Doc Severinsen is back with the Minnesota Orchestra, as the alumnus of the Orchestra’s pops program often is, this time performing Christmas songs in a show called, somewhat hilariously, “Jingle Bell Doc.” It’s easy to see his appeal or, more properly, appeals. Firstly, there are few performers in America with as profound a sense of themselves as a character as Doc. He’s as famous for his flashy clothes as for anything, and Doc plays it up. On Thursday, he had two costume changes, switching from a duo-tone electric green number to a single-breasted suit with shoulder pads that alternated between alarming red and shocking pink in the light, and featured pinstripes made of what looked to be silver tinsel. Doc takes the stage like a bantam rooster — all self-aware strut, with a turn to the audience, arms outstretched, to say, hey, look at this.
And he’s a funny man. He still peppers his phraseology with the appealingly outdated slang of the jazzbo hipster, calling other musicians “cats,” as an example, which to modern audiences suggests the Rum Tum Tugger might bum rush the stage. He’s unforced and a bit unfocused onstage and likes to tease the audience. On Thursday, he stopped the show to talk to some latecomers. “You missed the first number,” he complained. “Want to hear it again?” He then signaled for the Orchestra, along with the Minnesota Chorale and a group of handbell performers called Twin Cities Bronze. All had already set their instruments and sheet music for the next song, and they scrambled to their feet, flipped through their music, and seized whatever handbells they needed to launch into an encore of the first song of the evening, “Joy to The World.” After a few bars, Doc stopped the music. “You get the idea,” he said.
Another of Doc’s appeals is, of course, Johnny. Severinsen is almost all that remains of “The Tonight Show” during its longest and greatest era, under the hosting of Johnny Carson, who was so superlative at his job that we forgot how good he was. Nowadays, there is nobody on television who can match Carson’s genuine skills as an interviewer with his enjoyably amateur-theatrics approach to interstitial comedy bits (although Craig Ferguson is occasionally comparable), and much of the success of the show relied on Carson’s expertly comic interplay with his fellow performers, with Doc being one of the more visible and enjoyable.
And Doc used the show to bring jazz to America, albeit a popularized kind of jazz that has never really been identified as its own genre. It’s a sort of Hollywood movie soundtrack style, using a fairly sizable brass section to produce a sort of updating of big band, informed by the more minimal and modernistic approaches of bop and post-bop, and often based around a heavy, pounding, Buddy Rich-style rhythm section. Doc favors big chords with unusual tonal colors, and will often play short, embellished figures on top with his trumpet. It’s a great sound, and very audience friendly, and, as with Johnny’s “Tonight Show,” it’s easy to forget how smart it is and how much work goes into it.
There aren’t many musical surprises in “Jingle Bell Doc” — it’s a hit parade of Christmas classics, such as Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holidays,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Little Drummer Boy,” although the latter has been arranged as a bebop-infused near-solo for drummer Ed Shaughnessy, also a veteran of “The Tonight Show.” There is one surprise, though — an all-chorale version of the old spiritual “Motherless Child,” borrowing heavy influence from Paul Robeson, performed by a singer named Vanessa Thomas in a booming, chilling voice as the chorus behind her wails accompaniment in a style I’ll call 1930s Broadway gospel. It’s superb.
After the show, we went for drinks at the Chambers Hotel, which is an easy hotel to like, if you’re either a fan of the arts or a prankster. After all, they have filled their lobby with art that is, frankly, terrifying, and they have an art gallery attached that is currently offering a show by St. Louis artist Leslie Hold called “Hello, Masterpiece,” in which she has painted near-perfect replicas of classic paintings by Picasso, Klimt, Warhol and the like, but at the size of a paperbook book cover, and she has inserted Hello Kitty into every single one. I could try and interpret these pieces, but I feel like that might ruin it. It’s like the movie “Snakes on a Plane,” where the title tells you everything you need to know about the film. It’s small version of masterpieces with Hello Kitty inserted. Nuff said.
The Chambers opened its ice bar Thursday, which is exactly what it says on the tin: It’s a bar made out of ice, tended by three young women in white down jackets and fur caps. Alas, the novelty of this wears off pretty quickly, especially because its cocktails are mostly vodka martinis, which don’t exist, or at least shouldn’t. We got two shots of vodka, one infused with pear, and a shot of vodka on a frigid night is welcome, at least until the bill came: $11 per shot. I can literally buy two original pieces of art in the Chambers for that much — they have a cigarette machine there that vends art. Next time, I shall.
Going into the weekend, I’d like to make one recommendation. Tonight, at the Trylon Microcinema, they will be screening “Winchester ‘73,” a 1950 western starring Jimmy Stewart that tells of two men who hate each other and love a gun. (Here’s the original trailer.) Stewart is on a mission of revenge here, and comes off as pretty demented, but he’s an impressively sure shot — he can fire a bullet through the center of a coin tossed into the air. Unfortunately, his quarry, a very bad man with an even more psychotic gang of followers, is Stewart’s equal with the rifle, and they’re both good enough to have a gunfight that’s almost entirely made up of deliberate ricochets. The film also featurs Shelley Winters, who was making her transition from fetching ingenue to screechy, wheedling neurotic, which is essentially the role she would play for most of her career — but this film refuses to acknowledge the fact, and so treats her as though she’s still playing the ingenue, even as she whines and frets through every scene. It’s a terrific movie, but also terrifically strange, and has acquired a sizable cult following as a result.