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Mary Ellen Desmond and Her Quartet at Chris' Jazz Cafe, Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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Mary Ellen Desmond and Quartet
Chris' Jazz Cafe
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
August 22, 2009

A late August thunderstorm and drenching rain didn't keep the faithful from coming out to hear Philly favorite vocalist Mary Ellen Desmond and her group perform at Chris' Jazz Cafe in Center City, for which they were rewarded with a lively and sophisticated performance by the main attraction and her sidemen, consisting of saxophonist Larry McKenna, pianist Tom Lawton, bassist Lee Smith, and drummer Byron Landham. Desmond not only knows her tunes but has a beautiful soprano voice to go with it. She works exceptionally well with her accompanying musicians, and the result was an upbeat set of standards executed with a panache that could only be accomplished by seasoned pros who, moreover, have worked together often. There were no special qualifications required of the listener to appreciate this music. The gutsy feeling of a consummate jazz group delivering a swinging message was present throughout.

The group began the set in a solid groove with an instrumental version of the old standard (a hit for Bing Crosby in the early '30s and later a favorite of Charlie Parker) "Out of Nowhere," manifesting a keen sense of well-synchronized rhythm. Tom Lawton's piano at times evoked the feel of Oscar Peterson, Lee Smith achieved a smooth, lyrical flow rare among bass players, and Byron Landham, one of the best drummers around and a regular member of organist Joey DeFrancesco's ensemble, provided a propulsion that melded the driving power of Art Blakey with the subtle polyrhythms of Elvin Jones. Desmond came on with a vocal rendition of Harry Warren's "September in the Rain," supplemented by a sensitive solo by McKenna and with Smith going deeper and darker into the lower register.

Next, Desmond dedicated Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" to the late, great Blossom Dearie. Counted off more slowly and performed in a laid-back groove, this version was perhaps as reminiscent of Miles Davis' seminal recording (Steamin', Prestige, 1956) as Dearie's interpretation. Lawton inserted some contrasting rapid runs that echoed Dearie's own pianism, which was every bit as good as, if overshadowed by, her singing, with its distinctive childlike timbre. McKenna took a sax solo of memorable artfulness to complement the performances of Desmond and Lawton.

"You Go To My Head" was effectively done as a samba, showing Desmond's assured grasp of Latin stylings. Here, Smith executed some rapid repetitive motifs that, much like an Ahmad Jamal reshaping of a familiar standard, were gripping in their "obsessive" perseverance. "I Don't Stand a Ghost of Chance with You" featured Desmond's best interpretation of the evening, with an exquisite upper-register vibrato, supplemented with a feathery-light solo by McKenna that captured the romantic vulnerability implied in the song. Next, Landham's percussion work shone on a double-time version of "Alone Together," uncovering an inner "swinging" dimension of this tune which the whole group built to a stunning climax.

A standard falling into the "classic" category, "Can't Get Out of this Mood" is one of Desmond's stock favorites, and possibly has been done one too many times, except for those listeners unfamiliar with its infectious melody. "Black Coffee," from the Desmond/Meg Clifton album dedicated to Peggy Lee (Black Coffee, Decca 1956, Verve 2004) and Rosemary Clooney, rocked frenetically with a "desperate housewife" connotation, quite in contrast to Peggy Lee's more bluesy version. The set concluded with "I Like it Here," which, as Desmond pointed out, was a standby of the great, late Irene Kral, whose voice, by the way, was featured along with Johnny Hartman's in the background of Clint Eastwood's film, The Bridges of Madison County.

The Philadelphia club scene has recently undergone cutbacks and closures due to the economic recession and other factors, so that Chris' Jazz Cafe is one of only two downtown jazz venues remaining (the other is Ortlieb's Jazz Haus in the Old City section). The managers and staff are going out of their way to provide an outstanding venue in all respects—music, food, drink, service, and atmosphere. They need and certainly deserve the strong support of everyone who appreciates sophisticated live music: in return, listeners can count on being rewarded many times over.

This group, along with Desmond and other vocalists, will perform a Philadelphia Tribute to Billie Holiday at the Church of St. Luke and the Ephipany on Sunday, October 4th at 7 P.M. Further information is available at St. Luke and the Epiphany.


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