Ding-dong! Now who could that be?
With a casual mix of Michigan State University’s top-drawer classical vocalists, New York jazz singer Marion Cowings and the MSU Professors of Jazz, this year’s “Jazzy Little Christmas” harks back to radio and TV specials of yore.
You know the formula. A star like Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland would open the door and welcome an “unexpected guest” to the crackling fire, where they would brush the fake snow off their shoulders and break into song.
Rodney Whitaker, head of MSU’s Jazz Studies and organizer of the concert, misses the eclectic musical spirit of those old network specials where pop, classical, country and jazz musicians met on the common ground of holiday classics.
“I love that clip from the 1970s with Bing Crosby singing with David Bowie,” Whitaker said. “People don’t get exposed to the artistry of what America has to offer on TV anymore.”
A lot of the fun at this year’s MSU concert will come from seeing MSU’s classical vocal faculty members loosen up and jam with the Professors.
Tenor Richard Fracker, a frequent Metropolitan Opera singer, will park the Puccini and sing “Silver Bells” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” Soprano Melanie Helton will ditch the Verdi and Wagner to vamp through “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and warble the exquisite Italian carol “Gesu Bambino.”
Also on the slate are baritone Peter Lightfoot, MSU’s newest voice faculty member, and soprano Molly Fillmore, who is doubtless ready to party after her debut last month at the Met in Philip Glass’ solemn “Satyagraha.”
A surprise guest — my goodness, who can that be? — is hard-swinging New York jazz vocalist Marion Cowings, a protg of the great lyricist and scat-singer Jon Hendricks.
“He can do anything I can do,” Hendricks told Charlie Rose on Rose’s show. Leading jazz critic Ira Gitler wrote that Cowings sings with “the perfect combination of sadness and hope.”
Whitaker connected with Cowings last summer while teaching at a summer program at the University of Massachusetts, where Cowings in on the staff. He was so impressed that he approached Cowings and asked him to come to MSU. (It’s usually the other way around; most singers beg Whitaker for gigs.) Cowings will return in the spring for a teaching workshop.
The full slate of singers, including Whitaker’s daughter, Rochelle, will be backed by the dream house band of Whitaker on bass, Michael Dease on trombone, Diego Rivera on saxophone, Etienne Charles on trumpet and Randy Gelispie on drums. Detroit pianist Mike Jellick will sit in on piano. Whitaker also promised an opening and closing jam featuring the Professors.
When it’s over, Whitaker will be ready for a real family shindig on Christmas, with feasting and cards until the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s that time for the fuzzy feeling and getting together,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
Whitaker enjoys champagne and orange juice with his three grown kids, but Christmas doesn’t rally start until somebody pops “A Charlie Brown Christmas” into the DVD player.
“That show put jazz in the psyche of most American folks,” Whitaker said.
In between, there are ritual viewings of two family dramas: “The Family Stone” (about the travails of a white family) and “This Christmas” (about the travails of a black family).
And it’s not over until another family drama, “The Godfather” epic, has run its course. After all, the Tattaglia family hit Vito Corleone during the holidays, right? Gesu bambino!
It’s not always a good idea to answer the door on Christmas.
Seasonal favorites from Rodney Whitaker, bassist, head of MSU Jazz Studies:
“Three Suites,” including the “Nutcracker Suite” by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn — “That one has to be my favorite. Duke Ellington took those beautiful melodies and made them his own.”
“Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues” (Charles Brown is a classic blues singer, definitely not to be confused with Charlie Brown) — “My parents used to burn that up at Christmastime. That’s all they played 24-7.”
“Motown Christmas” — “The Temptations, Michael Jackson — It’s not Christmas until I hear those.”
Holiday picks from Etienne Charles, trumpeter:
“Oscar Peterson Christmas” — “One of the first records I heard combining OP with an orchestra – (trumpeter) Jack Schantz is great too.”
Panazz Players – “Wrap it Up” — “A great steel pan group from Trinidad playing Christmas classics with a choir and one of my mentors, Arturo Tappin, on saxophone.”
Wynton Marsalis – “Christmas Jazz Jam” — “This record swings from top to bottom. You’ll be singing along for sure.”