Camarada’s Christmas Jazz Celebration at The Conrad

Based on the success of last December’s Charlie Brown Jingles and Jazz concert at The Conrad, Camarada Artistic Director Beth Ross Buckley brought this winning, offbeat holiday special back to La Jolla this weekend. Almost all of last season’s performers returned, with the exception of bassist Justin Grinell, who was replaced by Mackenzie Leighton, and guitarist Fred Benedetti, who was replaced by Peter Sprague, the guitarist who had arranged all of last year’s music but who fell ill at the last minute and was unable to participate in that concert of arrangements on which he had labored so extensively.

(l. to r.) Danny Green, Tripp Sprague, Beth Ross Buckley, Duncan Moore, Allison Adams Tucker, Mackenzie Leighton & Peter Sprague [photo (c.) Dana Greene]

Peter Sprague emceed this Jingles and Jazz, so although the program was presented by Camarada, it proved to be more of a concert by the Peter Sprague Quintet with guest artists vocalist Allison Adams Tucker and flutist Beth Ross Buckley. But no matter how the concert is labelled, it clearly was the expected musical feast featuring San Diego’s jazz royalty: guitarist Peter Sprague and his brother Tripp Sprague on saxophone, flute, and harmonica; pianist Danny Green; percussion maestro Duncan Moore, and bassist Mackenzie Leighton. As the song goes, “Who Could Ask for Anything More?”

The program opened with Peter Sprague’s Charlie’s Overture, an extroverted instrumental jazz medley that alluded to several of the pieces that would be offered on the concert, including Vince Guaraldi’s iconic “Linus and Lucy” from the composer’s much heralded and often repeated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas. The ensemble  quickly offered to its take on “O Tannenbaum,” taking the simple German carol to musical places it never imagined it would go. Tucker began the traditional English carol “What Child Is This?”–a popular carol based on the old English folk song “Greensleeves”–with a straightforward stanza you might hear in a church service, but by the second stanza, the instruments joined in full, pulsing jazz mode, adding soaring animated solos by flutist Beth Ross Buckley and Tripp Sprague on piquant soprano saxophone, as well as a robust drum solo by Duncan Moore that clearly would have awakened and startled that child in the manger.

I suppose there are purists who deem Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” as jazz lite, but if the opening phrase of that song does not put a smile on your face, I can only say “I truly feel sorry for you,” to use my mother’s favorite withering dismissal. And to hear Danny Green’s elegant yet infectious account of its jaunty themes as well as the ferocious extrapolations of Guaraldi’s motifs by Mackenzie Leighton and Duncan Moore is awe inspiring. Guaraldi’s “Christmas Is Here,” the nostalgic theme song from A Charlie Brown Christmas, glowed with Tucker’s warm, inviting mezzo that filled the room. She was complemented by a trio of young women who confidently sang in unison: Samantha Mao, Caroline Salel, and Reyna Thompson.

Peter Sprague’s own “Hanalei Sleigh Ride” brought the insistent beat and carefree air of California surf music to a snowbound Christmas theme, not a surprising combination from this North County coastal musician who pledges equal allegiance to making music and surfing. We also heard his sweet ballad “Christmas Is Love” with poetry by Randy Phillips,  a work premiered on last year’s Jingles and Jazz program.

The last Guaraldi offering, a powerful account of “Christmas Is Coming,” allowed the instrumentalists to pull out all the stops and provide everyone a chance unleash their most intricate and rhythmically complex solos.

Would a Christmas concert be complete without Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song” or Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith’s “Winter Wonderland”? These two chestnuts were overruled, however, by Camarada’s encore, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” best known as sung by Glen Campbell. Could it be that during off season,  Santa Claus works as a lineman? Certainly possible.

This concert was presented by Camarada on December 15 & 16, 2023, at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center. The December 16 concert was attended for this review.


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