Wednesday, December 24, 1997

Holiday Jazz 1997: Santa delivers a mixed bag

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.97

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — began surveying the annual holiday jazz scene with this column. Take note of its brevity, which resulted from space constraints that soon vanished, as the years continued. Subsequent columns threatened to devour the entire newspaper; in great contrast, this one is succinct to the point of being terse. Ah, well; we all have to start somewhere!]

It would seem that jazz artists continue to regard holiday tunes as a good bet, because quite a number of new releases have hit the bins during the past few weeks.

Piano fans can’t do better than Dave McKenna’s Christmas Ivory (Concord CCD-4772-2), an ambitious, one-man collection of superb solo work: blues, stride, swing rag and anything else the 67-year-old acoustic phenomenon sets his mind to.

It’s a grand series of cuts by a guy who knows he doesn’t need to impress listeners with needless flash; his renditions of “Silver Bells” and “Silent Night,” in particular, are poignant in their quiet clarity.

(By the way, if you like McKenna, do check out Butch Thompson’s solo piano work on Yulestride.)

Jim Brickman’s The Gift (Windham Hill 01934-11242-2) comes in somewhere near the lazy end of the piano spectrum: pleasant and undemanding instrumentals from a young talent who isn’t trying nearly as hard as he should. Brickman is becoming the Kenny G of the 88-string guitar, and the four vocals present on this collection are too sappy for words.

For my money, Brickman did much better work on 1996’s mini-CD, Christmas Memories, packaged with Windham Hill’s The Carols of Christmas.

Listeners looking for the perfect seasonal CD to accompany a romantic holiday at home should check out Scott Hamilton’s Christmas Love Song (Concord CCD-4771-2). Although the presence of the London String Ensemble may alienate jazz purists, Hamilton’s soft tenor saxophone riffs are easy on the ears; you won’t find better holiday “date tunes.”

Hamilton is joined by pianist Alan Broadbent, bassist Dave Green, guitarist Dave Cliff and drummer Alan Ganley.

By far the season’s most intriguing releases is David Auerbach’s Carols in the Caves (Cala Cascade CACD55004), a thoroughly fascinating album that delivers familiar and lesser-known Christmas tunes with a reverence that only can be called spiritual.

Long known as the “Minstrel of the California Wine Country,” Auerbach recorded these themes in Sonoma Valley’s Carmenet and Gundlach-Bundschu wineries, and Napa Valley’s Livingston Winery. Auerbach plays more than 40 instruments, including Balinese gongs, Chinese spherical bells, hammered dulcimers and Peruvian goat hoof rattles.

Be warned, though: You’ll need a high-end stereo system and lots of speakers to reproduce the multi-channel surround-sound with which this CD was recorded.

In the category of “tasty jazz,” you won’t want to miss Winter Jazz II, (PHD 1011-CD) from Portland’s Tall Jazz. The trio of vibes, string bass and drums is complemented by Rebecca Kilgore on vocals and guitar; she has a sparkling voice that can’t help but produce a smile.

The group’s instrumentals are smooth as silk, none better than its poignant cover of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli suffers from something of a split personality on his holiday release, Let’s Share Christmas (RCA 07863-66986-2).

On the one hand, the orchestral back-ups on this CD are fabulous, with arrangements by guest conductors such as Don Sebesky, Michel Legrand, Ralph Burns and Johnny Mandel. For that matter, the John Pizzarelli Trio’s instrumental rendition of “Sleigh Ride” is sensational.

But as a vocalist, Pizzarelli comes off as an untrained cross between Michael Franks and Harry Connick Jr.: pleasant enough at times, but unremarkable ... except on “Silent Night,” which he absolutely massacres; you’ll want to rotate that track out of play.

Windham Hill has released the second in its Carols of Christmas series (Windham Hill 01934-11219-2), no doubt a marketing move designed to please those who wanted more traditional carols than what’s generally found on the Winter’s Solstice series.

This sampler is a pleasant blend of old and new, with contributions from Liz Story, George Winston (a nice cover of “The Christmas Song”), Tuck Andress, Will Ackerman and Janis Ian, new to the Windham Hill label and represented here by her extremely catchy cover of “Emmanuel.”

1997’s two best potpourri collections are anthologies of previously issued material: A Traditional Jazz Christmas (GRD-9886) and A Contemporary Jazz Christmas (GRD-9887).

The first duplicates considerable material from the three GRP Christmas collections, but folks lacking that trio of releases may want to snap this set up, if only to get Tom Scott’s exhilarating cover of “Feliz Navidad.”

The second gathers older and mostly out-of-print material by Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme (the ubiquitous “Christmas Song,” of course), Ramsey Lewis and Kenny Burrell.

The Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party (Warners 9-46793-2) is something of a disappointment. It has some great cuts, including Joshua Redman’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and Boney James’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

But the disc also contains some material that I’d scarcely call seasonal, such as Al Jarreau’s cover of “Celebrate Me Home” and Mark Turner’s “Pure Imagination.”

A mixed bag at best.

Blue Note’s Yule Be Boppin’ (Blue Note CDP 724385699122) is similarly uneven. Most of the contents are tres weird, starting with an updated version of “Blue Xmas,” by Bob Dorough, that’s even nastier than the first one. Elsewhere, Miles Griffith does little beyond reminding us how much better Louis Armstrong delivered his version of “Zat You, Santy Claus?”

On the other hand, Fareed Haque contributes a nifty instrumental version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — the first time I’ve heard that covered by anybody else — and Charlie Hunter delivers a pleasant take on “Christmas Time Is Here.” But two cuts scarcely justify the price of a CD that seems to have gone out of its way to be “out there.”

Blue Note’s first holiday anthology, 1990’s Yule Struttin’, also shot into the outer (way outer) stratosphere with several tracks, but this new collection is even harder on the ears at times: definitely the fastest way to clear out Christmas party guests who’ve overstayed their welcome.

As have I, for this year.

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