CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Outside the West Virginia Culture Center on Thursday night, it looked like anything but a winter wonderland. Weather reports called for light rain and temperatures well above freezing -- no snow, no ice, nothing of the sort. Still, the Bob Thompson Unit and Tom Lellis were busy conjuring up the warm and cool moods of Christmas with Charleston's annual "Joy to the World" program.As usual, Thompson, his band and his special guest played to a packed house. People always turn out for the popular show. There are always a lot of familiar faces, people returning year after year, sometimes wearing the same Christmas sweaters or ties they may only save for just this occasion."Joy to the World" is a popular holiday mile marker among fans of jazz and good holiday music and this year delivered yet another fine helping.While "Joy to the World" returns year after year, part of what makes the holiday show special is that it's never the same twice. Not every annual holiday show can say that.
Thompson changes it up every year. He brings out different songs, different arrangements, but what really makes the difference are Thompson's guests. The shows seem to be built around their individual strengths and styles.This year's guest was New York-based jazz vocalist Tom Lellis. Lellis injected a more metropolitan feel into the evening's offering, lending a flavor of jumping jazz nightclubs and smoke-filled lounges from back in the days when people still wore suits when they went out.The music was nostalgic. Christmas music often is, but add to it that the show was a kind of musical meeting of old musical acquaintances, and each song seemed to resonate deeper. If nothing else, the show could serve as a gentle reminder that the holidays are a good time to call up people you haven't kept in touch with.Along with tried and true favorites like "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman" and "The Christmas Song," Thompson and company broke out something new: West Virginia songwriter John Lilly's "A Quiet Christmas."The thoughtful, seasonal piece was one of the highlights of the show and stood up well alongside songs that are part of the American Christmas songbook. Lilly should be commended for writing such a song and received a warm round of applause when he was introduced to the crowd.Another nice thing about "Joy to the World" is while it's Thompson's show -- his name is on the title and his name is on the band -- he doesn't hog the spotlight. Every year, he shares it generously with the band.Doug Payne on saxophone, John Inghram on bass, Timothy Courts on drums and Ryan Kennedy on guitar shone as brightly as they ever do.The 19th production of "Joy to the World" was another holiday treat.Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.