By Don Heckman
Christmas caroling was a regular seasonal activity in my young life. Growing up in an Eastern Pennsylvania rust belt city, singing carols while slip-sliding our way across icy sidewalks was as necessary to the holiday as going to Mass on Christmas eve. In a way, it was an equally necessary counter to the darker side of what we’d done on Halloween, when enacting tricks was a lot more common than asking for treats.
All of which went through my mind last night when Faith and I took our lovely ten year old granddaughter, Maia, to the Victorian Mansion for “Candlelight Carols” by Judy Wolman, Howard Lewis and “Sing! Sing! Sing!” And one couldn’t have asked for a more delightfully atmospheric setting to join in a holiday music singalong than the elegant wood-paneled room that jazz fans will recall as the former site of the much-missed jazz club, “The Vic.”
At the beginning, Wolman reminded me that she, Lewis and their group of singers had been doing these holiday celebrations for 20 years. Not only that, of course, but also their continuing programs of participatory jaunts through the rich musical landscape of the Great American Songbook. (Programs devoted to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and others are already scheduled for 2012.)
The “Candlelight Carols” program characteristically reached out to embrace the Songbook – with selections from Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — as well as a collection of traditional carols. And the format was as comfortable and inviting as a holiday evening in a close friend’s living room.
Lewis introduced each number with some fascinating background, often including nuggets of insight into the song, as well as its creators. Then Wolman — a superb piano accompanist, backed by Chris Conner’s bass, Dick Weller’s drums and some warm melody-making from harmonica player Ron Kalina – led the way into the song.
The audience, using lyric sheets provided by Wolman, sang along enthusiastically, sometimes even more than that. And our granddaughter, Maia, not especially familiar with all the standards, nonetheless applied her already burgeoning musicality to every song, singing, smiling, enjoying every minute of this engaging new experience.
And what a collection of songs it was: “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “My Favorite Things,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” As well as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel” and much, much more.
Between the singalong segments, individual singers from the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocal ensemble – Chuck Marso, Anita Royal, Jackie Manfredi and Ruth Davis – soloed. And songwriter Jim Mann presented a brand new Christmas song, “Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!”
The sidewalks weren’t icy, and there was no snow in the forecast as we left the Victorian. But the wind was blowing, and, as we walked hand in hand to our car, the words to one of the evening’s songs – with their perfect holiday sentiments — kept coming to mind.
“The wind is blowing
But I can weather the storm
What do I care how much it may storm?
I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”