Mary Ellen Desmond: Comfort and Joy at St. Luke's Church

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Mary Ellen Desmond
Comfort and Joy
Church of St.Luke and the Epiphany
Philadelphia, PA
December 16, 2018

Mary Ellen Desmond is one of the most treasured Philadelphia-based vocalists, and for the last fifteen years 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 this concert most years since its inception. The holiday music and spirit is all there, but the approach is strictly jazz, and it is performed in a church that not only has fine acoustics but whose congregation and its pastor, Rodger Broadley, are profoundly dedicated to service in the community. The funds 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.

This year, walking down Pine Street in Philly's Washington Square West neighborhood to St. Luke's Church was the epitome of existential misery, with icy rain, wind, cold night air, and deserted streets providing a feeling of gloom. I passed Dirty Frank's Bar with its pictures of Frank Sinatra, Pope Francis, and W.C. Fields on the wall, and could only think of the latter's famous line, "It ain't a fit night out for man nor beast." A woman pushing up against the wind and rain commiserated with me as we walked up the steps of the church. We were the worst possible audience for this concert, and I feared the sanctuary would be deserted. But once I got inside, and felt the warmth, I saw a large crowd excited to hear the music. I breathed a sigh of relief for Desmond and her quartet.

After pastor Rodger Broadley introduced the evening, the instrumentalists warmed up the place further with a holiday standard, which immediately got the blood going thanks to their ability to make every note swing. Desmond came on with standards like "Count Your Blessings," "The Christmas Song," and "It Snowed." By her sensitive singing, interpreting the lyrics like a true jazz artist, she reminded me why I so look forward to attending this annual event: it's so pleasantly different from the run-of-the-mill holiday music you hear in the background in all the stores. And then she did a whole series of great tunes you don't ordinarily associate with Christmas and New Year, like "Better Than Anything," a haunting Hoagy Carmichael tune called "Winter Moon," and a charming version of "Love Turns Winter to Spring."

Returning to the Christmas theme, Desmond crooned "The Secret of Christmas," followed by an intimate Sarah Bareilles song called "Love is Christmas" and a medley of "Let It Snow" and "Snowbound" done with Desmond's panache that reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald knocking off some tunes she knew like the back of her hand. The themes and lyrics got more interesting with songs like "Let's Ditch Christmas," ironically about the holidays being better in a tropical setting, really appropriate for the weather conditions; and Melissa Gilstrap's setting of poetic, personal words to McKenna's "Christmas is Being with You" with the composer taking one of his incomparable tenor sax solos.

Desmond's lyrics for "Philadelphia in December" (based on the song "Manhattan in December" by Ann Hampton Callaway) got the audience nodding in recognition as she ran through the list of local landmarks and hangouts. But the next number, which Desmond has recapped for the past few years, is truly a gem. Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away," is one of the most meaningful ballads I've ever heard. It's a song of spiritual surrender, one of the best crafted songs in the jazz repertoire, subtly combining gospel and ballad flavorings. Desmond concluded with a lesser known Carmichael tune, "The White World of Winter." The audience rose, applauded, and cheered in appreciation for this exceptional group of musicians who knock everyone out regardless of conditions. Brought back by the audience for encores, Desmond deftly interpreted Joni Mitchell's "River," a song from Desmond's album, Darn That Dream (FrontRow Records, 1998), and wrapped things up with a flippantly swung version of "Little Jack Frost Get Lost."

This yearly concert is such a soul-stirring musical trip that it would make even Scrooge smile and put some money in the basket. Scrooge might even spring for a copy of the Comfort and Joy CD (FrontRow, 2013) that celebrates this long-running, incomparble holiday event.

Set List: Medley of Count Your Blessings (Berlin) and The Christmas Song (Wells/Torme; It Snowed (Smith); Better Than Anything (Wheat, lyrics by Desmond); Winter Moon (Carmichael and Adamson); Love Turns Winter to Spring (Kilduff/Dennis); The Secret of Christmas (Cahn/Van Heusen); Love is Christmas (Bareilles); medley of Let It Snow (Cahn/Styne) and Snowbound (Frishberg); Let's Ditch Christmas (Messersmith); Christmas is Being with You (McKenna/Gilstrap); Philadelphia in December (based on the song Manhattan in December by Ann Hampton Callaway; additional lyrics by Desmond); Throw It Away (Lincoln); The White World of Winter (Carmichael/Parish); music by Hoagy Carmichael & words by Mitchell Parish). Encores: River (Mitchell); Little Jack Frost Get Lost Ellis/Stillman.

Personnel: Mary Ellen Desmond: vocals; Larry McKenna: Tenor Saxophone; Tom Lawton: piano; Lee Smith; bass.

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