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Mary Ellen Desmond: Comfort and Joy 2019 at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany

Victor L. Schermer By

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Mary Ellen Desmond
Comfort and Joy
Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany
Philadelphia, PA
December 10, 2019

In the course of my years as a jazz reviewer in Philadelphia, it has always been a pleasure to hear Mary Ellen Desmond sing, and for the past sixteen of those years, her special seasonal musical offering has consisted of the Comfort and Joy holiday concert. This year the tradition continued. Desmond and her exceptional quartet of saxophonist Larry McKenna, pianist Tom Lawton, bassist Lee Smith, 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 as well as the quiet joy that we experience, often alone, during a season when we're expected to be demonstrably happy.

The concert, as always, was held at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany in downtown Philadelphia, an Episcopal church that not only has fine acoustics and architecture but whose congregation and its pastor, Roger Broadley, are profoundly dedicated to service in the community. This year, a bittersweet note was sounded when Desmond announced that Broadley, the church's beloved pastor for over forty years, is retiring in January. As one who lives in the community it serves, although not a member of the congregation, I can attest to Broadley's remarkable record of service that extends well beyond the church. I have witnessed his dedication to the concerns of the LGBTQ community and those afflicted by AIDS, as well as his loving care for anyone who comes his way. A few years ago, when Desmond and I coordinated a well-praised Billie Holiday Memorial Concert at the church, Broadley gave us total support and encouragement, and members of the congregation amiably assisted us every step of the way. Broadley has truly fostered a congregation based on the principle of universal love. I, from another religion, have experienced their palpable care on this and other occasions. The proceeds from the Comfort and Joy 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. Throughout, and as always, she gave McKenna, Lawton, Smith, and Monaghan ample opportunities for extended solos, and if you were not necessarily into holiday music, you could still enjoy their always remarkable soloing and comping.

As is often the case for a vocal set, the instrumentalists came on first, in this case with "By the Fireside." The genuine swinging feeling and brilliant improvising that characterizes this combination of musicians is legendary. Desmond then joined the group for the rest of the concert, beginning with the familiar Loesser/Carmicahel standard, "Two Sleepy People," swung lightly in this case. They then proceeded to some lesser known Christmas songs from the jazz repertoire: "Snowed in With You," done as a bossa nova, a lively version of "Snowbound," and a haunting rendition of "This Time of Year." Then it was back to the standards, with the department store and Musak perennial, "Winter Wonderland." Humor was injected with "Let's Ditch Christmas," with lyrics about preferring a warm beach somewhere to the usual snow, gifts, and Christmas trees.

A musical highlight of the evening was a piano/vocal duet by Desmond and Lawton: the Sara Bareilles ballad, "Love is Christmas" (Desmond is a big fan of Bareilles' compositions). Lawton wove brilliant lines and chord clusters around Desmond's superbly crafted and emotionally expressive interpretations without ever overshadowing her. If you wanted an exemplary illustration of how an instrumentalist and vocalist can work together at their level best, this was it.

At each yearly "Comfort and Joy" concert, Desmond brings in a guest singer to join her. This year, an international note was sounded with Polish vocalist Gosia Julia Maj joining Desmond for an a capella version of another less familiar tune, "Winter Oasis." Maj followed up with a Polish Christmas carol, "Bog Sie Rodzi," She crooned in a soft mellow voice that echoes the singers of the WWII swing bands yet embodies qualities of Polish folk idiom. Poland is rapidly becoming one of the hottest jazz countries in the world and is experiencing a musical renaissance like no other. Maj is one of those bringing their special amalgams of American jazz and the music of Poland to our U.S. jazz clubs and concert halls.

The concert concluded with "You're All I Need for Christmas," done idiosyncratically in waltz time, the Irving Berlin perennial, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and for an encore, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," done in a slow tempo that allowed drummer Monaghan an opportunity for some stunning brush work.

Personnel: Mary Ellen Desmond: vocalist, leader, arranger; Larry McKenna: tenor saxophone; Tom Lawton: piano; Lee Smith: acoustic bass; Dan Monaghan: drums; Gosia Julia Maj: guest vocalist.

Set List: By the Fireside; Two Sleepy People; Snowed in with You; "\Snowbound; This Time of Year; Winter Wonderland; Let's Ditch Christmas; Love is Christmas; Winter Oasis; Bog Sie Rodzi (Polish Christmas Carol); You're All I Need for Christmas; I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Photo Credit: Victor L. Schermer (c. 2016)

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