“I can remember practicing with my father, and eventually his taking me along to sit in at jam sessions,” remembers Joe Gransden. “Early on I developed a respect for individuals like my father whose lives revolved around music.”
Indeed, jazz trumpeter and vocalist Gransden has a considerable musical pedigree, encompassing not only his father’s career as a singer and pianist and that of his paternal grandfather as a professional trumpet-player but also progenitors on his mother’s side of the family, including the noted piano virtuoso Carmen Cavallero.
Next Saturday, Dec. 15, Joe Gransden brings his love of music to USCA’s Etherredge Center as the featured soloist in the Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s annual holiday pops concert.
In his early years, Gransden played trumpet in contemporary revivals of both the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller Orchestras and served as a sideman in concert performances by popular musical groups such as the Moody Blues and popular vocalists such as Aretha Franklin and Kenny Rogers. While living and working in New York City – he now calls Atlanta his home – Gransden formed his own jazz trio, and it is with that group that he tours the country today.
“Exploring music with a steady group of great players enables me continually to grow,” he asserts. The fruits of his evolution as a musician, both as an instrumentalist and a vocalist whose style reminds some critics of the legendary Chet Baker, can be found in live performance and on CD. His latest recording entitled “Close to the Heart” features smooth jazz covers and original compositions penned by Gransden and the producer of the album, the popular saxophonist Kenny G.
Smooth jazz, for the uninitiated, is an outgrowth of jazz rock, which mixes rhythm and blues with the electronic instrumentation of rock music. It is “smooth” because it is generally down tempo; it also abandons the complex improvisation associated with classic jazz in favor of melody.
Certainly this particular musical approach will be evident in the second half of the Dec. 15 concert when the trio shares the stage with the orchestra. Although the selections from that night’s performance will be announced that night, it is likely that the group will lend its musical talents to the performance of some of the following tunes, all of which have been successfully interpreted by jazz musicians in the past. A sure bet is “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” penned by Sammy Chan and Julie Stein in 1945; another likely candidate and one that shares the distinction of becoming a pop holiday classic even though it makes no mention of Christmas is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written by Frank Loesser in 1944. The latter tune also earned its composer the Academy Award for original song in 1949 when it was performed by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the movie “Neptune’s Daughter.”
Another possible Gransden selection is a song that debuted on the first Christmas album released by Andy Williams: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Williams, who died earlier this year, had a special connection to our city; for a time, he owned property in Aiken.
The first half of the program will be dominated by orchestral selections, including at least one piece from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” as well as Eugene Ormandy’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” In addition, no holiday program of symphonic music would be complete without something by Leroy Anderson. Long associated with the Boston Pops Orchestra, which premiered many of his orchestral miniatures, Anderson wrote in 1948 what would become perhaps the most popular piece of instrumental music for the winter season; that is his lively “Sleigh Ride.”
Anderson is also responsible for one of the most popular orchestral medleys of holiday tunes, his “Christmas Festival,” first released in a nine-minute version in 1950 and then in a shortened form in 1952. The full-length version uses as its primary thematic material “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bells,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” but it also incorporates subtly interwoven melodies from “Deck the Halls,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Good King Wenceslas” and “Silent Night” among other seasonal classics.
One or two of these familiar tunes will surely be part of the final feature of the program, a section that most local audiences have come to expect - the traditional sing-along. “Joy to the World” is bound to be included, and Frosty and Rudolph will undoubtedly make an appearance. The final song is likely to be “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” since that is the sincere wish of Maestro Shizuo Kuwahara and the Symphony Orchestra Augusta.
The “December Pops” concert sponsored by the Aiken Symphony Guild is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m. in USCA’s Etherredge Center. For information on ticket availability – $40 for adults and $7 for students, call the box office at 641-3305. As a special pre-concert treat, the Aiken Youth Orchestra will be performing a holiday medley in the lobby starting at 7:15 p.m.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).