Thursday, December 17, 1998

Holiday Jazz 1998: Plenty of seasonal swing

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.17.98

[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 in 1997.]

Say what you will about holiday madness — the glitz, the hype, the hysterical shoppers, several dozen competing productions of The Nutcracker — but there’s no denying the appeal of holiday music.

Particularly holiday jazz.

No seasonal trauma is so great that it can’t be alleviated by a warm fire, a warmer companion and a soulful interpretation of “Silent Night” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the likes of Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck.

Those gentleman, of course, are the talents of Christmas Past: Their holiday CDs are established treasures at this point.

I’m concerned today with the talents of Christmas Present, and — as has been the case in recent years — the pickings are mighty impressive.

Time was, you couldn’t find any of this stuff until well into December, and it would be smooshed together into a single — frequently unlabeled — bin toward the back of most music stores. These days, the “Christmas Music” section appears in mid-November and often stretches for an entire row, with sub-headings for Pop, Country, Jazz, Spiritual and New Age.

Preparing for a round-up of this sort naturally demands that the dedicated listener — that would be me — pops the new releases onto the CD player several weeks before Thanksgiving, while praying that nobody else (except the patient and long-suffering spouse) notices. But I figure if the artists can record this stuff in mid-summer, as often occurs, then it’s no less bizarre for me to accelerate the season a bit by playing it a fortnight or two early.

Hey, it’s a dirty job...

Not that long ago, the albums in my holiday jazz collection could have been counted on the fingers of both hands. These days, I’m lucky if 10 fingers are enough to catalog the number of new entries per year. Jazz covers of familiar Christmas songs have become one of the music medium’s growth industries, but increased quantity does not — alas! — guarantee increased quality.

Even so, several of the 1998 releases quickly rose to the top of my must-play list, and Christmas with the George Shearing Quintet (Telarc CD-83438) immediately comes to mind. You can’t beat Shearing’s gentle touch on piano, and he’s ably assisted by Reg Schwager (guitar), Don Thompson (vibraphone), Neil Swainson (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums).

Shearing’s approach to these familiar tunes is playful: His rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” includes a prominent “Birdland” riff, and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is played against the familiar 5/4 “Take Five” bass-line beat.

Not everything is ideal: Shearing’s rendition of the 17th century French carol “Noel nouvelet” is a bit slow and weird, and I could have lived without his vocal accompaniment on “It’s Christmas Time.” (Why do some of these musicians insist on singing???)

Such minor quibbles aside, this is a tasty little album. You won’t embarrass yourself with this on the player, no matter who shows up for dinner.

The same is true of An NPR Jazz Christmas with Marian McPartland and Friends (NPR CD 0005), which boasts an impressive 22 cuts, fully half of them featuring the inventive McPartland as solo pianist or accompanist. The “friends” are jazz luminaries such as Renee Rosnes, Freddy Cole, Bob James, Jon Weber, Nnenna Freelon and many others; Shearing even pops up, with a lovely solo rendition of “Away in a Manger.”

Although mostly instrumental, the CD includes a few vocals, none better than Freelon’s heartfelt reading of “The Christmas Song.” My favorite cut is the spirited take on “Jingle Bells”: a trio performance by McPartland, Jon Faddis (trumpet) and Peter Washington (bass).

You might want to watch out for Marcia Ball’s “Christmas Is Just Another Day,” however; it’s a terribly depressing anthem for those unable — for reasons of poverty or sorrow — to be of good cheer.

I was reminded of this mood while listening to The Colors of Christmas, Windham Hill’s attempt to crack the traditional “pop vocal” holiday music market.

Previous generations, when buying a collection of this sort, would have listened to the likes of Andy Williams, Steve Lawrence, Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Robert Goulet, Bing Crosby and the Brothers Four. No matter the song, there was never any doubt that all involved were having a good time.

I can’t say the same for The Colors of Christmas. True, Windham Hill has gathered an impressive roster: Oleta Adams, Philip Bailey, Peabo Bryson, Sheena Easton, Roberta Flack, Melissa Manchester and Jeffrey Osborne.

And the CD certainly opens on a strong note, with Bryson’s swinging rendition of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” arranged and orchestrated by Tony Blondal.

But from there things get fluffy, heavily orchestrated and pretty damn dour ... which leads me to wonder: When did pop stars become so solemn?

Save this one for your PC Christmas gatherings.

If you’re after great vocals against smooth back-up instrumentalists, be sure to grab Etta James’ 12 Songs of Christmas (Private Music/Windham Hill 01005-82166-2). James doesn’t just sing a tune: She attacks the bloody thing and wrestles it to the ground until it hollers for mercy ... and listening to her take control is lots of fun.

She’s also a generous vocalist, and gives plenty of time for her support musicians to shine; the sidemen include Cedar Walton (piano), Red Holloway (tenor sax), Ronnie Buttacavoli (trumpet) and Josh Sklair (guitar).

The peppier numbers are best: James does a great, gut-busting, finger-snapping rendition of “White Christmas,” and her “Merry Christmas Baby” is soulful and edgy.

The slower songs are less successful; the reading of “Silent Night” doesn’t really suit her style, and “The Little Drummer Boy” is forced. Those minor transgression aside, though, this is one to put toward the top of the stack.

I’m partial to pianists, and my film fixation is legendary in these parts, so it’s only natural that I was drawn immediately to Michael Chertock’s Christmas at the Movies (Telarc CD-80485). This solo piano disc is delightful, if perhaps not dignified enough for important family holiday moments. Use it during Christmas parties with friends, who won’t be able to help smiling at Chertock’s whimsical reading of “ You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (not a movie, I know, but let’s not pick nits). You’ll hear several songs you probably won’t recognize — among them “Sally’s Song,” from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the title theme from Prancer — but that won’t matter; Chertock makes ’em all sound appropriately festive.

And his handling of “Christmas Time Is Here,” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, is to die for ... it’s just gorgeous.

“Gorgeous” also is the word for Diana Krall’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (GRP IMPD-3111), a three-song EP that is — without question — the clearest and most crisp recording I’ve ever heard. It frankly feels like Krall is in the same room, and my equipment is far from state of the art; I can’t imagine how good this would sound on some top-flight speakers.

The disc includes the title track, “Jingle Bells” and “Christmas Time Is Here” ... and Krall’s interpretation of the latter quickly made me forget Patti Austin’s reading on an older GRP collection.

Krall’s version of “Jingle Bells” also turns up on Justin Time for Christmas Two, the second holiday collection from the Canadian label Justin Time. It’s hit and miss: Pianist Oliver Jones delivers great covers of “Let It Snow” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” but they’re not new; both appear on his earlier-released CD, Yuletide Swing.

You’ll have a lot of fun with singer/guitarist Bryan Lee’s “Santa Claus Is Messin’ with the Kid,” and Dave Young and the Phil Dwyer Quartet do a splendid reading of “Winter Wonderland.”

But the Paul Bley Trio’s massacre of “Silent Night” is dreadful, and Jeri Brown’s vocals on “White Christmas” are woefully overwrought. Then, too, the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, which performs “Kings of Orient” and a second reading of “Silent Night,” is a pale shadow of the Boys Choir of Harlem. This is the sort of CD for which the “song select” mode was invented.

Fans of cornucopia collections will do much better with A Chiaroscuro Christmas, a much-appreciated mix of cuts previously only issued as “gift singles” to radio stations. Many of these cuts have received seasonal airplay, but I’ve never found them for sale; it’s a genuine pleasure to have them gathered onto a single album.

From the standpoint of approach and style, you’d swear the first few cuts date back to the 1940s or early ’50s, but the liner notes insist on the mid-’70s. Even so, Earl Hines’ reading of “White Christmas” and Dick Wellstood’s “Jingle Bells” are quite old-fashioned ... not bad, mind you, but totally different from what follows.

Mike Jones’ solo piano rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” is great, and dominated by a strong stride left hand. The Junior Mance Trio weighs in with a smooth, almost sensuous reading of “White Christmas,” and the Manhattan Jazz Quintet’s “Good King Wenceslas” is just as fine. Definitely a keeper.

The Truth in Advertising Award won’t be won by Windham Hill’s A Jazz Christmas, which I’m hard-pressed to call a jazz collection. Well, OK, two of the cuts qualify: The Braxton Brothers open the disc with a smashing reading of “The Christmas Song,” and Tim Weisberg’s “Seasoned Greetings” — a mix of “Greensleeves” and “The Christmas Waltz” — is pretty slick.

But while Lani Hall’s vocal on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely, it ain’t jazz ... and while Todd Cochran’s “Colour Naturelle” might be somewhat jazzy, it ain’t Christmas. And the second cut, “Celebrate; It’s Christmas Time,” is gawdawful, hightlighted (?) by one of those moronic vocals where the songwriter believes the height of creativity is repeating the refrain — in this case, the title — 57 times.

The rest of the disc ranges from pleasant to forgettable, but in terms of execution it’s much closer to the Winter’s Solstice collections that Windham Hill has been releasing for years: nice enough as background music, but not something you’d really pay attention to.

Frankly, I was more impressed by the real thing: Windham Hill’s A Winter Solstice Reunion, which gathers label regulars George Winston, Darol Anger, Liz Story, William Ackerman and Alex DeGrassi, among others. The disc opens with a lovely guitar cut — Keola Beamer’s “Keki’s Dream” — and other highlights include “Year’s End,” by Michael Manring (piano) and Barry Philips (cello); Winston’s “What Are the Signs”; and DeGrassi’s blend of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Were it not for Tuck and Patti’s “Christmas Wish” — another one of those preachy PC diatribes about world peace — I’d have nothing to complain about.

While most folks wouldn’t think “jazz” when the rock/pop group Chicago comes up in conversation, I say they’ve gotta be jazz with all those horns and saxes ... and Chicago 25 (CRD 3035) sure is an interesting critter.

To a degree, these guys have sold out: Play this CD, and you’d never imagine they once were a hot rock group. But there’s no denying, mere moments into the first cut — “The Little Drummer Boy” — that when those horns come in, they’re Chicago horns. The group does equally well with a swingin’ cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Let It Snow” is delivered with an infectious, finger-snapping beat.

But I could have lived without the kid chorus on “Child’s Prayer” and “One Little Candle,” and the group simply trashes “Feliz Navidad” with too much orchestration and glitz. The nicer cuts notwithstanding, this’ll never be more than a novelty disc in most collections.

That won’t be said of Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, and Big Band Christmas (Concord CCD-4844-2). Yes, I’ve saved the best for last. You just can’t beat a big band for that full-blown, balls-to-the-wall sound, and McConnell and his boys — and one or two gals — certainly deliver. Some of the cuts are up-tempo, and others are slow, but they’re all sensational.

Most are medleys, with soloists coming forward to carry one melody line to the next. Standouts include a superbly swinging version of “The Christmas Waltz” and a grouping of “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland,” which emerges with some distinctive riffs from “Killer Joe.”

When this one comes up in rotation, crank the volume as high as it’ll go ... and if the neighbors complain, ply ’em with spiked egg nog until they no longer care.

This is what Christmas music is all about.

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