Singer and trumpeter Joe Gransden’s big-band concert is a mainstay of the holiday season in Atlanta. For years, he’s brought his 16-piece band, which performs twice a month at Café 290, out on the town, to various venues, for a mix of original arrangements and venerated big-band charts of holiday fare. The group features Atlanta’s best jazz musicians, many of whom teach at Georgia State University.
Gransden and this year’s special guest, singer Francine Reed, have turned the annual show into a week-long celebration, starting Monday at Café 290, moving to the Red Clay Theater in Duluth on Wednesday and ending at Eddie’s Attic on Thursday. At the band’s regular Café 290 gigs — and by extension, these holiday concerts — Gransden was at the helm with a carefully honed, laid-back stage presence, a kind of come-what-may attitude to match his accomplished matinee-idol voice. With Gransden in charge, the evening has a casual, friendly feel. The serious band — playing vertiginous passages of sixteenth notes up and down their instruments in challenging arrangements of familiar songs — worked in contrast to his easy vocal approach.
The band played two sets of holiday tunes Thursday at Eddie’s Attic. It’s a less than ideal room for a 16-member band — the tiny stage accommodated fewer than half the musicians, with the rest positioned off to the side, inches in front of patrons — but the music, aside from a few aggressive trumpet sections, never seemed too loud for the intimate space. The arrangements of “White Christmas,” “This Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and others, some written by trombonist Wes Funderburk, showed the range of the group. The saxophone section, anchored by alto saxophonist Mace Hibbard and tenor saxophonist John Sandfort, played as one powerful, expertly blended unit. The brass was strong, but not overbearing, with the trumpet high-note specialists only barely blowing the packed audience out of the room.
After Gransden ran through a few songs and the band showcased some instrumental numbers, howls of appreciation from the audience accompanied Reed’s solo tunes. She and Gransden did get together for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” showing a coquettish, friendly dynamic that fit with the song. Gransden and the band played for more than an hour and a half, and by the end some of the musicians looked beat, but the trumpeter was still beaming.
Reed sang a few Christmas blues songs that are off the beaten path, a contrast with Gransden’s and the band’s offerings, and then launched into the only non-holiday tune of the night, “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” an adaptation of a 1924 Ida Cox song that has become Reed’s calling card. It was a show-stopper from the start, and when Reed came to the chorus, her gargling growl full of sandy grit, the holiday celebration turned into an explosive blues showcase. Alto saxophonist Brian Hogans tore through his brief solo as the band punched through with tight accents. Then, Reed’s blues needs exorcised, she came back to the holidays with a sensitive reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” punctuated by the superb tenor sax of Sandfort. The saxophone section again took the limelight during “White Christmas,” playing a solo that was straight out of Supersax: five saxophones working as one, sounding like an organist who has pulled out all the stops.
Four years ago, when I first attended a Gransden holiday concert, I saw the trumpeter paired up with local singer Audrey Shakir in Spivey Hall. While the venue this year was much more intimate, the band has become more polished and practiced. Though each member is an accomplished leader on his own, the group has been whittled down to a core group of players, the parts blending together well to create a musical powerhouse and the signature offering of jazz in Atlanta.