SInger Mary Ellen Desmond: The Most Refreshing Sound in Jazz

Philadelphia-based singer has a fresh, pure and individual approach to jazz

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Bruce Klauber

Mary Ellen Desmond

The last time I heard Mary Ellen Desmond sing was around 15 years ago, when she sat in at the 23rd Street Café’s open jam session in Philadelphia. Everyone who heard her knew she was something special, and was headed for, as they used to say, “big things.”

Deservedly, Desmond is one of the busiest singers in the tri-state area. And in the 15 years since I’ve heard her, she’s evolved into a mature, individual, confident, sincere, professional, musical and swinging stylist who is simply a joy to hear. Sure, she was good years back. Today, she’s great, and if I owned a record company, I’d sign her up. Right now.

Desmond recently appeared at center city Philadelphia’s Tavern17, the first of several bookings she has at that spot, where she was backed by pianist Tom Lawton and bassist Lee Smith. Her vocal “attitude,” if you will, is reminiscent of a young Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain, late period Doris Day and—God love her, wherever she is—Joanie Sommers. Still, she sounds like no one but herself.

Her voice is sweet, clear and pure, with a deceptively wide range and attractive vibrato, superior intonation and enunciation, totally devoid of “jazzy” licks and cliché’s. There’s a long-lost attitude at work here as well: the sound of hope, the sound of optimism and, if you’ll pardon the imagery, the sound of a sunny day.

While she prefers to let a good deal of the lyrics and written melodies speak for themselves, she does improvise tastefully and subtly. No, she’s not scatting ala Ella—few can—but chooses to make understated variations on the melody and shifts the phrasing of same when it makes, shall we say, “swinging sense.”

The repertoire she’s chosen is ideal for her and include American songbook classics like “Skylark,” “I Concentrate on You,” “Skylark,” “Makin’ Whoopee” (sung to a soon bride-to-be in the audience) and “The Nearness of You,” recast as a jaunty swinger.

Desmond’s professionalism is admirable and, in these parts, somewhat rare. Her set is tight but not stiff. There are no uncomfortable, audience-losing lulls between songs or casting about for keys or lyric sheets. She announces the songs and the composers and welcomes her audience clearly and kindly. The audiences instinctively know they’re hearing a pro and respond appropriately.

Like her singing, this is utterly refreshing.

Pianist Tom Lawton and bassist Lee Smith are—and I don’t know any other way to put it—monsters. When I first heard Lawton many seasons back, the influence of one of his mentors and teachers, Bernard Peiffer, was evident. Today, I’m hearing reflections of a whole host of players, including Red Garland and Oscar Peterson, but mostly Tom Lawton. Technically and as a soloist, there’s nothing he can’t do. As an accompanist, he knows when to hold back and not “lose” the tune, no matter how far out he may get.

Bassist Lee Smith has a sound on acoustic bass that can fill a stadium. It’s rich and it’s beautiful. Think of the walking swing of a Leroy Vinnegar combined with the soloing chops of a Richard Davis or George Mraz and you’ve got Smith. He’s one of the few bassists that I’d listen to, sans any other players, in a closed room for hours.

Mary Ellen Desmond is highly regarded by audiences and it’s not surprising that she’s highly regarded by musicians as well. That’s no empty phrase, either. As I was leaving Tavern17, guess who was walking in? None other than the Tenor Saxophone King himself, Larry McKenna.

Now that’s saying something.

Philadelphia's Tavern17 is located next to the Radisson Warwick Hotel, 220 South 17th Street. For reservations or information. log on to www.Tavern17Restaurant.com or call 215--790-1799.

Photo of Mary Ellen Desmond by Robert Pisani.

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Bruce Klauber