One of my favorite harbingers of winter is the sweetly sad recording, by the jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, of "O Tannenbaum." The track plays at a climactic moment in the sweetly sad television special "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and Guaraldi's doleful harmonization of the old German carol perfectly evokes -- to these ears at least -- the wistfulness that has a way of creeping up during the yuletide.
The Madison jazz pianist Tim Whalen plays solo piano every Thursday at Le Tigre Lounge (1328 S. Midvale Blvd.), and at the bar last night, he performed a version of "O Tannenbaum" that was very similar to Guaraldi's, and potentially as wistful. The wistfulness was tempered, though, by the conviviality of a talkative crowd -- and tempered even more by the whimsical miasma of tiger imagery all around.
True to its name, Le Tigre Lounge is done up in a riotous tiger theme, with tiger images on every wall, tiger statuettes on every counter, and tiger-striped carpeting on the floor. It is a tiny bar, surely one of Madison's smallest, and it is in an unremarkable strip mall on the southwest side, sandwiched disconcertingly between a hardware store and La Palomita Mercado. But Le Tigre Lounge is a redoubt of quirky, shabby-chic opulence that seems transplanted from some larger city (Chicago's Zebra Lounge is a first cousin), but feels very much at home in Madison, one of the nation's most fertile incubators of quirkiness.
This month, the bar's tiger decorations battle for wall space with Christmas decorations, to even more riotous effect. Similarly, at the piano last night, Whalen was sprinkling seasonal tunes ("Tannenbaum," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town") into a mix of jazz fare like Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan."
To be certain, the attention of the 20 or so bargoers was not exclusively focused on the marvelously gifted Whalen, who also performs with his Tim Whalen Trio and Tim Whalen Nonet, as well as with the funk band Phat Phunktion. No one sat at the countertop attached to the baby grand piano, and the music was not always easy to hear over the happy din.
But the crowd applauded every song, and by the end of the first set, dollar bills were beginning to fill a tip jar that was, yes, tiger-themed.