One of the greatest things about this time of year is the music. There’s no question about it.
A few years ago, Bob Dylan — whose music will be featured at this year’s Shelter from the Storm Strawberry Fields benefit concert at the State Theatre — released “Christmas from the Heart,” an unlikely collection of songs from the Jewish, then famously born-again Christian, and then Jewish again Dylan. I used to idolize Dylan, and his voice rasps and gasps his way through both a shoutout to the holiday season and an irony-laden, but equally self-aware and shameless promotional stunt. As funny as it is, the album somehow works, and is one of thousands of holiday albums music lovers can get into this season.
The thing Dylan gets is holiday music is a whole lot of fun, which is the same thing local music lover Steven McKenna’s father, Dave McKenna, clearly got when he released his holiday album “Christmas Ivory,” which is available on Spotify, Amazon and iTunes. It has been repackaged as “Christmas Party, Holiday Piano Spiked with Swing,” a lively collection of holiday tunes featuring Dave McKenna leading the way with his lively and innovative piano playing.
“Dad played a lot of solo piano gigs,” Steve McKenna said, “and of course he would play holiday and Christmas songs during the holiday season. He just had a knack for bringing a fresh, creative flair and a respectful spirit to the songs, and his fans would look forward to hearing him play every Christmas season.”
The album — one of 12 Dave McKenna released — is a joy to listen to. That’s both because it delivers a standard dose of classics like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Jingle Bells,” but more so because of the subtle departures he takes from the melodies, while always working within the structure of the song with what Steve McKenna describes as a creative flair and a respectful spirit. It’s something he thinks is pervasive in all his dad’s music.
“I think he showed a tremendous respect for the songs he played,” Steve McKenna said. “It wasn’t about him showing off, but instead it was about playing some nice chords, not straying from the melody, and I guess making the music about the music, and not about him.”
Steve McKenna grew up with his dad playing gigs around Cape Cod, and the respect he has for his father’s career is easy to recognize in what he has to say about it. At the time, he said it all seemed very normal. He recalls his dad’s performances as his “dad’s work,” but Dave McKenna was quietly very successful, crossing paths and collaborating with some of the greatest musical acts in America.
“Dad started playing professionally around the age of 15,” Steve McKenna said, “and except for his service in the Korean War, that is all he ever did to make a living. He played over the years in bands with musicians like Woody Herman, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. Someone recently sent me a photo of a poster advertising Charlie Parker in concert with Dave McKenna at the piano.”
Although Steve McKenna describes his father’s music as mainstream jazz, it is more accurate to call Dave McKenna a stylist, different in form and presentation from a stylist like Jerry Lee Lewis, or, locally, Eric Ian Farmer, but a one of a kind artist all the same. In Dave McKenna’s case, his approach to how he plays the piano is where he separates from the pack.
“He developed a very capable left hand,” Steve McKenna said, “which he would use to add walking bass lines, or stride, or a strumming type sound — like that of a jazz guitarist — while at the same time playing the melody lines with his right hand. Because of that he would bring a complete sound to everything he played. His Wikipedia page calls it ‘the three handed swing,’ which I guess is a nice description of his style.”
It’s all on “Christmas Party, Holiday Piano Spiked with Swing,” which is a great holiday album, by a great pianist, and, by Steve McKenna’s account, a great father.
“He was really humble and very shy,” Steve McKenna said. “He was genuinely uncomfortable talking about his music. He would much rather talk about Italian food or the Boston Red Sox. Yet, he made a living, supported a family, put me through college and brought happiness and joy into people’s lives by playing the piano. I am incredibly proud of that.”
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@ gmail.com.