Concert Review: The Andersons Play “A Jazzy Christmas”

December 26, 2021 | By | Add a Comment

Peter and Will Anderson (Photo: Lynn Redmile)

Ace clarinet and saxophone players, with clean-cut, boy-next-door good looks and winsome, twinkly-eyed personalities, brothers Peter and Will Anderson brought an infectious Yuletide spirit to the  Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre at Symphony Space with their diverting program of jazz arrangements of Christmas music—not the traditional, religious-themed carols, but rather those secular holiday-season songs one never tires of hearing this time of year.  Flawed in only two respects, one major and one minor, their enjoyable show, The Andersons Play a Jazzy Christmas, situated the duo’s top-drawer woodwind playing amid contributions from irritating guest vocalist Molly Ryan and an exciting piano-bass-and-drums trio, with drummer Chuck Redd doubling on vibraphone.   

After opening with a racing rendition of “Jingle Bells” (James Pierpont) that had us pulsing in our seats—its invigorating rhythms impossible to just sit still and listen to—the combo launched into “Sugar Rum Cherry,” a jolly Billy Strayhorn take on the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet score.  Or in this case, the Sugar Plum Ferry.  In lieu of a printed program, the titles and creative credits for each musical selection were projected on a large screen stage-left, and while misspellings are sometimes easily forgiven, the abundance of such errors appearing on these projections left a minor scar on the overall proceedings. 

Before moving into the next portion of the show— in which Ryan sings along with the band in toe-tapping arrangements of the chestnuts “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (Irving Berlin), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane), and “Sleigh Ride” (Leroy Anderson)—narrator Will Anderson amusingly proffered bits of background information about the music.  He started by explaining that what they are doing in this show is jazzifying Christmas music.  Insisting that “to jazzify” is, indeed, a technical term, he served up a definition of jazz put forth by baseball-playing humorist Yogi Berra as evidence and further clarification of his claim.  As the evening progressed, his dry, deliberate delivery of these commentaries— sometimes supplemented by comic film clips—made for winning transitions between numbers.  

Far less pleasing, however, was Ryan’s performance. Possessed of a breathtakingly pretty voice, Ryan performs with a casualness that proves irksome both musically and theatrically.  She runs out of steam at the end of every phrase, such that the last few words or syllables are intoned so softly as to be lost to the ear.  And her relaxed, slurring approach to diction muddies the words.  A self-conscious performer, Ryan never seems to lose herself in the music, and makes choices regarding accents, dynamics, and emphasis that feel unrelated to the meaning of the lyrics.  But most egregious were her distracting body movements and behaviors that stole focus from her fellow performers during their instrumental solos.  Rather than standing still and looking at the soloist, she often seemed to be engaged in some sort of private communication with audience members seated down front.  At other times, she would lean over to one of the band members and strike up a conversation.  At one point, I could actually hear her talking over the music.  

Photo: Lynn Redmile

With accessible arrangements by Peter Anderson, and full of references to the pop culture of our childhood and the swinging musical styles beloved by our parents’ generation, this merry show feels designed to delight Baby Boomers.  The centerpiece of the evening—featuring some gorgeous piano playing by Dalton Ridenhour—is an extended segment (sans Ryan) of selections from Vince Guaraldi’s haunting jazz score for the 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas. 

In the final section of the show, Ridenhour again shines in a quiet solo within a contemplative interpretation of “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin), Redd captivates in a long vibraphone passage in “The Christmas Song” (Robert Wells/Mel Tormé), and the interplay between the two performers, supported by bassist Neal Miner, is exquisite in a jazzy performance of “O, Christmas Tree” (Melchior Franck).  But electrifying every number—with both siblings alternating between playing both sax and clarinet superbly—were the real stars of the show, its guiding lights, the magnificent Andersons. 

***     

Presented at Symphony Space, December 18, 2021.

 

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Lisa Jo Sagolla is the author of "The Girl Who Fell Down: A Biography of Joan McCracken" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll Dances of the 1950s". A choreographer, critic, and historian, she has written for Back Stage, American Theatre, Film Journal International, and numerous other popular publications, encyclopedias, and scholarly journals. An adjunct professor at Columbia University and Rutgers, she is currently researching a book on the influence of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County on America’s musical theatre.

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