opera on the side! And Meg is a voice instructor in the Music Department of the University of the Arts. These two women take their work seriously- yet their obvious enjoyment of what they do is contagious. We'd love to hear more and more from them, as well as from the great instrumental ensembles they put together for their gigs.
The Chadds Ford Wine and Jazz Festival went on for the entire weekend, and my brief sampling of it made me want to go back for more next year. I was told that the Winery, in addition to their vintage brews, produces a variety of musical events throughout the year. Whether you live in the greater Philadelphia/ Wilmington and Delaware Valley areas or might just be traveling through, check their website for listings. The whole ambience of the place gets a high rating from yours truly, and you might just find yourself spending a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon or evening there.
Visit the Chaddsford Winery on the web.