’Comfort & Joy’ Celebrates 10 Years With a CD

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 12, 2013

The yuletide jazz concert "Comfort and Joy" is the annual fundraiser for AIDS awareness at St. Luke and the Epiphany in the heart of Philly's gay district. It was originated by jazz vocalist Mary Ellen Desmond and her great band of some of the finest jazz musicians in town (Larry McKenna on tenor sax, Dan Monaghan on drums, Lee Smith on bass and Tom Lawton on piano).

This year the ensemble marks the event's ten-year anniversary with the launch of the CD and digital download version of "Comfort & Joy," which the group recorded in August at WRTI radio studios in Philly.

The proceeds of the concert benefit the St. Luke's Hospitality Center, as well as a portion of the CD sales.

Over coffee at The Last Drop cafť near St. Luke's a week before the concert, Desmond talked about the music and how vital AIDS awareness still is. "The advances in treatment and services for HIV/AIDS have been incredible, but it's not the whole picture. Not everyone, everywhere has access to everything that's been developing in terms of treatment and care (such as) people in lesser circumstances than those in Center City Philadelphia. That's not to say that the St. Luke's Hospitality Center doesn't have purpose here.

Serving the community

"The organization," she continued, "is in fact reassessed on how they can better serve the community locally, but also to function more as an umbrella entity. A couple of years ago we split the proceeds of the concert with an AIDS organization in South Africa, for instance, that was an example of the outreach to hot spots in the world that need the most help."

The Center is a service outreach organization for people affected by HIV/AIDS. Desmond, who performs regularly at jazz venues, has been a strong advocate with various projects connected to the LGBTQ community.

For the CD, Desmond chose all of jazz and blues style seasonal songs, from the decade of performing with these musicians in the concert. "We wanted to introduce people to songs that they might not be familiar with. I want it to be fun, but at times quiet and give listeners an opportunity to be reflective," she said.

"It's a good variety, and represents what the season is about. Even though holidays can be great fun, it's just as important to remember that not everyone is having such an easy time. It's not always happy. It's not always jingle bells for everyone," she reiterated.

Emphasis on the seasonal

Among the more reflective tunes are Abbey Lincoln's jazz art song "Throw it Away;" the yearning ballad, "You Must Believe in Spring;" and the torchy song 'Wintertime' (about all those icy pillow nights spent alone after a break-up). Desmond's version of Joni Mitchell's haunting classic 'River' features a sumptuous piano-vocal arrangement.

"I wanted this to have an emphasis on seasonal, rather than specific holidays, which I've always tried to do with the concert. Quite a few songs on here are just about winter, but there is enough standard holiday material in there, but I tried to push the envelope," she said.

For the straight-on holiday fare, there are jazzed versions of "Winter Wonderland" and "I Got My Love To Keep Me Warm;" some bosa nova flavors on "White Christmas;" or the smoky vamp on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" One of Desmond's favorites, "Snowed in with You," features a smoldering sax line by McKenna. On "Happy Holidays/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," there's a silvery vocal by Desmond and a hot instrumental by Lawton and McKenna.

Desmond said that she worked closely with Lawton on many of the arrangements. "He's always been my unofficial music director, especially on the newer material; but he'll tell you that this is a very collaborative effort. We've all been doing it for ten years and we finally got into the studio, I had very clear plan and roadmaps for the musicians."

They recorded the tracks in two six-hour sessions, but were able to capture a live concert atmosphere in the recording.

"It is very significant to me that it's the tenth year. It has become a tradition for many people in the community to support the cause and enjoy the music."

The "Comfort and Joy" concert is on Sunday, December 15 at 6PM, tickets $20 / 10, at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany, 330 South 13th Street, Philadelphia PA | 215-732-1918
For downloadable samples of the disc click http://cdbaby.com/cd/maryellendesmond

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.