Christmas has become so deeply tied to its music that any spin on the well-worn classics can be controversial. However, it is the best variations of tone, key and rhythm that make the old songs great. Jazz musician Damien Sneed cemented his name into the Christmas carol canon in his Dec. 3 show “Joy to the World: A Christmas Musical Journey,” a spirited brew of established tradition emboldened by fresh soul.
After the wide ensemble of musicians took the stage once the lights dimmed, Sneed swaggered onto the stage with wind beneath his wings, allowing a confident air to fill the hall. Just by the cadence of his step, it became immediately apparent that this was no amateur hour. By the first note in “Children Go Where I Send You” — a traditional Black gospel song remastered into a foot-tapping jaunt — the expectation for high expertise was met and surpassed.
Sneed may have his name on the posters, but he made no attempt to keep the spotlight to himself. By blood or not, the night was a family affair with an indisputable bond between each musician and Sneed. Peppered by shoutouts to his biological family seated among the audience, the night was interlaced with brief stories about Sneed’s connection to everyone playing with him. With a boyish grin possible only from a big brother, Sneed lovingly teased vocalist Markita Knight as he pushed her to belt higher and higher into the stratosphere. Luckily for the onlookers, his mischief was justified by the apparent ease and vitality of her highest notes.
The audience, too, was welcomed into Sneed’s extended family with open arms. He encouraged the audience to follow the beat of their drum, dancing and singing along if their heart so chose in the cozy introduction to Alicia Peters-Jordan’s rendition of Olita Adam’s “Holy Is the Lamb.” Enlivened by Peters-Jordan’s timbre delicately balancing between bold and tender, the audience rose for her voice and tight harmonies. The homey, relaxed atmosphere carried through the night, with dancing breaks filled by the sway of phone flashlights.
Backed by the confidence only found in classically trained jazz musicians, the cast’s musical improvisation was not only encouraged but deeply embedded into the structure of the show. “I don’t know what I’m going to sing tonight,” Sneed revealed in the middle of one of his storied lead-ins. “So I may just throw something at you all.”
Slots were allotted throughout the lineup for lyrical, instrumental or scat singing improv. At the end of an eight-minute performance of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Sneed improvised a comically extensive run, pausing briefly only to lull the audience into a false sense of security. Had it been anyone other than Sneed, it would’ve seemed obnoxious; yet, paired with the adoring rolled eyes of the other musicians, it was impossible to be anything but charmed.
In addition to Linny Smith’s effervescent take on the technically challenging “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway, “Joy to the World” was filled to the brim with songs written and performed by Black artists. The night was not only a celebration of the holidays, but also a celebration of Black culture.
Over the talents of pianist Alfred Rutherford, Sneed sang out the curtain call for each of his singers and musicians, then ran out into the audience to pass the mic off to a cousin he spotted for a brief musical run or two. Finally, he exited through the entrance doors and the band played the audience out.
Time was warped in Zellerbach Hall while Damien Sneed had a hold of it. Through Sneed’s musicality and showmanship, members of the hall were transported back and forth in era, or held in the present as a 25-minute rendition of a fluttery “Joy to the World” flew by in a joyous blur. With his electric personality and a plethora of deeply talented friends, Sneed brought a new light into the holiday season.