PARIS - The Jimmy Z Trio will perform Christmas favorites from bandleader Jim Zalenka's new Christmas album, "I Want a Silver Tree Christmas," during a free concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 at The Gathering Place Coffee Shop at Paris Presbyterian Church located at 127 Steubenville Pike.
The title refers to monochrome aluminum Christmas trees popular during Zalenka's childhood. The album evokes the nostalgia for childhood Christmases.
Zalenka will return to the coffee shop, having previously been a repeat performer as part of the "Music on the Deck" summer concert series. He interprets The Great American Song Book in big band, jazz and swing style, accompanied by a rotating cast of accompanists.
Paris Presbyterian Church Outreach Director Margie Zellars, left, and volunteer hostess Cyrena Neely, right, assist in planning for a free Christmas concert performed by the Jimmy Z Trio Dec. 5 at The Gathering Place Coffee Shop. Jim Zalenka, center, is the bandleader. -- Summer Wallace-Minger
Zalenka's path to performance is a long and serendipitous one. As a college student in the 1970s, he heard Frank Sinatra on National Public Radio.
"I had heard it before, but that time, it really struck me," he said.
He was so intrigued by the vocals and lyrics that he took his collection of rock and roll records to a used record store and traded them in for big band and jazz records.
Until recently, Zalenka confined his signing to the car, but a few years before his 50th birthday, encouraged by his wife - the former Marian Tluchowski of Steubenville, Ohio - he decided he would take vocal lessons.
"My wife really encouraged me," he said. "I found a vocal coach, and I was one of the few adults who were taking lessons, so, during recitals, I'd be the old guy with all these young kids."
Becoming a vocalist wasn't as simple as taking a few lessons, Zalenka learned how to phrase and hold notes, and, when his 50th birthday party came around, he gave his "debut" performance for family and friends.
"I keep learning new things about phrasing songs and technique," he said.
That performance grew into a hobby regularly performing at restaurants and night clubs and special events. Zalenka specializes in performing love songs and ballads, drawing inspiration from his own marriage.
"I can't sing the blues, I'm too happy," he said.
The performances depend on the crowd to set the mood.
"There are a couple different ways we can sing a song," he said. "If there's a big crowd, and they're loud and boisterous, we'll do it snappy, we'll snap it up. If it's quieter, there's fewer people, then we'll do them as ballads.
Zalenka also performs for charitable group's events, including the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness.
A financial advisor by day, Zalenka decided to produce an album of standards as a more personal and intimate Christmas gift for his clients and family and friends instead of the usual fruit baskets.
"I wanted to do something more personal," he said.
They were received well, but this is the first time Zalenka has done a Christmas album. "Silver Tree Christmas" is his fourth album, with the previous three including American Song Book standards.
"I've always wanted to do Christmas songs," he said. "We have a song book of more than 100 songs, but very few Christmas songs."
As he has grown as a performer, Zalenka has tried his hand at writing songs as well, inspired by his own life and the people in it. One song, "You Can," was inspired by a conversation with his father about the things the older man is no longer able to do because of his age.
"He had called me up, and it was snowing," he said. "He said, 'I wish I could shovel the snow, but I can't do that anymore.' It's (the song) focused on what you can do - not what you can't do, but what you can."
Another song, "I Love a Cloudy Day," was inspired by a cloudy day at a Miami Beach.
He has written two songs for "Silver Tree Christmas" - "Santa, Buddy" and the title track. "Santa, Buddy" was written as a response to the famous Eartha Kitt song "Santa, Baby," from the a husband's perspective on his wife asking "Santa Baby" for a lengthy list of gifts.
"Silver Tree Christmas" is a look at Zalenka's childhood Christmases, including the family's aluminum Christmas trees.
"In the mid- to late 60s, aluminum trees were popular," he said. "They were monochrome and there was a color wheel of about four colors that shone on the tree. We got one of those trees, and it (the song) is mostly a look back on that time and that silver tree."
Zalenka will be selling his new Christmas album, and proceeds will benefit the coffee shop. Free refreshments and snacks will be available.
For information, call (724) 729-3450 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
For information about the Jimmy Z Trio, visit the website at www.jimmyzsings.com.
(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)