Thursday, December 16, 1999

Holiday Jazz 1999: The sad homogenization of a once-lively genre

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.99

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene since the late 1990s, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

Something insidious happened, while I wasn’t paying attention.

The Christmas jazz racks have been invaded by Dark Forces.

When it came time once again to gather the albums for this annual round-up, I discovered, to my intense displeasure, that it’s no longer possible to have any reliable expectation of what’ll be found in the bins marked HOLIDAY MUSIC/JAZZ.

Time was, when you said “jazz,” people knew what you meant: classic big band stuff (Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington); swinging trios, quartets or quintets (Oscar Peterson, Cal Tjader, Marian McPartland); the “new wave” crowd (Miles Davis, John Coltrane); smooth pianists (Ellis Marsalis, Andre Previn, Vince Guaraldi); the new young Turks (Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Joshua Redmond); and several sub-categories I’ve no more room to cite. The list goes on and on and on, but all these folks deliver a certain sort of sound that displays genuine talent, true rhythmic chops and — generally — some swing, darn it.

Unfortunately, as a result of two trends — the success of Windham Hill’s signature sound, and the revival of lounge music — “jazz” has been co-opted as an all-encompassing designation that includes everything from monotonous synth garbage to puerile schlock so far down the E-Z listening scale that even Sacramento’s KCTC, back in its “Classic Hits” days of the 1970s, might have thought twice before programming such junk.

Last year, I was overwhelmed by all the great stuff Santa made available for my holiday jazz library, from Christmas with the George Shearing Quintet to Etta James’ 12 Songs of Christmas; from McPartland’s grand solos and duets on An NPR Christmas to Rob McConnell and his Boss Brass’ simply smashing Big Band Christmas. For that matter, Diana Krall’s three-song EP, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, displayed not only that lady’s sublime talents, but perhaps the best production values I’ve ever encountered from an album.

That was then, this is now.

I had to work hard to find even a few albums that deserve whole-hearted endorsement this year. To be sure, several others won’t embarrass you, should they be on the player when company drops by ... but you’ll need to wade through a lot of fluff and outright drivel en route to making those purchases.

Let’s start, for no particularly reason, with Fourplay and Snowbound (Warner Bros. 9 47504-2). The group consists of Bob James (keyboards), Larry Carlton (guitars), Nathan East (bass and vocals) and Harvey Mason (drums). I approached this one guardedly, remembering Carlton’s 1995 album, Christmas at My House, which while occasionally enjoyable veered too often into the realm of sickly sweet.

The verdict here is mixed. The results are enjoyable when the quartet concentrates on solid jazz, as with the up-tempo “Angels We Have Heard on High” or the slowish, finger-snapping “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Yet these same four fellas are just as likely to waste their time — and ours — with the monotonous baseline and dumb vocal stylings of “Snowbound,” “The Christmas Song” and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”

Aside from two more good cuts — “Away in a Manger” and “ Christmas Time Is Here” — the rest of the album is eminently forgettable: too much background synth crap and la-la-la chanting. Call it humming, warbling or shading, I still hate it.

These guys clearly patterned their sound on the Windham Hill model, which brings us to this year’s winner of the annual No Truth In Advertising Award: A Jazz Noel (Windham Hill 01934-11460-2). In the first place, under no circumstances could this compilation of fluff be called jazz. In the second place, it’s only Christmas-themed because it claims as much; most of these original compositions are repetitive, boring and — in a few cases — overly preachy vocals designed to increase our awareness of how much other people in the world are suffering.

A few exceptions surface: The Braxton Brothers contribute a pleasantly funky reading of “This Christmas”; Earl Klugh and Stefan Dickerson have a lot of fun with “We Three Kings”; and Etta James concludes the CD with the genuine kick-ass blues of “Please Come Home for Christmas.”

But that final song merely amplifies my major complaint: As was the case in 1998, with Windham Hill’s similar The Colors of Christmas, this new album is just too damn dour. Who wants to be lectured by somebody singing a holiday song?

Those who put their faith in Windham Hill will be reasonably well served by Winter Solstice On Ice (Windham Hill 01934-11459-2), the soundtrack to the truly divine ice-skating special that ran on Arts & Entertainment a few weekends ago. This is a two-CD set, and I must compliment whomever assembled the tracks, because all — and I mean all — the good stuff is on the first disc. That makes it easy to ignore the second disc.

Far as I’m concerned, that second disc would see better use as a coaster.

A half-dozen traditional carols on Disc 1 are rendered superbly, with particularly high marks going to Janis Ian’s approach to “We Three Kings,” Liz Story’s take on “Joy to the World” and the Angels of Venus’ interpretation of “O Holy Night.” Many of the other original numbers sound like ice-skating music, even when removed from the visual action, but I don’t intend that as a pejorative; tracks as varied as W.G. Snuffy Walden’s “Yesterday’s Rain” and Jim Brickman’s “Bittersweet” are truly lovely. George Winston weighs in with two cuts: Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” and a lovely Alfred S. Burt carol called “Nigh Bethlehem.”

Only two tracks on this first disc are questionable: the L.A. Guitar Quartet’s monotonous variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” — which, at more than six minutes, is more than twice as long as it should be — and the Irish-hued “Sweeney’s Buttermilk,” which simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the CD.

But that second disc? Pure sludge, starting with seven gawpy vocals — each more insufferably syrupy than the last — and then moving through just plain weird instrumentals. Toss it.

The news is better with Christmas Jazz (Nagel Heyer Records 1008), at least for those who like the Dixieland sound. Longtime seasonal jazz fans probably will recognize some of the tunes on this compilation CD, particularly those by the Sackville All Stars, which come from their own 1986 album. But other cuts are newer: new enough, in fact, that I’ve not seen a few of the CDs from which they’ve been collected.

Things get off to a great start with Mark Shane’s X-mas Allstars and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”; the same group also contributes spirited readings of “Hark! The Herald Angels Swing,” “O Tannenbaum” and “Sleigh Ride.” Jim Galloway and Jay McShann deliver a wonderfully bluesy reading of “The Christmas Song,” and they also weigh in with the album’s best cut, an absolutely perfect rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Chris Murrell and Bobby Irving III are less successful with “Silent Night,” but the album’s only true failure is the Jan Harrington Band’s take on “Christmas in New Orleans,” mostly because of drummer Harold Smith’s weak vocals. Only Satchmo himself really knew how to sell this song, and some iconic recordings are better left alone.

You’d think, based on the Mark Shane’s X-mas Allstars’ four great cuts on the album above, that you couldn’t possibly go wrong by picking up their own CD: What Would Santa Say? (Nagel-Heyer CD 055).

You’d think so ... but you’d be wrong.

Just like a film preview that shows all the best parts, those aforementioned four tracks are the only ones worth having. The rest of What Would Santa Say? is filled with cutesy-pie vocals — the sort of thing that really only has a chance of working during a live concert, with an audience present — and some rather questionable instrumental arrangements. Resist the temptation.

Al Di Meola’s Winter Nights (Telarc CD-83458) is more a “winter moods” album than a true holiday collection; only five of the 15 cuts can be regarded as Christmas songs, and that’s if we extend the list to include “Carol of the Bells” and “Ave Maria.” This is a pretty album, probably closer to Latinized folk than anything else, thanks to the participation of Ukrainian bandura player Roman Hrynkiv. Di Meola, for his part, is a one-man music machine, handling acoustic guitar, percussion, keyboards, cajon, dumbek and tambur.

Much of the CD is given over to Hrynkiv, notably the four-part “Winterlude” and other moody tone-poems such as “Midwinter Nights” and “Inverno.” It’s all pleasant, winterish noodlings, but barely Christmas, and certainly not jazz.

Di Meola and Hrynkiv display enough artistry to command your attention; the same cannot be said of Dan Moretti and December Solstice (1201 Music 5012-2). No doubt “inspired” by Kenny G, the sax- and flute-playing Moretti has produced a mellow collection of mostly inoffensive, melt-into-the-background, go-to-sleep stuff.

Occasionally he and collaborators Peter Calo (guitars and vocals), Tim Ray (piano) and Marshall Wood (acoustic bass) display some signs of life, as with their up-tempo readings of “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow,” and a deliciously smooth rendition of “We Three Kings.” Their handling of Heinz Teuchert’s “Menuett” also is quite pleasant.

The rest, however, ranges from bland and boring to just plain weird, the latter characterized by their variations on “Silent Night.”

And, speaking of Kenny G ... even some of his most loyal fans will be hard-pressed to admire his new holiday release, Faith (Arista 07822-19090-2).

This album was inevitable after the smash success of Miracles, his earlier Christmas release ... but he should’ve quit while he was ahead.

Its success notwithstanding, Miracles was just at the edge of being endurable for those who like music with any depth whatsoever. The same cannot be said of Faith, which is saccharine beyond description. This gooey collection of standards owes more to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops than anything remotely approaching jazz; nearly every cut is heavily orchestrated with so many strings that I’d suspect ol’ Ken had a side interest in violin sales.

By far the worst cut is his outrageously overwrought take on “Auld Lang Syne,” which we get twice: once “straight,” and the second time as a bonus “Millennium Mix” track that drones on for nearly eight minutes behind a cacophony of news and TV sound-bites (an idea shamelessly stolen, I might add, from Simon & Garfunkel’s long-ago rendition of “Silent Night”).

Kenny clearly has some actual jazz chops, which he displays in the up-tempo “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which also benefits from Randy Waldman’s engaging piano work. It’s frustrating to hear an undeniably crisp cut like this, and then slog through the dreck that fills the rest of this CD.

Those seeking smooth and relatively undemanding jazz are likely to enjoy A Cool Brassy Night at the North Pole (Summit DCD 223), featuring David Hickman (trumpet), Thomas Bacon (horn) and Samuel Pilafian (tuba), along with the Chuck Marohnic Trio. You’d expect such a combination to produce a whimsical Dixieland sound, but in fact this disc is gentle and quite pleasant: precisely the sort of thing with which to introduce friends to the concept of Christmas jazz.

High points include “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas “ and “The Christmas Song,” and the group’s take on “Ave Maria” is very pretty.

The cover of “Silent Night” doesn’t work as well, due mostly to some pointless background thunderstorm sound effects; I have to wonder what Pilafian — who also served as recording producer — was thinking. And while I admire his restraint during most of the CD — the tuba is, after all, a rather overwhelming instrument — he apparently gave himself license to go nuts with the final cut, a pleasantly goofy medley of “Deck the Halls” and “O Tannenbaum” that he dubbed “Christmas Carnival.” It’s a cute finish to an agreeable album.

Moving now to the two albums that deserve to be purchased no matter what, jump out of those chairs, plop into your transportation of choice, and head down to yon local music shoppe and pick up a copy of Christmas Songs with the Ray Brown Trio (Telarc CD-83437). Brown, Geoff Keezer (piano) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums) have brought along several friends, and the result is a grand listening experience; it falls short of perfection only because the numerous vocals — only five of the 13 cuts are instrumentals — don’t give Ray and the boys nearly enough chances to showcase their own impressive chops.

Dee Dee Bridgewater gets things off to a roaring start with a swinging “Away in a Manger” that boasts a finger-snapping scat bridge, and Diana Krall weighs in with an impish take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” (You can hear her smiling as she delivers this song.) Kevin Mahogany and Russell Malone join in for a grand cover of “The Christmas Song,” and tenor saxman Ralph Moore kicks ass with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

There’s really no chaff on this album, although the PC preaching of vocalist Gregory Hutchinson on “The Christmas Rap” may raise a few eyebrows. If so, take that one out of rotation and concentrate on Vanessa Rubin (“White Christmas”), Nancy King (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”) and the trio itself, with its solid riffs on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Tannenbaum.”

Finally, my favorite this year is A Little Christmas Jazz (GBMI 1002), a Canadian album actually released in 1998, but which only came to my attention a few weeks ago, during an Internet keyword search at I’d never seen this disc in a store, and thus knew nothing about it, but each year I always take at least one chance on blind faith. I got lucky; this album is a superb collection of trio jazz — George Blondheim (piano), Rene Worst (drums) and Dave Robbins (bass) — and quickly leaped to the top of my stack of favorites. It’s what my father always calls “tasty stuff.”

I’m always impressed by creativity, and so immediately was drawn to the slow and bluesy rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” a tune usually performed up-tempo. “What Child Is This” also sounds stylish, and the trio delivers a delicious cover of “Christmas Time Is Here,” which occasionally echoes the Vince Guaraldi Trio but enhances interior bridges in a new and festive manner. And the other five cuts are every bit as tasty.

Now, these two discs are jazz. I expect everybody to pay attention and get it right next year!

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