Mary Ellen Desmond
Comfort and Joy: Virtual Stream
Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany
December 13, 2020
In the course of two decades as a jazz reviewer in Philadelphia, it has often been my pleasure to hear Mary Ellen Desmond sing, and for the past seventeen of those years, in addition to her club dates and recordings, her special seasonal musical offering has consisted of the Comfort and Joy holiday concert which she initiated and for which she serves as featured vocalist. This year the tradition continued, but, as we would expect in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it was done as a recorded internet stream from a side room in the church, with a video recorded a few days beforehand and on view Sunday December 13th at 6pm, the time it would have been done live. And it was available for an indefinite period afterwards, so you can check to see if you can still watch it at https://www.vimeo.com/maryellendesmond
Surprisingly, the show was introduced by none other than the Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet- Seguin! It's possible the town will soon be buzzing about his connection to St. Luke's Church, a block away from the Kimmel Center. For now, it's anybody's guess what led him to devote his special attention to the concert.
Because of the pandemic restrictions, the show not only couldn't have a live audience, it also had to be scaled down from the regular backup quartet to just Tom Lawton
on piano and Lee Smith
on bass, with saxophonist Larry McKenna
and drummer Dan Monaghan
sitting this one out. And instead of the church sanctuary, they used an adjacent space which had some suggestion of the work of the renowned architect Frank Furness as well as excellent acoustics. In this trimmed down situation and setting, the feeling was more intimate, and the group shone like a glowing fire in the midst of the pandemic's troubling darkness.
The show was put together with consummate perfection. Thanks to Jason Fifield of Slife Productions
, the sound and video were clear and vivid. The band held back just slightly in the rhythm, so you could hear the nuances of the superb improvising by Lawton and Smith. Desmond sang beautifully and was an amicable yet disciplined emcee and band leader. All the songs related to the holiday season, but they were delivered with the finesse that true jazz artists bring with them. Desmond always includes jazz standards along with seasonal fare, and she acknowledges the loneliness and rapture that is implied in the holidays, not just the fun and frolic, though she brings in ample amounts of the latter as well. So in this event, we heard standards like "I Concentrate on You," seasonal fare like "Sleigh Ride," songs acknowledging loneliness, like "Love is Christmas," the rapture of "A Child is Born," and fun, like "Better than Anything."
For those who love to listen to the nuances of jazz improvising, there were two fast-paced interpretations featuring solos by pianist Lawton and bassist Smith that were filled with interesting shuffles of the melodic decks: "Sleighride" and the concluding tune, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." For folks who love expression of poetic feeling, there were the medley of "What Child is This?" and "A Child is Born" and Sara Bareilles' tender "Love is Christmas." Always the focus was on the music and the messages it conveys, not the usual superficial holiday blasts .
As I listened to the performance, I thought of the pandemic, and I found myself drawing a parallel between our situation and the people in England, the U.S., and the war fronts tuning into the big bands and singers of the "greatest generation" era during World War II, finding solace, hope, and even joy in the midst of danger and suffering. For many of us, these Comfort and Joy Concerts give Mary Ellen Desmond a special place among Philadelphia's great vocalists as someone who every year reminds us of what's really important about this season: our common humanity.
Set List: I Concentrate on You (Porter); What Child is This? (traditional)/ A Child is Born (Thad Jones / Wilder) (medley); This Time of Year (Cerveny); Snowfall (C. Thornhill / R. Thornhill) / White Christmas (Berlin) (medley); Better than Anything (Davis/ Desmond); Love is Christmas (Bareilles); Sleigh Ride (Parish / Anderson); Bringing in a Brand New Year (Brown); I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (Berlin).
Personnel: Mary Ellen Desmond: vocalist; leader; Tom Lawton: piano; Lee Smith: bass.
Photo Credit: Catherine Hennessy