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Jazz singer Denise Thimes aims to spark Christmas memories at Jazz St. Louis

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Denise Thimes
Jazz singer Denise Thimes will perform Christmas songs and other standards at Jazz St. Louis.

Christmas music can be so familiar that it’s easy to ignore. But when an accomplished jazz singer like Denise Thimes interprets holiday classics, they can spark thoughts of loved ones and warm memories.

The key for a performer, Times said, is to put the song first but be sure to make a personal connection to the composition.

“You’re going to hear me put Denise on it, and what I’m feeling, through the words in that song,” she said.

Thimes featured Christmas songs on her 2007 album, “Moments, Magic and Memories.” She’ll mix holiday favorites and other standards when she performs at Jazz St. Louis on Wednesday and Thursday.

She’ll be backed both nights by bassist John King, drummer Demarius Hicks and guitarist Henry Johnson. Pianist Adaron “Pops” Jackson will join on Wednesday, and Richard Johnson will fill that seat on Thursday.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Thimes about her different approaches to songs in her repertoire.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Christmas songs, like any standards, are songs that your audiences already know well. They may have favorite versions and arrangements. How do you take an old song and make it sound new?

Denise Thimes: On one of my CDs I did a version of “Silver Bells,” and I did it in a bluesy kind of feel. [In other versions] people don’t hear the bluesy version that Denise gives. That was one of the songs that I took on my album and made it mine. I try to do that with most of the songs that I sing.

Some songs, like “The Christmas Song,” you leave it just the way it is, the way that Mel Tormé wrote it. Don't do nothin’ to it. Don't put any curlicues as I call it, in it with the vocals. Sing that song just how it is written.

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Denise Thimes
Denise Thimes said a skilled performer knows when to leave a great song alone and when to transform it.

Goodwin: So how do you know when it’s time to improvise and put those curlicues in there, and when you need to leave it alone?

Thimes: When you have the opportunity to be mentored by someone like Clark Terry and the late Jeanne Trevo, and at this point in my career to walk with Wynton Marsalis when he comes to St. Louis, you know that even in the jazz world there are certain songs you just don’t mess with. Between just intellectually knowing, intuitively knowing and musically knowing.

“The Christmas Song” is a song that you say, "I don’t want to mess with this." Because it’s just all right, right where it is. But you can kind of do something with “Jingle Bells,” because it’s just one of those songs you can do something with. But if you’re doing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I don’t want to do anything with that but sing it just the way it is.

Goodwin: Something I’ve heard from jazz singers in particular is that the important thing is the storytelling. It’s not the vocal pyrotechnics and whatnot. You are a gifted singer, and people want to hear those chops, but if it’s not in service of a real connection to the song, it won’t hit the listener the same way, right?

Thimes: Absolutely. You’re right on it. All of this is about telling the story. Most songs, I can’t sing it unless I’m telling you the story.

Goodwin: When you’re up there onstage and you’re really in it, what are you thinking about?

Thimes: It depends on the lyrics. Sometimes when I do “What a Wonderful World," I think of my children. I did a tour some while back, and my son Jabril was a toddler and my daughter Simone was a newborn, and I had to leave every weekend and leave them for three days. Of course, they were in great hands with their grandmothers and aunties and everything. But whenever I would sing that song on tour, I could barely get through it. I’m thinking of my babies when I sing that song.

If I’m singing something like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” I’m thinking of my daddy. And sometimes I’m in the moment of the lyrics and I’m not thinking about anybody in particular. And so I convey the message that the lyrics are saying.

Goodwin: What’s the appeal to you of Christmas music?

Thimes: For some reason Christmas music puts everybody in such a wonderful mood. Christmas was just the ultimate time of the year growing up as a child in my home. Besides being the birth of Christ, which is most important, it was also about my grandmother's sweet potato pies and pineapple coconut cake. It was my cousin May Burnette’s pecan pies and ambrosia salads, it was all of that.

When we hear Christmas music, people remember their childhood. They remember their loved ones in a special way. And that is definitely my aim, to put people back in that spirit, especially with how the world is going right now. That’s my goal.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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