Mary Ellen Desmond
Comfort and Joy
Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany
December 12, 2021
Mary Ellen Desmond is one of the most treasured Philadelphia-based vocalists, and for more than a decade she has provided the inspiration for and fronted the same top of the line quartet (Larry McKenna
on tenor saxophone; Tom Lawton
, piano; Lee Smith
, bass; and Dan Monaghan
, drums), for the annual Comfort and Joy holiday concert at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany. This reviewer, no particular fan of holiday rituals, has attended and enjoyed this concert most years since its inception (maybe because it is focused on jazz music and human feelings rather than the hoopla.)
On this occasion, with both an in-person and live stream audience, the holiday music and spirit was all there, even if a little toned down due to the current COVID pandemic. The approach was strictly jazz and performed in a historical Episcopal church that not only has fine acoustics but whose congregation and its new pastor, Joseph A. Wallace-Williams (a la Basie crooner Joe Williams
for short!), are profoundly dedicated to service in the community. This year, the funds from this performance were donated to Action Wellness, formerly ActionAids, a long heralded nonprofit AIDs care organization now committed to helping people living with chronic diseases in general in the Greater Philadelphia area.
The concert began with an instrumental, and then Desmond came on stage to do some popular and lesser known holiday tunes ("The Christmas Song," "It Snowed," "Let It Fall," "Winter Wonderland," "I'll Hang My Heart on a Christmas Tree"); songs from the jazz repertoire ("It's Love, It's Christmas," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"), and songs with a nod to those who might be alone or hurting during the holiday season ("Need for Christmas"; "Throw It Away"). (Composers are listed below.) The larger than expected live audience was enthusiastic. (There was a young girl sitting in front of me who was rockin' to the beat, copying her mom's gestures, and applauding excitedlyperhaps a hopeful note tor the jazz audiences of the future.)
The performances were disciplined yet relaxed. Desmond sang with her usual panache. McKenna gave his typical fine support to Desmond and delivered impeccable and beautiful solos. Lawton comped perfectly for Desmond and his solos caught the holiday feeling while successfully taking some big improvisational risks as well. Bassist Smith's sound was outstanding as usual and his solos impeccable. Drummer Monahan excelled with his brushwork, and swung in a lively way that is rare for the brush/cymbal/snare combination. As they used to say at the Brooklyn Dodgers games when I was a kid, "Wait 'Til Next Year." Only in this case, the musicians were clearly winners and the Dodgers' mournful slogan translates into "Don't Miss Next Years' Show."
Mary Ellen Desmond: vocals; Larry McKenna: Tenor Saxophone; Tom Lawton: piano; Lee Smith: bass.
Need for Christmas (Chris Caswell); The Christmas Song; (Mel Torme & Robert Wells); It Snowed (Meaghan Smith); Let It Fall (Linford Detweiler & Melanie Ciccone); Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard and Richard Smith); I'll Hang My Heart on a Christmas Tree (Betty Lawrence); It's Love, It's Christmas (Bill Evans); Throw It Away (Abbey Lincoln); I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (Irving Berlin); Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane). .