The Happiest Gig in Sierra Madre, and Maybe the Hippest

3 mins read
Matt Johnson & the New Jet Set Swingin’ the Disney Songbook features Chris Barron, piano; David Miller, bass; Miles Jensen, guitar; and Adryon de León, vocals. Photo: Chris Haston

Jazz is the sushi of the contemporary music menu. When it’s fresh, it is an experience of pure wonder. When it’s malingered on ice too long, it’s unsavory.

Sometimes the mere mention of the word “jazz” strikes fear into the hearts of the uninitiated. Ken Burns’ formulaic documentary, not to mention Wynton Marsalis’s grumpy “last true jazzman” ultimatums, further divide many potential listeners from enjoying the genre, especially in its frothiest forms like “Linus & Lucy” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio and scorned by the dour Marsalis.

Hey man, not everybody’s down for Miles, Bird, or Chet Baker, especially around Christmastime.

But jazz drummer and teacher Matt Johnson, leading his band The New Jet Set at the Sierra Madre Playhouse this coming weekend, strikes a sweet spot, creating an accessible entry point into what is for many terra incognito.

The magical ingredient? Disney tunes.

Three dates – one evening, one morning, and one afternoon performances of “Swingin’ the Disney Songbook” – dissolve resistance to the jazz form with accessible melodies that many audience members grew up humming, whether from “Dumbo” (1941) or “Coco” (2017).

Like the effervescent keyboard signature of Guaraldi, the Disney song-and-character arc proves irresistible. Speaking of peanuts of the literal kind, a standout in The New Jet Set playlist: “Baby Mine” from “Dumbo,” scored by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, and lyrics by Ned Washington. Bring Kleenex. That is all.

Two of the band’s members, Matt Johnson and vocalist Adryon de Leon, are “cast members,” meaning that they perform at Disneyland. Among other roles in recent years, Johnson currently lends a beat to the park’s jaunty Main Street Straw Hatters, while de Leon currently appears in the role of “Dime” in the performance of “Five and Dime,” a character the singer describes as “…a plucky 20-something who came to Los Angeles when Walt did,” thus setting the sequence around 1923.

“After touring for nine years with a funk and soul band,” says de Leon, “coming home to Disneyland was a pleasure, seeing the unadulterated joy on the faces of kids in the park. They aren’t jaded yet, you know? And I felt the same way when we played Modernism Week in Palm Springs last month. I got a lot of joy from that sophisticated audience. I always want to deliver something honest, so they feel what I feel.”

She cites her grandmother, who was a church deaconess, as well as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, as her guiding influences, adding, “I was not trained in jazz, and I’m a bit of a chameleon. I like to shake it up a little, and I bring a lot of pop styling to the set. But I wouldn’t be able to sing these songs without the arrangements by our piano man, Chris Barron.”

De Leon has worked with Matt Johnson on various jazz projects for more than a decade. Johnson says, “Yeah, Barron’s our mad scientist. We would not swing without him.” Johnson calls band member Miles Jensen “one of the greatest young jazz guitarists.” In contrast, de Leon calls David Miller’s solid but sinuous bass support the “rhythm section rocket fuel” that blasts the arrangements into hip mid-century hyperspace.

Johnson emcees the show from a horseshoe-shaped floor plan onstage.

“I like that closeness with the listeners,” he says, referring to his set as “storytelling.”

“I don’t announce the songs in that loungey kind of way, like “Okay, now we’re gonna play ‘Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.’ We don’t spoon-feed them. We like to let them discover it with us. The element of surprise is part of what delights audiences. We take them along with us on the journey and let them experience it for themselves.”

Johnson’s eclectic repertoire also includes providing accompaniment to performers Jane Lynch (“Glee”) and Kate Flannery (“The Office”) for their Christmas holiday showcase.

If you lived through the Atomic Age and grew up watching “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” (1961 through 1969, NBC), you’re sure to experience comforting waves of nostalgia as this tight quintet swings through Boomer childhood treats from “The Aristocats,” “Snow White,” “Mary Poppins,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and several others from the Disney classic catalog.

Ditto, if you’re younger, but you bought CDs by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Joe Jackson, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

And even if you’re of the generation that currently covets Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish and Tay-Tay merch, you’ll probably catch yourself singing these upbeat, sparkly anthems of optimism during the car ride home. Never mind that they’re grandma’s favorites.

Matt Johnson & The New Jet Set: Swingin’ the Disney Songbook
Friday, March 22, 7:30 PM
Saturday, March 23, 11:00 AM
Sunday, March 24, 2:00 PM

Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 West Sierra Madre Blvd.
Sierra Madre, CA 91024


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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. Sushi. Yeah. Really, it’s such fun to read this breezy welcome to the genre. I was a beatnik in the 50’s, so, yah. Finding the way into new interpretations, new takes, isn’t always easy. This sounds delightful.

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