A Swingin’ Holiday Spectacular
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas or “holiday” shows, especially those featuring big band music. While I appreciate the work of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Count Basie, it’s never been my favorite style of jazz. This show was the sort my parents would love – don’t get me wrong, my parents are both New Yorkers with a decent appreciation for jazz and blues (my father is a lifelong “piano bar jazz” keyboardist), but they lean more toward popular holiday standards like those of the old CBS Records Christmas albums we had around the house when I was a kid: Andy Williams, Perry Como, Mel Torme, Barbara Streisand and Robert Goulet. Again, all great artists but not quite my taste, which runs closer to Horace Silver, Coltrane and Miles, none of which had a style suited for a mainstream holiday show. Besides, it takes me a while to get into the spirit of the season anyway.
My holiday issues aside, Joe Gransden’s 16-piece big band was impressive from the start, and what began as a Vegas-style show of trips down the previous generation’s memory lane (I was tempted more than once to duck out to the lobby and play the slots or hit the buffet, neither of which exist at this theater, thankfully) evolved into a spectacular display of very well-rounded, talented, working musicians. Really, these guys had some bona fide chops.
Old chestnuts like “We Need A Little Christmas,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” kicked off the first set straight down the middle of the road. Joe Gransden, on trumpet and vocals, was a fitting bandleader with silky smooth vocals and movie-star good looks. The band seemed to loosen things up a bit with a Dixieland jazz version of “Jingle Bells,” featuring Don Erdman on clarinet. (Erdman leads the Hotlanta Dixieland Jazz Band formed in Atlanta in 1990.)
Not until 30 minutes in did things begin to get much more soulful with the appearance of local blues legend and recent Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee Francine Reed. Able to hold her own with the likes of Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, and Dinah Washington, Reed hit the crowd with a shot of blues on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” and then the deeply soulful “It’s Almost Christmas Day.” Taking nothing away from Gransden’s stellar lineup, Reed was clearly the night’s huge draw, and it was disappointing that after only one other number “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, a duet with Gransden, she left the stage, promising to return for the second half.
All was not lost, as the band launched into a raucous version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, led by the band’s arranger and trombonist Wes Funderburk, featuring stirring solos from nearly all of the sax and horns sections, including Georgia State University School of Music faculty members Dr. Gordon Vernick (trumpet) and Dr. Geoff Haydon (piano).
After intermission, Gransden and Mace Hibbard (alto sax) appeared from the back of the theater blowing dueling improv solos across the aisles. They made their way toward the stage with Hibbard the clear winner with complex riffs worthy of Coltrane, transitioning into “Linus and Lucy” from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas album – an odd but original way to open the second half, which also included another Funderburk arrangement of “White Christmas” involving the entire sax section in the style of Med Flory’s Supersax group of the ‘70s. Very impressive. Reed reappeared for another disappointingly short set, but one that included the bluesy/foodie favorite “Grandma’s Cookin’ Christmas”, and a heart-wrenching version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
Judging by the audience response, Reed was indeed the show’s highlight, her GA Music Hall of Fame status well-earned. Early in her career she opened for Miles Davis, Etta James, and Smokey Robinson before joining Lyle Lovett as a backup singer and then performing duets with Lovett. She’s also recorded with Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson, and Roy Orbison. I first heard Reed at Atlanta’s inaugural Music Midtown festival back in 1993, and was immediately taken with her soulful blend of blues and jazz. I just wish she’d been featured more on this night in Duluth. Actually, the night mirrored my own holiday attitude: slow to get into the spirit, moments of intense and pure emotion at the apex, with a touch of melancholy at its end.