Jazz

The Winter Warmer at Burlington County Footlighters

In the movie The Return of Spinal Tap, Paul Schaffer’s character observed: “It’s funny how the business does a thing.” I still recall DJ Hedgepath’s breathtaking rendition of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Collingswood Community Theatre. I also remember Cynthia Reynolds’ superb performance as the lead in Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters this past May. This December 14th I attended a show in which they both sang Christmas songs. To quote the late Sammy Davis, Jr.: “Only in this business.”

All kidding aside, South Jersey features immense talent that performs at local community theatre shows. With so many gifted performers sharing the stage, the skill of individual players can get overlooked. I’ve wondered what it would be like to listen to some of them just standing in front of a microphone and singing. I found out at the Burlington County Footlighters Winter Warmer.

The program featured local community theatre actors singing Christmas songs. The organizers bracketed the performance with some stellar Jazz performances. The evening opened with music by The Mike Parisi Trio featuring Ryan Smith on piano, Mike Parisi on bass and Evan Smith on saxophone. They warmed up the audience by playing jazz versions of Christmas carols. A supreme performance by Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show concluded the evening’s festivities. John Romano emceed.

The show featured some deeply moving versions of Christmas classics. Jerrod Ganesh delivered emotional renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Mary, Did You Know?” Shaina Egan performed a stirring version of “O, Holy Night” accompanied by Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. on harmony vocals. Mother and daughter team Carla and Angel Ezell teamed up for the soulful “Miss You Most at Christmas Time.”

The latter tune affected me personally. For Rhythm and Blues fans, Christmas time always brings a tinge of sadness. We lost two legends of the genre during the Holiday Season. James Brown passed away on Christmas Day on 2006 and Curtis Mayfield left us on Boxing Day 1999. While their talent can never be replaced, the performances turned in by singers such as DJ. Hedgepath, Mr. Thompson and Ms. Ezell showed that the spirit of their music has continued into the next generation.

The show featured a range of styles in the song selection. It included several upbeat numbers. Stephen Jackson applied his charming vocal stylings to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.” In a radical departure from the dirge-like minor key melodies of Carrie, Cynthia Reynolds delivered the popular Holiday staple “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” just as brilliantly.

What Christmas show would be complete without a little romance to spice up the Holiday Season? Ms. Reynolds performed the affectionate “Merry Christmas, Darling.” Emily Huddell geared up the audience for the next Holiday with the inviting “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

The event included an original take on a seasonal classic. Alex Davis sang a cheery version of “White Christmas.” At the end of the song, Ms. Davis interpolated the somber mood of the original. It rounded out this unique rendition nicely.

You know it’s a good show when even the intermission includes outstanding music. During the break, The Mike Parisi Trio took the stage. They performed an instrumental version of “The Christmas Song” that would’ve impressed both Nat King Cole and Bill Evans.

America’s original art form made its way into the regular program, as well. Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. delivered a high energy rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

During his performance of “This Christmas”, DJ Hedgepath informed the audience: “This is a very special Christmas for me.” It was just as special for his fans. Mr. Hedgepath treated them to the Holiday favorite “Jingle Bells.” He brought the audience into the show with “This Christmas.” When the music started he told them that he expected to hear “foot tapping” and “hand clapping.” A lot of the former occurred while he performed and even more of the latter took place when he concluded.

Following the individual performances, saxophonist Stephen Mitnaul and the Smooth Show took the stage. They opened their set by backing-up Darryl S. Thompson, Jr as he performed a moving rendition of “Christmastime is Here.” They then treated the audience Mr. Mitnaul’s unique blend of jazz, gospel, funk and soul/R&B.

The band’s sound reminded me of Miles Davis’ when he experimented with Jazz Fusion. That seemed appropriate. Mr. Mitnaul’s style contains the soul of Miles Davis with the chops of John Coltrane.

Like Miles Davis, Mr. Mitnaul has an ear for talent. He surrounded himself with a group of stellar musicians. The Smooth Show included Hasan Govan on bass, Jared Alston on keyboards and Clayton Carothers on drums.

Mr. Mitnaul informed the audience that the band didn’t realize they were playing a Christmas show. They didn’t know many Christmas songs, but could try and include a few in the set.

This seemed a little cliché to me. Did I just hear a jazz musician suggest he might be able to improvise? Isn’t ‘the ability to improvise’ the number one task listed on a jazz musician’s job description?

Mr. Mitnaul and the Smooth Show proceeded to prove themselves worthy of the title: jazz musicians. They worked some Holiday tunes into their set; concluding with an awesome rendition of “This Christmas.”

All the musicians demonstrated remarkable soloing ability. Special credit must go to Clayton Carothers. Mr. Carothers played one of the most outstanding drum solos I’ve ever heard: and I’m an Art Blakey fan who’s attended several Rush concerts. Even more remarkable, his kit consisted of just the basics: a snare drum, a floor tom, a tom, a high-hat and some cymbals. All you drummers who need to be air-lifted into your sets please take note.

The band showed that this wasn’t just a job to them. They genuinely enjoyed playing this gig. Its members often smiled at each other throughout the evening. So did their audience.

Christmas only comes once a year. Unfortunately, so does Burlington County Footlighters’ Winter Warmer. During the show Darryl Thompson, Jr. announced that the company planned to make this a regular annual event. Now I know what to ask Santa to bring me next Christmas: a ticket to the 2019 Winter Warmer.

 

 

 

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Victor Talking Machine Company: South Jersey’s Motown

Our friends in Cleveland, the home of “the heart of rock and roll”, owe the South Jersey area a great debt of gratitude. It turns out that without Camden, New Jersey’s contribution to the music industry that pulse would’ve flat lined a long time ago. According to Victor Talking Machine Company CEO, Graham Alexander, former Moorestown, New Jersey resident Eldridge Johnson and his business partner Emile Berliner gave birth to the modern record industry when they founded the company he now runs. Mr. Alexander referred to these two pioneers as the “Lennon and McCartney of the music industry” in a speech he delivered to the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 7th.

Camden native Mr. Alexander is well suited to his role as a music industry executive. With his black sport jacket, gray company logo shirt and boots, he looks the part. His bushy black hair and vocal inflections bring to mind Sir Paul McCartney. That’s not surprising. He played Sir Paul in a Broadway production of Rain prior to becoming an entrepreneur. Physical appearances aside, his intense passion for what he does truly makes Mr. Alexander fit the multiple roles he plays as a business owner, historian and performer.

Mr. Alexander acquired the Victor name during a brand auction he attended while living in New York City. Since he hailed from the South Jersey area he wanted to return. When the opportunity to purchase a piece of its rich musical legacy and bring it back with him presented itself, he did so. In addition to the Victor Talking Machine Company, he also acquired the rights to the Victrola, His Master’s Voice and Camden Records (Little Richard’s original label) brands.

The promotional film for Mr. Alexander’s song “Games” opens with an aerial view from an antique clip of one of the old Camden Victor buildings. The voice over describes “a treasure house of music” where one “gets to see a record made.” Then a sound engineer cues an orchestra. A black and white clip of the ensemble morphs into Mr. Alexander’s 2015 band playing a soulful ballad. This is an excellent metaphor of how he is developing both the old and the new at the Victor Talking Machine Company.

It’s not entirely fair to call Camden “South Jersey’s Motown”. The Victor Talking Machine Company’s talent roster would’ve made Berry Gordy envious. Imagine having the likes of Enrico Caruso, Billie Holliday and Big Bill Broonzy among the label’s artists. Now add to that list Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Include Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, two of the most influential Jazz guitarists who ever lived. Woody Guthrie along with blues legend Lead Belly both recorded their first albums for Victor. (This is only a partial list of the company’s artists, by the way.) Most people don’t realize that these monumental talents recorded in Camden because as Mr. Alexander wittily observed, Victor “got rid of their good musicians before they really got good.”

Music aficionados like me salivate at the thought of listening to the master recordings of these sessions; especially for the great blues men who influenced the British Invasion. (It’s just a shame it took English musicians to introduce Americans to our music.) Unfortunately, many of Victor’s master recordings were lost in the 1960s. Due to an expansion of Camden’s docks an estimated 300,000 ended up at the bottom of the Delaware River. Thanks to the aid of RCA’s European affiliates* and donations from relatives of former Victor employees, the company is recovering some of these “lost” recordings. (* RCA purchased Victor in 1929.)

During his speech Mr. Alexander passed around a visual aid of a metal master recording. Record companies used these silver colored discs the size of a modern record until 1948. The manufacturer would press them into vinyl to make a record. During its prime Victor produced approximately 800,000 vinyl records a day. Mr. Alexander archly explained that it took “Mr. Edison’s company” a month to a month-and-a-half to produce that many.

The highlight of the evening came when Mr. Alexander played an unreleased recording from the Victor archives. It featured my favorite classical composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” unaccompanied on the piano. When it concluded, he told the Historical Society of Moorestown that we were the first people outside the company to hear it. Ironically, Rachmaninoff didn’t like the recording. That’s why Victor never released it. “Still, you don’t hear music like that anymore,” Mr. Alexander observed. (For those who are unfamiliar with the artist: imagine a Russian born Keith Emerson; only a much better piano player.)

The Victor Talking Machine Company is currently headquartered at The Vault ™ in Berlin, NJ. Its brochure describes it as “a unique entertainment and educational experience venue.” In addition to housing early recordings of diverse artists ranging from Jimmy Rogers to Duke Ellington, it also contains historic recordings of Presidential speeches, military battles as well as antique comedy performances.

Thanks to the innovations of its visionary founder, Eldridge Johnson, the company has quite a legacy. Under his leadership Victor revolutionized the music industry. It shared the original record patent with Columbia. Johnson understood that records would become the home entertainment industry. He possessed the acumen to recognize Victor wasn’t selling records: they were selling “works of art”, in Mr. Alexander’s words. Hence the addition of liner notes, album art and artist stories to the package.

So what’s next for Victor? Mr. Alexander said that they’re “not putting the company’s legacy behind glass.” His goal is to, “Make a viable company for today without trampling over its history.” Because of that history, it’s wrong to call Victor South Jersey’s Motown. It would be more appropriate to call Motown Michigan’s Victor. Eat your heart of rock and roll out, Cleveland!