Mary Ellen Desmond: Comfort and Joy 2017

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Mary Ellen Desmond
Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany
Comfort and Joy
Philadelphia, PA
December 10, 2017

It's always a pleasure to hear Mary Ellen Desmond sing, and for the past fourteen years, her special musical offering has been the seasonal Comfort and Joy holiday concert which she initiated and for which she serves as featured vocalist. This year was no exception. Desmond and her exceptional quartet of saxophonist Larry McKenna, pianist Tom Lawton, and drummer Dan Monaghan provided a swinging montage of holiday standards as well as some less frequently heard songs that brought out the emotions of love and loss (the blues) as well as the quiet joy that we experience, often alone, during a season when we're supposed to be demonstrably happy.

The concert, as always, was held at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany in downtown Philadelphia, a church that not only has fine acoustics and architecture but whose congregation and its pastor, Rodger Broadley, are profoundly dedicated to service in the community. The proceeds from this performance were donated, as always, to the Saint Luke's Hospitality Center, an outreach ministry offering assistance to lives affected by AIDS / HIV, in particular in South Africa, where the epidemic is still taking many lives. Jazz, with its combined entertainment and spiritual value, is a perfect fit for a relaxed evening in a church setting, and Desmond, as always, made sure that the music was enjoyable and at the same time personally meaningful for her audience.

As is often the case for a vocal set, the instrumentalists came on first, in this case with the familiar "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." The genuine swinging feeling and brilliant improvising for which this group is legendary was especially welcome in a time when our politicians in particular are not noted for their rhythm and synchronicity. Desmond joined the group for the rest of the concert, beginning with "Let It Snow" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, composers of many tunes in the American Songbook, notably ones performed by Frank Sinatra and other crooners. Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" were other "fireside" songs that got America through joyful times as well as difficult Christmases when there was war.

To these standards, Desmond added a variety of moods heard in some less familiar tunes. For example, she did "Christmas is Being with You," one of McKenna's originals for which Melissa Gilstrap wrote the sensitive lyrics. Then there were other ballads like "It Snowed" (Meghan Smith), "Warm in December" (Bob Russell), "Love is Christmas" (Sara Bareilles), "The Christmas Song" (Bob Wells and Mel Torme), and "The White World of Winter" (Mitchell Parish and Hoagy Carmichael).

A touching jazz tune for any season, Horace Silver's "Peace," featured a reflective piano solo by Lawton that mirrored some of Silver's iconic harmonic inflections. Desmond provided her own adjustments of the lyrics for the lively standard, "Better than Anything." For a special vocal duet version of the country favorite "Hard Candy Christmas," Desmond called upon the services of a new singer around town, Abby Mosconi. Remember that name. She has a stunning voice and polished technique that could take her far. She has an upcoming date at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, a club where many top artists got their start. She told me she is related to the great pool player Willie Mosconi, immortalized by Paul Newman in the movie, "The Hustler," so be careful if you meet her in a billiards bar.

In response to a standing ovation, Desmond did a swinging encore of "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost," not exactly a church hymn, but leaving the audience in a happy holiday mood, a refreshing contrast to the piped-in drivel that dulls our senses and makes us willing victims of the consumer mentality during this season that is supposed to be all about love and peace.

Personnel: Mary Ellen Desmond: leader, vocals; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Tom Lawton, piano; Lee Smith, bass; Dan Monaghan, drums; Abby Mosconi, guest vocalist.

Set List: Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (Coots); Let It Snow (Cahn/Styne); White Christmas (Berlin); It Snowed (Meghan Smith); Christmas is Being with You (McKenna/Gilstrap); Warm in December (Russell); Better Than Anything (Wheat/Desmond); Hard Candy Christmas (Carol Hall); Love is Christmas (Bareilles); Medley: Winter Weather (Shapiro) / I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (Berlin); The Christmas Song (Wells/Torme); Peace (Silver); The White World of Winter (Parish/Carmichael); Little Jack Frost, Get Lost (Stillman/Ellis).

Photo Credit: Melissa Gilstrap

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