For over 30 years the Gryphon Carolers have enchanted Bay Area audiences with their mix of musical innovation, wit, and pure heart. They perform striking re-interpretations of classic holiday favorites, in addition to original compositions by Ed Johnson and Carol McComb.
The Gryphon Carolers formed in 1975, when composer/guitarist Ed Johnson and singer-songwriter Carol McComb recruited students from their classes at Palo Alto’s Gryphon Stringed Instruments. In early years, the Carolers serenaded passers-by on the streets of Palo Alto.
Today, the Gryphon Carolers is a 30-voice ensemble with guitar, piano, mandolin, fiddle, saxophone, bassoon, bass, percussion, and more.
Among the pieces on this year’s program is Ed Johnson’s sparkling version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in Brazilian baião rhythm. This infectious groove serves as a unique setting for this long-cherished traditional carol. Kristen Strom, noted Bay Area saxophonist, is a featured instrumentalist on the piece.
Carol McComb’s evocative “Christmas In The Deep South” resonates on multiple levels. Her arrangement weaves together two traditional Appalachian songs with an African-American gospel song. The piece conjures a stranger walking the streets of a small southern town on Christmas Eve. “As he walks,” says McComb, “he can hear music coming from two churches on opposite sides of town — the white church and the black church. When he is halfway between them, the music from both sources becomes one unified song.”
Ed Johnson also provides a feel-good gospel version of “O Come All Ye Faithful”, which takes a surprising turn partway through, transforming into a 70’s soul disco classic!
Between the full-choir numbers, there are moments where things get intimate. One of these is Carol McComb’s original song “Feels Like Christmas Eve”. Presented with just acoustic guitars, fiddle, and bass, the minimal arrangement brings McComb’s vocals and songwriting to the forefront.
The show also has a distinct international flavor. Ed Johnson’s “Mundo Feliz” is a Pan-American piece — a new Spanish-language interpretation of “Joy To The World,” set in a distinctly Brazilian samba cancão musical style. Ed took an arrangement by Cuban composer/arranger Andres Alén and expanded it into a choral piece. Like many of Ed’s arrangements, this piece showcases his flair for Latin jazz, an ability amply on display when he performs on the West Coast and beyond with his band Novo Tempo.