Tuesday, December 13, 2022

A jazzed winter wonderland

Saxophonist and singer Valerie Gillespie added a full holiday twist to the Charlotte County Jazz Society's concert season on Monday, December 12 in Punta Gorda FL. She and her talented sextet from the Tampa Bay area coursed through 15 winter- or Christmas-themed musical chestnuts before closing with a brief salute to another holiday. 

Valerie Gillespie
There was a wide variety to the music, performed with both cohesiveness and strong solos. Her band included trumpeter James Suggs and three new faces on the CCJS stage: pianist Jody Marsh, bassist Steve Boisen and drummer Dave Rudolph. 

The leader shifted between alto and soprano saxes and flute, plus vocals on two-thirds of the material. Suggs added beautiful horn solos and fills behind Gillespie's vocals all night long. 

Gillespie has been a familiar face on the CCJS stage in other musicians' bands, but this was her first appearance as a bandleader and singer.

Gillespie said the evening would include "traditional tunes performed in a non-traditional way," an apt description for the rhythmic choices and extended instrumental solos that enhanced them.

Valerie Gillespie
"Angels Heard on High" and "Winter Wonderland" preceded two classic Vince Guaraldi tunes from television's A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Skating" was presented in a friskier arrangement than the evocative original, while "Christmas Time is Here" was more traditional, with Gillespie's vocals beautifully locked into its nostalgic message. She has a charming, no-frills and trills vocal delivery - and a natural sense of timing and off-the-beat phrasing.

Three standout vocal gems this night included material not often heard in jazz settings: "Mary Did You Know?," the Carpenters' hit "Merry Christmas Darling," which featured a poignant solo from Suggs, and "It Can't Be Christmas Without You." The latter romantic ballad has all of the qualities needed to become a true holiday standard. Gillespie's big brother, Chuck Brand, wrote this title track on her Christmas CD. Her cover of "Mary Did You Know?" was particularly powerful, with Gillespie noting that the lyrics speak directly to "the reason for the season." Mark Lowry and Buddy Green wrote this gem in 1984. It was a huge hit for the young a capella group Pentatonix 30 years later.

James Suggs
Other selections included "The Christmas Waltz," first popularized by Frank Sinatra, featuring the leader on vocals and alto sax, a Latin-tinged take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "Little Drummer Boy" (a natural feature for Rudolph's percussion mastery). Also, "Let It Snow," a frisky cover of the 1954 Eartha Kitt hit "Santa Baby" (with Suggs' growling trumpet complementing the vocals), and Mel Torme's classic "The Christmas Song."

Jody Marsh
If food and beverage had been allowed, chestnuts roasting on an open fire would have been a popular item. The audience started out at nearly 200, but dropped off in size by intermission. Credit that to a very chilly - and unadjustable - room temperature at the Charlotte Performing Arts Center. Hot chocolate, anyone?

The evening wound down with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," spotlighting Marsh's piano artistry on CPAC's Steinway; a salsa-fied take on "Feliz Navidad," with Gillespie shifting to flute; and a brief romp through "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

While past December bands usually played a few holiday tunes, this was the first CCJS concert that featured them for the entire program. That made this night even more special for hardy listeners.

The Charlotte High School jazz ensemble performed a fine and varied pre-concert set.

Marsh, Gillespie, Boisen, Suggs, Rudolph

Charlotte High School Jazz Ensemble

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