The Hippo


May 24, 2020








Eric Mintel. Courtesy photo.

A Charlie Brown Christmas with Eric Mintel Quartet

When: Monday, Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m. 
Where: Palace Theatre, 80 Hanover St., Manchester
Tickets: $20-$24.50 at

Jazzy Noel
Erin Mintel Quartet at Palace

By Michael Witthaus

Like most suburban Americans, piano player Eric Mintel got his first taste of jazz from A Charlie Brown Christmas and its Vince Guaraldi soundtrack. 

“Not knowing it was called that, I knew I liked the music,” Mintel said. “His melodies were so accessible. That’s what resonated.”
The animated special offered only short snippets of Guaraldi’s playing, which made Mintel want more. Thus, his band’s version of A Charlie Brown Christmas stretches things out — and also adds some spice. 
“We bring a new freshness to the improvisations [and] extend the songs,” Mintel said. “We do ‘Skating’ with a whole new arrangement that gives it a little more excitability. We’re bringing that and high, high energy.”
Mintel formed his first band in 1993; the current incarnation of the Eric Mintel Quartet has been together over a decade — Nelson Hill on sax and flute, bassist Jack Hegyi and drummer Dave Mohn. 
“We’re a band of brothers, communicating on so many different levels,” Mintel said. “You want to be around people you like. I’ve had situations where musically it’s been cooking, but off the bandstand it’s like we’re complete strangers. I like the harmony approach.” 
An only child, Mintel spent a lot of after-school time at the family piano. He taught himself to play by transcribing theme songs from his favorite cartoons. One day, while rummaging through his parents’ record collection, he found an old 45. 
“One side was ‘Take Five’ and the other ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ by a group called the Dave Brubeck Quartet,” he said. “I had an instant connection ... even that night I knew that was what I wanted to play.”
One Brubeck element that caught his ear was Paul Desmond on saxophone. In the present day, trading piano and sax solos is a prominent component of the quartet’s musical dynamic. Hill is a veteran player who backed jazz great Maynard Ferguson in the early 1980s and sat in with a list big names including Tony Bennett and the Temptations over his career. 
“He was also a protege of Phil Woods,” Mintel said. “Nelson is an unbelievable saxophonist.”
Mintel’s jazz has taken him to some rarified places. In 1998, he performed at a White House Christmas reception. His band arrived with a contingency plan, just in case President Bill Clinton felt like jamming. 
“We had a tenor sax all set up and ready to go, but it didn’t happen,” Mintel said with a laugh.
A memorable moment occurred later in the evening. Brubeck was a mentor and proponent of Mintel’s, and Clinton had recently awarded the National Medal of the Arts to the jazz legend. During the meet and greet, he mentioned their mutual acquaintance to the president. 
“Ah, Dave Brubeck,” Clinton replied with his trademark smile. “He said I was the only elected official that could sing the bridge to ‘Blue Rondo.’” 
Mintel returned to Washington, D.C., for appearances at the Kennedy Center over the following five years. 
“Those were paid gigs,” Mintel said. 
He recalled playing a show with renowned pianist Billy Taylor, and later seeing in him at the Watergate Hotel, where both were staying. 
“He said, ‘You had a really good set today.’ Those little moments, being recognized like that, are really special.”
It turned out that playing the White House wasn’t a once-a-lifetime gig. In 2011, Mintel shared his memories of the night during a conversation with his girlfriend. 
“I’ll probably never go back there,” he had said. Her response: Why not give them a call? Funny thing – Mintel still had the White House number stored in his mobile phone. “I phoned the social secretary and they remembered who I was and said, ‘What’s your availability for December?’ We settled on a date, and there we were again.”
The band opened their Obama White House set with “Take Five,” Mintel said, and “it set the mood for the night.” Just as he’d done after his previous command performance, Mintel brought up Brubeck during a photo op with the first couple. 
“The president said, ‘Dave Brubeck is the very first concert I ever went to, with my father as a kid.’ It was so very cool,” Mintel said.
Mintel has traveled frequently to New Hampshire from his Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home since doing a show and workshop at Colby-Sawyer College in 2005. He said every return visit is a treat. 
“The people are great and we’ve made a lot of friends. It’s just a very musical and artistic audience,” he said. “I love New England; it seems like a natural habitat for us.” 

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