By Betsyann Faiella
The chestnuts weren’t only roasting on an open fire last night – they were hotly being sung by the choir that is Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch performing their 13th annual A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas. Stritch as pianist and band leader led a trio that included Steve Doyle on Bass and Daniel Glass on Drums.
The evening was 70 minutes of pure joy, music, and wit with Christmas favorites, new additions to the American Popular Songbook, and obscurities delivered in classic and new ways. There were mashups, medleys, parodies, rhythm changes, vocalese and a drumstick solo (you heard me: just the sticks, not the drums) in a set that included I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm (Irving Berlin), The Christmas Blues (Sammy Cahn, David Holt), The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Andy Williams) and so many more.
Jim Caruso, who has hosted Cast Party in NYC and around the country for years, is a deft comic and MC. Looking super dapper, his improvisational quips and timing did not fail. He is a wonderful singer as well.
Stritch’s arrangements are made for entertaining in every way. They tug at your heartstrings, they excite, and they make use of every gift this bunch possesses. Klea Blackhurst is also very hilarious and that magnificent voice, which is often out front and center when we see her on stage, made the perfect blend with the men. Her solo on A Child is Born (Thad Joes, Alec Wilder), with Billy Stritch backing gently with riffs from Silent Night (Gruber/Mohr with English by Lyrics John Freeman Young), was sensational.
Stritch performed two favorites of the late Freddy Cole, whose show they opened every year at this time until his death in 2020. Those were Jingles the Christmas Cat and Old Days, Old Friends (both by Ray Elbert Parker). It was very bittersweet. Both Steve Doyle and Daniel Glass got their moment in the spotlight, too; Glass with the aforementioned drumstick solo, and Doyle with his vocal solo on Holly Jolly Christmas (Johnny Marks).
The repertoire included two new additions to American Popular Song: Lindy Robbins and Ann Hampton Callaway’s I love Manhattan in December, and Todd Murray’s Getting’ Into the Swing of Christmas. There were surprises at every turn! The end was an exhilarating Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells (Music and lyrics by James Pierpont, Johnny Mandel & Kay Thompson).
It was a very, very satisfying night on the town. Now, that’s entertainment!
A Swingin’ Birdland Christmas runs Tuesday, December 20 to Saturday, December 25 at 5:30 PM. Tickets are at BirdlandJazz.com.
Can’t get there? Buy the album!
CHRISTMAS AT BIRDLAND (DELUXE EDITION) (CLUB44 RECORDS) IN STREAMING AND DIGITAL PLATFORMS NOW.