Thursday, December 12, 2002

Holiday Jazz 2002: Too much merry, not enough soul

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.02

[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.]

Kenny G has a lot to answer for.

Until he came along and turned “smooth jazz” into a legitimate music store category, seasonal holiday jazz was restricted to folks with authentic jazz chops, who really knew their way around a keyboard, sax, trumpet or set of drums. Releases were few and far between, and fans were grateful for a season that brought two or three great albums.

All that changed in the 1990s, when what my father contemptuously dismisses as “elevator jazz” infiltrated the genre. Suddenly, inventive arrangements and finger-snappin’ solos were replaced by background strings, mawkish choruses and percussion licks so monotonous that they sounded like just what they were, in many cases: computer-generated white noise.

And it got much worse in 1994, when Kenny G released Miracles: The Holiday Album, which sold untold millions and paved the way for an avalanche of smooth jazz that all but buried the category.

In fairness, not all smooth jazz is garbage, just as all “pure jazz” isn’t automatically superior. There’s a time and place for improvisational jazz that gets weird for the sheer sake of artistic license, but I’d argue that holiday songs probably aren’t the proper venue for such wild experimentation. The best holiday jazz should retain enough of the central melody to be recognized, while allowing various soloists an opportunity to strut their stuff.

Sadly, straight-ahead Christmas jazz compilations are few and far between this 2002 holiday season ... although we do have yet another release by the redoubtable Kenny G (about which, more in a bit). Meanwhile, fans will be tempted by quite a few smooth jazz productions, some of which ... well ... leave much to be desired.

Let’s begin with young trumpeter Chris Botti’s December (Columbia CK 86864), an album with a serious identity crisis. Half the cuts feature only Botti and some core sidemen, and a few of these are a treat: A septet arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy” is lively and fun, while a quintet arrangement of “Let It Snow” is by far the album’s best cut. Botti and his friends also deliver nice readings of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland.”

On the other hand, “The Christmas Song” (which opens the album) and several other cuts are drenched in so many strings that I’m inclined to believe Botti gets a kickback on the sale of catgut and nylon. Worse still are two cuts — “Perfect Day” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — on which the young trumpet player sings. (Memo to Mr. Botti: Keep your lips wrapped around your trumpet.) All this fluff does nothing but detract from the core musicians struggling to be heard beneath these overproduced tracks, each so overwrought that all life and spontaneity have been sucked away.

So: Does one purchase an album for just five or six engaging cuts? That’s your call.