Thursday, December 13, 2001

Holiday Jazz 2001: ’Tis the season to swing

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.01

[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.]

As the song goes, Christmas time is here.

Which means it’s also time for my annual survey of Christmas jazz releases, at one time an insignificant subgenre that has blossomed into a retail-driven growth industry (now true of Christmas music in general, rather than jazz in particular).

And, as always, quantity is no substitute for quality ... but I’ll happily admit that this year’s new releases outpace what I found in 2000.

That said, the first new release that hit my CD player this season also is one of the most disappointing: Making Spirits Bright (GRP 314 549 839-2), a compilation collection produced by Lee Ritenour and Bud Harner. Expectations were high, because GRP’s three-disc Christmas Collection set, released between 1988 and 1993, remains a standard by which holiday jazz compilations can be measured. Alas, Making Spirits Bright doesn’t belong in that company; somebody seems to have mistaken the GRP label for Windham Hill. Too many otherwise nice instrumentals are drowned out by chanting choruses, monotonous (and canned) percussion, gimmicky electronic sound effects and a veritable tsunami of strings.

Yes, you’ll find two genuinely nice tracks: Joe Sample’s solo piano rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and Diana Krall’s “Jingle Bells” ... but the latter already has been released on her own Christmas EP, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Every time another cut threatens to become pleasant — say, Marc Antoine’s guitar interpretation of “What Child Is This?” — it’s destroyed by overwrought background twaddle.

Making Spirits Bright should be fine for those who find Kenny G too challenging; despite this disc’s presence in the jazz bins, it’s anything but jazz.

While on the subject of compilation collections, the Canadian label Justin Time Records has released Justin Time for Christmas 3 (JUST 148-2), a mostly enjoyable set of tracks that range from traditional trio (piano, bass, drums) to a steel drum quartet. Like the two previous entries in this series (released in 1995 and ’97), this one’s a sampling of the label’s artists and styles. Not all cuts are jazz, and a few are rather strange; the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir’s spirited “Wohl Mir Dab ich Jesum habe” is lovely, but David Murray and the Gwo Ka Masters’ “Noel Traditional” is really weird stuff.

On the other hand, Oliver Jones’ solo piano cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is sublime; John Stetch’s solo piano on “Christmas Time Is Here” is equally nice; and Dave Young, Cedar Walton and Barry Elmes deliver a fine trio reading of “The Christmas Song.” Bryan Lee’s “Christmas Blues” is wonderfully sassy, and Ranee Lee’s similarly bluesy “Santa Baby” is sensuously slow and sultry. You may wind up banishing a few tracks, but on the whole this is a nice collection.

You’ll probably have some trouble finding Jazzy Christmas (5506-2), a compilation release from the tiny Vertical Jazz label , but trust me: The search is worthwhile. This marvelous collection — a sampler of five different combos, each providing two tracks — is a great blend of modern and traditional jazz. It also marks veteran pianist Paul Smith’s debut to the recorded holiday music scene, and it’s damn well about time. Smith has recorded mostly on his own private label for the past couple of decades: albums that are prized by jazz aficionados. He teams here with Jim De Julio (bass) and Joe La Barbera (drums) for a pell-mell dash through “Jingle Bells” in classic Paul Smith style, followed by a lovely reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The album opens with a pair of cuts from David Benoit (piano), Brian Bromberg (bass) and Gregg Bissonette (drums), and while Benoit has recorded both “O Tannenbaum” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” previously, on two of his own holiday CDs, these new readings deliver their own finger-snapping delights. Patrice Rushen (piano), Stanley Clarke (bass) and Ndugu Chancler (drums) contribute swinging covers of “Christmas Time Is Here” and “We Three Kings,” while the Slyde Hyde quintet delivers smooth renditions of “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” The CD concludes with a deliciously different sound: “Little Drummer Boy” and “Let It Snow” by Federico Ramos (acoustic guitar), Alphonso Johnson (electric bass), Bob Conti (percussion) and Tom Walsh (drums). It’s all great stuff!

Tenor saxman Harry Allen’s Christmas in Swingtime (Koch Jazz B00005NF21) also sounds grand from start to finish. The combo is a trifle unusual: Larry Godings, organ; Peter Bernstein, guitar; and Jake Hanna, drums. (John Pizzarelli pops up for a guest vocal on “Blue Christmas.”) Sacramento’s own Jimmy Smith notwithstanding, getting an organ to swing is no mean trick, but Allen and his cohorts handle the challenge quite well.

You’ll be snapping your fingers from the first strains of “O Christmas Tree,” all the way through to the lesser-known “A Christmas Love Song.” The meters often are unexpected; “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” begins as a very slow blues number before kicking into gear, while “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” emerges as a brisk 6/4 waltz.

The arrangements are alternately clever and cozy, making this an excellent choice for curling up to the fire while nogging some eggs with your favorite holiday sugar plum.

The traditional trio style — piano, bass and drums — is the mode of choice on Jolly Old Jazz (Mistletoe Music 18152), as anonymous an album as I’ve ever seen. This was an 11th-hour impulse purchase during last weekend’s holiday shopping; I found it in a display next to the register at one of those seasonal calendar stores. The sparse liner notes credit no musicians; we’re told only that the disc was “recorded and mixed in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains at Big Mama Studios.”

Well, Big Mama clearly likes her jazz, because this $5.95 CD gives great value for the money. It opens with a spirited rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and continues in the same vein through “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and eight other tracks. Yes, the recording levels are a bit too “bright” at times ; and no, the jazz chops aren’t particularly daring ... but this is, without question, a neat little collection. Good luck finding it...

Things begin well on Playboy’s Latin Jazz Christmas (PBD-7501-2), the second release on Concord’s new Playboy Jazz label. This album’s first half truly lives up to its billing as a “sizzling collection of Yuletide tracks”; it opens with a sensational big band reading of “Jingle Bells” that features Ed Calle, Arturo Sandoval and Jim Gasior. This segues to an equally fine “Sleigh Ride” by the Caribbean Jazz Project, which is highlighted by novel syncopation and more of that fiery, big band sound.

Everything clicks along in finger-snapping high gear until we hit Sheila E’s guest appearance on “Santa Baby,” halfway through the album. This cut begins smoothly enough, with Sheila E’s sexy vocal able to melt the coldest of Christmas icicles ... but then it devolves into one of those way-too-cute improvs (with an echoing chorus) that might work during a live concert, but sounds unrelentingly stupid on an album.

From this point, things go downhill; the remaining tracks range from the merely OK to the truly lamentable. A reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is everything I’ve always hated about lesser Latin jazz ... the spontaneous shouts from sidemen, the overused bongos, and a boring eight-beat sequence that mindlessly repeats so many times, that — in the old days — you’d swear the LP had hit a snag.

The CD’s final track, an obligatory “Feliz Navidad,” isn’t helped by Pete Escovedo’s uninspired vocal; by the time this cut concludes, you’ll wonder why the album’s first half excited you so much. Which is a shame.

If Dave Koz and friends sound like they’re presenting a concert on A Smooth Jazz Christmas (Capitol CDP-7243-5-33837-2-5), your analysis is accurate; the album is a good representation of the traveling show that features Koz and buddies David Benoit, Rick Braun, Kenny Loggins, Brenda Russell, Peter White and additional back-up musicians. The results are a bit too slick — the back-beats are particularly mechanical — and everything edges closer to pop elevator music than actual jazz.

As was the case with Sheila E’s vocal on the Playboy album, this sort of stuff probably goes down better when presented live in a theater ... or, better yet, as background music for an ice skating spectacular. It’s all pleasant enough, but not terribly challenging or novel from a jazz standpoint.

The Park Swing Orchestra’s independently produced In the Swing of Christmas seemed an excellent bet on the basis of the two tracks that prompted me to purchase the disc: a bouncy reading of “We Three Kings” and a hell-for-leather cover of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which boasts some great piano work by arranger Neal Kirkwood. Alas, those are the disc’s only two instrumentals, and the only two cuts worth mentioning; the remaining eight tracks are ruined by vocals from band members who — to put it charitably — shouldn’t be allowed behind a microphone.

And you’ll be hard-pressed not to snicker at “Vibe 2K,” bandleader Bill Kinslow’s “special salute to the new millenium” (sic). The man should recognize his limitations; he writes music about as well as he spells. Laced with frankly stupid background chants, it gets even worse when some breathy gals start into the lyrics, which sound something like “Ooo-ahh-baa-paa ... dooo-ahh-baa-paa.” This goes on for more than five minutes, by which time you’ll have turned this CD into a coaster.

Smooth jazz gets an even worse name from the likes of Groovin’ Jazz Christmas (Gold Circle GC-50007-2), a soulless collection of crap that could sterilize lab rats. This is one of those synthesizer projects that acknowledges producers rather than musicians, and while the disc credits different people for each of these 11 tracks of artificial rot, they could be pseudonyms for the same talentless computer geek. You know the type: monotonous and slamming backbeats, drab sax work, and uninspired or just plain awful vocals ... adding up to a total far less than the sum of its lamentable parts. It’s bland, banal and boring, and doesn’t deserve to get anywhere near your entertainment center.

Although there’s much to admire on A Nancy Wilson Christmas (MCGJ 1008), the disc doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Things begin superbly, with a sizzling “Let It Snow,” on which Wilson is backed by the screaming Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band. Alas, that big band appears on only two other cuts, both equally splendid: “Silver Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Wilson performs with smaller combos on several other tracks; her reading of “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — with Darmon Meader (sax), Llew Matthews (piano), John B. Williams (bass) and Roy McCurdy (drums) — is particularly smooth, and pianists Renee Rosnes and Monty Alexander shine elsewhere.

And you have to giggle when Wilson modifies the lyrics in “The Christmas Song” and sings, “...they know that Santa’s on her way...”

On the other hand, several cuts — all spirituals — aren’t anything remotely approaching jazz. Yes, they’re pretty, but it’s somewhat jarring to segue from the church-like “All Through the Night” to a jazz club-styled “O Christmas Tree.” I’d be inclined to re-sequence the tracks, should this album be selected for a social gathering.

MaxJazz Holiday (MXJ 301), on the other hand, is marvelous from start to finish. All but two of its 15 cuts are vocals, but each one provides generous opportunities for instrumental solos, and the varied trios rise to the occasion each time. The CD opens with a finger-snapping cover of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” on which vocalist Carla Cook is ably assistant by keyboardist Cyrus Chestnut, drummer Billy Kilson and bassist James Genus. This quartet teams up again for a truly lovely reading of “Silent Night,” without question the album’s prettiest cut. Vocalist Ren Marie brings a different trio along (Mulgrew Miller, piano; Gerald Cleaver, drums; and Ugonna Okegwo, bass) for a couple of cuts in a softer shuffle style: “Let it Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.” The recording quality on the latter cut is particularly vivid; you’d swear you can hear Marie smile during the second verse.

Vocalist Phillip Manuel isn’t nearly as sultry as the ladies on his two cuts — “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Peace on Earth” — but that’s appropriate for these two spirituals, which are blessed further by pianist Peter Martin, drummer Adonis Rose and bassist Edward “Bill” Huntington. Pianist Bruce Barth and his trio deliver the album’s two instrumentals: a lively reading of “O Christmas Tree” and a cover of “Greensleeves” that begins quietly and builds into a ferocious flurry of sound.

No question about it: Put this disc on your wish list.

Thanks to the Internet, we’re no longer restricted to what can be found in local stores. After being thoroughly disappointed by the slim pickings leading up to last Christmas, I hit the Web, where an exhaustive search of Amazon’s Styles/Miscellaneous/Compilations/Holiday Music and Styles/Miscellaneous/Holiday sections revealed a couple dozen albums with which I was unfamiliar. After using track listings and song samples to separate the possible wheat from the obvious chaff, I was left with seven hopefuls.

Willing to live dangerously, I took a flier on all seven. All were at least listenable, and two are worth mentioning. Since they entered my jazz library too late for Christmas 2000, they were set aside until this year’s column. Both are worth your time.

The first, The Daisy Chiang Guitar Trio’s Christmas Jazz (no item number shown), is a 1996 release that bears the minimal art design of a home-grown product, but don’t let that stop you. This extremely tasty blend of guitar (Chiang), bass (Dave Stone) and drums (Jan Bhagwandin) is pleasant both for its unusual mix of instruments, and also for the inventive arrangements of its eight tracks.

The album kicks off with a moody rendition of “What Child Is This” and picks up speed with each successive cut. The group’s take on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a lot of fun, with Stone laying down a toe-tapping back beat as Chiang handles the melody line. But it’s not all up-tempo; the disc’s prettiest cut is Chiang’s solo on “The First Noel,” a truly lovely rendition of that seasonal classic. Chiang concludes the album with another solo on “Silent Night,” after which you’ll be ready to play the whole thing again. My only faint complaint: not enough music. The CD runs rather short.

This next recommendation, released in 1997, is bound to cause a few blinks of disbelief ... which merely proves that CDs cannot be judged by their covers (or titles). The fact is, the Jazz-a-Bye Quartet’s A Jazz-a-Bye Christmas (proDUCKtunes PDK30626) is a marvelous little album; had I gotten it sooner, I’d have tagged it as my favorite of last year’s mostly disappointing lot. Yes, it’s packaged like a children’s record, and normally one would balk at a signature line that boasts, “Jazz-a-Bye: kids’ music for grown-ups.”

But all doubts vanished with the first cut, a bouncing cover of “Jingle Bells” that affords good solos to the group’s four members: Dave Goldstein (piano), Donny Sierer (sax), Svante Westerberg (bass) and John Casebier (drums). Unlike the previous CD, this one runs a healthy 70 minutes, which allows the quartet to really work its 12 selections. (“Jingle Bells” runs more than six minutes.) The tempo cuts back for slower numbers such as “What Child Is This?” and “Away in a Manger” (the latter opening with a nice piano solo), and then accelerates again for seldom-covered numbers such as “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” and “Over the River and Through the Woods” (something of a push as a Christmas song, but we’ll let it slide). I also like the bluesy, slower-than-usual cover of “Deck the Halls,” a number that most jazz groups usually race through.

Finally, I’m indebted to KXJZ for this final album. Our Sacramento jazz station always devotes several hours to what is dubbed “Jingle Bell Jazz” on the weekday evening closet to Christmas, and I always hope to hear something unfamiliar (an increasingly rare occurrence, since at this point I’ll stake my holiday jazz collection against just about any other). Lo and behold, my ears perked up last year after hearing several tracks by a pianist completely unknown to me: Beegie Adair. I had to call the station to get her name spelled correctly, and even then the hunt was a bit harder than usual.

Adair records for the Green Hill label, which produces those attractively packaged rows of yuppie-fied “smooth sounds” in hardwood display racks, usually placed artfully near cash registers in The Museum Store and other upscale gift shops. Jazz purists probably would avoid most Green Hill releases, but Adair’s an exception.

The Beegie Adair Trio’s Jazz Piano Christmas (Green Hill GHD5148) is a great album in the classic trio style: piano (Adair), bass (Roger Spencer) and drums (Chris Brown). Every cut is smooth as silk, whether the up-tempo joi de vivre of “Let It Snow” and “Frosty the Snowman,” or the poignantly melancholy covers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” If you want a disc that’ll please all guests at the family holiday dinner party, program this for continuous play.

While I’m on the subject, Green Hill’s Big Band Christmas and Christmas Sax aren’t bad, but watch out for Christmas in the Fifties ... it’s scary.

And may your holiday deliver some swingin’ good times ...

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