Mary Ellen Desmond
July 12, 2009
If you want a picture-perfect setting with a "soiree" feeling for a jazz group, the Curtis Arboretum is it. Located in the Philadelphia suburb of Wyncote, PA, it was created by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, in honor of her father Cyrus Curtis, founder of the famed Curtis Publishing Company. Frederick Law Olmstead was responsible for the landscaping who was also the iconic designer of Central Park in New York City. Surrounding an architecturally interesting "listening room" building, that is in effect a small concert hall, are acres of grassy meadows interspersed with shade trees. On a soundstage with a state of the art sound system, vocalist Mary Ellen Desmond and her group of top-notch Philly musicians provided a lovely early evening of standards and some off-the-beaten-path tunes for a relaxed audience of locals who came out to hear the music and enjoy the ideal summer weather.
Each of the two one-hour sets began with an instrumental number, "It's You or No One" and "Just in Time." The swinging ability of the group was immediately evident and typical of Desmond's choice of sidemen. Some of the titles of the vocals for the first set seemed to be a description of the occasion: for example, "Blue Skies," "It's Nice Weather for Ducks" (rain was predicted but fortunately never materialized), and "Lazy Afternoon." Indeed many of the songs provided "just right" mood music for the audience. Everyone was relaxed, children pranced and danced around the perimeter, and songs like "The Frim Fram Sauce" and "It Isn't So Good It Couldn't Get Better" were cheery and enjoyable. By contrast, Abbey Lincoln's ballad "Bird Alone," a deep, haunting ballad, was beautifully rendered by Desmond with a lyrical solo by saxophonist Bootsie Barnes. Desmond's voice was in fine fettle for this concert, and her phrasing and timing were excellent.
The second set, like the first, featured several songs recorded by the late great Irene Kral. Desmond credited Kral with inspiration for the event, and included "Experiment," a Cole Porter tune with catchy lyrics; "Small Day Tomorrow," a funky, existential ballad that Irene Kral made one of her signature pieces, and "I Like It Here," composed by one of Kral's pianists, Loonis McGlohon along with Alec Wilder. Other tunes, like "Let's Get Lost" and "Jitterbug Waltz," evoked echoes respectively of Chet Baker and Fats Waller.
An inspired highlight of the concert was Desmond's decision to bring together two titans of the tenor sax, Robert Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna. Both are seasoned and artful players who have worked the circuit for several decades. Barnes came up in the Philadelphia bebop era and performed with just about every band in every club in the area, while McKenna did a noteworthy stint with the Woody Herman "Herd" and then settled into small group work. There was to be no "duel" of the saxophones, however. Rather, the two showed great deference and respect towards each other, and, as sidemen for Desmond, were more interested in being lyrical than virtuosic.
The occasion afforded an unusual opportunity to directly compare these two giants' playing styles. They melded well, and one could easily envision them in the same big band sax section, picking off ideas from each other. Yet each has a distinct sound and intent, which allowed for a rewarding juxtaposition. Barnes comes right out of Hank Mobley, with more than a nod to Lester Young. McKenna has a "cooler" sound a la Stan Getz, but with his own impeccable timing and interpretive skill. In this particular setting, each was deliberately restrained and lyrical, yet their licks were rich with ingenuity and grace. Philadelphia is lucky to have them "boppin' round the center" of jazz activity, the phrase being the title of Barnes' latest CD, with a reference to the recreation center in Cheltenham where he and comedian Bill Cosby used to hang out. (Cosby happens to be a jazz drummer and an avid fan of the music.)
The rhythm section was one of the best in the Philadelphia area, if not nationally. Keyboardist Gary Moran was right on top of things throughout, and Desmond credited him with being "very helpful in making this gig interesting," adding that "some of the newer tunes in my repertoire were his suggestions." Lee Smith is truly one of the great bass players of our time, and he performed with his usual power, bounce, and agility, often going deep into the lower registers of the instrument. Drummer Dan Monahan often backs some of the top Philly vocalists, including Desmond as well as Joanna Pascale, and he played with a lightness of being that was truly a pleasure.
Mary Ellen Desmond, vocals
Robert "Bootsie" Barnes, tenor saxophone
Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone
Gary Moran, piano
Lee Smith, bass
Dan Monahan, drums
First Set :
It's You or No One ( instrumental )
It's Nice Weather for Ducks
The Nearness of You
You Go to My Head
The Frim Fram Sauce
It Isn't So Good It Couldn't Get Better
Second Set: Just in Time
Surrey with the Fringe on the Top
Let's Get Lost
Small Day Tomorrow
I Like It Here (and This is Where I'll Stay)