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Mary Ellen Desmond: Comfort and Joy 2022 at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany


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Mary Ellen Desmond
Comfort and Joy
Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany
Philadelphia, PA
December 12, 2022

In the course of the years, it has always been a pleasure to hear Mary Ellen Desmond sing, and for the past seventeen of those years, her special seasonal musical offering has been the Comfort and Joy holiday concert which she initiated and for which serves as featured vocalist. 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.

This year, there was a subtly different ambiance to the concert. Rather than ebullience, there was a more reflective and subdued feeling. The stage lighting was dimmed, with a reddish glow on Desmond. For the first time, there was a concession purveying wine and egg nog. Pastor Joseph Williams introduced the band more like a nightclub emcee than a minister. It felt perhaps a little like it might have been in a cabaret during the days of Germany's Weimar Republic, when inflation and political agitators threatened a fragile democracy, as is happening here at home today. But none of this angst diminished the audience's enthusiasm.

Despite or because of the shadowy atmosphere, Desmond and the group delivered another superb evening of holiday-related music, as always, carefully selected and realized in a way that never lost touch with the blues and the signature sound of jazz as it is meant to be played rather than the popular holiday music that unavoidably surrounds us. Desmond sang beautifully, capturing the emotional nuances of every word. Saxophonist McKenna shone with his exquisite sound and improvisations. Pianist Lawton delivered magnificent solos that thrilled the audience. Bassist Smith's perfect timekeeping and rich, full sound enhanced all the music, and Dan Monaghan's drumming swung with litheness and energy. And the musical interactions and ensemble effects were always present. Kudos to these amazing top-of-the-line Philadelphia-based musicians.

Desmond selected songs all of which have been done in previous years. There were the Christmas classics like "Snowed in With You," "I'll Keep You Warm in December," "The White World of Winter," "Little Jack Frost," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." Also included were Bill Evans' "It's Love; It's Christmas," and some lesser-known ballads such as "Winter Oasis," "Love Turns Winter to Spring," "Winter Moon," and "Darlin' Christmas." Among the most moving moments of Desmond's singing occurred in the medleys of "What Child is This /A Child is Born" and Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going/ "River." These songs capture the essence respectively of love and longing.

This year's concert proceeds will be donated to the "Action Wellness" (formerly "Action AIDs") programs, which their director Kevin Burns said began at St. Luke Church. Currently, they are offering expanded services around the city, including not only AIDS but also the epidemic of opiate dependence and a variety of other services.


Mary Ellen Desmond, leader/vocals; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Tom Lawton, piano; Lee Smith, bass; Dan Monaghan, drums.

Set List

Snowed in With You (Detweiler and Berquist); I'll Keep You Warm in December (Bob Russell); It's Love, It's Christmas (Bill Evans); What Child is This /A Child is Born (Trad. Eng. Melody / Thad Jones & Alec Wilder) I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (Berlin); Snowfall / White Christmas (Thornhill /Berlin); Urge for Goin' /River (Joni Mitchell); Love Turns Winter to Spring (Dennis and Killduff); Little Jack Frost (Stillman & Ellis); Winter Moon (Carmichael and Harold Adamson); Winter Oasis (Chris and Aubrey Caswell); The White World of Winter (Parish and Carmichael); Darlin' Christmas is Coming (Detweiler); The Christmas Song (Torme and Robert Wells).

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