By Derrick Bang
[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 20 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]
I began this annual survey of holiday jazz in 1997, which makes this the 20th anniversary entry: a milestone ironically marked by the utter absence of major label releases ... pretty much a first, during these past two decades.
Whatta buncha Grinches!
Granted, there’s no shortage of new Christmas albums by artists in the realms of pop, country, folk, New Age and pretty much every other genre one could mention. But not in jazz.
In fact, the only major jazz label even acknowledging the 2016 holiday season is Verve, but only with two more of its potpourri collections of recordings from years past: a nice way for newbies to start a collection, but not such a much for those of us who already own all the albums in question.
Could the bloom be wearing off the holiday jazz rose?
Definitely not. We always can count on musicians who take the independent route, releasing their albums through online entities such as Amazon or cdbaby, via disc or download. It’s still too soon to call physical CDs an endangered species, but it’s telling that — every year — more artists don’t offer that as an option.
Regardless of the distribution form, and the fact that this year’s list is shorter than usual, you’ll still find enough great jazz to put some swing in your holiday step.
This year’s superlative hit is the Fred Hughes Trio’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas, one of the finest piano trio holiday albums ever released. The Pennsylvania-born Hughes has performed, conducted and taught — nationally and internationally — for more than three decades, and his keyboard chops are ample evidence of a lifetime’s worth of devotion. He has worked alongside jazz luminaries such as Arturo Sandoval, Toots Thielemans and Roy Hargrove, and this seasonal CD garnered a well-deserved 3-1/2 star review from Downbeat magazine.
In a word, it’s terrific.
In another word, Hughes is a keyboard monster.
Such beasts come in two distinct flavors. Some are best known for cacophonous, unmelodic “free jazz” solos that soar into a tuneless stratosphere and prompt little beyond grimaces from all but the most broad-minded listeners. Hughes belongs to the other end of the spectrum: His improvisational solos are a melodic blend of lightning-swift single-note runs and tuneful power chords, the results both exhilarating and very pleasant to the ear.
Hughes compares quite favorably to piano legend Paul Smith: high praise that I don’t offer lightly.
Hughes is supported ably by the talented Amy Shook (bass) and Frank Russo (drums), and this collection of 11 Christmas chestnuts is consistently enjoyable. Hughes is a generous leader, granting ample space to both colleagues on all tracks, and it’s clear that all three are having a great time.
The album kicks off with a mid-tempo reading of “Winter Wonderland,” which offers a taste of things to come: a strong beat, ferocious keyboard chops and a lovely midpoint bass solo. The tune concludes, rather cheekily, on an unresolved chord.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is similarly propulsive, with Russo laying down a fast march tempo, and Shook contributing a lively bass solo against Hughes’ deft keyboard comping. “Jingle Bells” opens with Shook’s fast walking bass, Hughes taking the melody with single notes and then lyrical chords, the tempo building as all three get down, until concluding unexpectedly at a gentler shuffle with a droll walking bass finale.
The slower numbers are equally lovely. Hughes opens the waltz-time “Silver Bells” with quiet piano, later inserting a playful keyboard solo against Shook’s equally sweet bass. “The Christmas Song” is given a similarly contemplative arrangement against Russo’s solid 4/4 beat; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is downright poignant, and highlighted by a particularly thoughtful bass solo.
“Let It Snow” opens with a lyrical blend of piano and bass, both trading off in the foreground; the tune’s improv bridge includes a cute bass and drum interlude, along with more of Hughes’ poetic piano riffs. Russo gives “Silent Night” a slow, reverential beat, and he contributes a surprisingly gentle drum solo to an otherwise dynamic reading of “White Christmas.”
The album closes with a mid-tempo 4/4 handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which boasts a sublime bass solo and a playful drum interlude, before concluding with a pleasingly resolved chord: a clever counterpoint to the aforementioned first track.
Get this album. You’ll never stop playing it!