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.

Frankly, if you’re determined to purchase an album called December, make sure it’s the one George Winston first released in 1981, which last year was re-issued in a 20th anniversary package (Windham Hill 01934-11611-2), with a few new bonus cuts (“A Christmas Song” and “Sleep Baby Mine”).

Winston’s album remains a genre classic, and one that continues to defy simple categorization: His arrangements are far too complicated to be dismissed as easy listening, just as his many styles of playing reflect the serious study and acquisition of keyboard techniques that the pianist has used to great effect with various specialty projects, such as his just-released Night Divides the Day, his fascinating solo piano interpretations of music made famous by The Doors.

Winston’s “Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel” remains one of my all-time favorite holiday instrumentals; it’s a gorgeous reading, and this enhanced CD includes the six pages of piano sheet music for this one cut. Winston’s handling of Alfred S. Burt’s “Some Children See Him” is poignant and lovely, right up there with Dave Grusin’s solo piano rendition on the first volume of GRP’s popular series of Christmas anthology albums.

The first of the two bonus tracks also is worth mentioning, as it’s a lovely reading of a seasonal choral piece taken from Academy Award-winning composer John Barry’s very scarce soundtrack to 1972’s The Last Valley.

Speaking a bit further of Winston, he also can be found on the just-released A Windham Hill Christmas (Windham Hill 01934-11651-2), an extremely pleasant album that really doesn’t belong in this article — wrong genre — but deserves mention for the pianist’s extremely clever reading of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Is Coming,” the up-tempo number that the Peanuts kids dance to, in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Slowly but surely, Winston is covering all of Guaraldi’s original compositions, and this cut brings the Windham Hill mainstay one step closer to completion.

And speaking of nice stuff, the Green Hill Label — not generally sold in music stores, but instead usually seen in wooden racks in upscale gift shops — has given another showcase to the Chris McDonald Orchestra, titled Big Band Christmas Swing (Green Hill GHD5290). I gave a glowing review to this 19-member group’s Big Band Christmas when it came out a few years ago, and this new album’s just as nice.

The arrangements aren’t particularly daring, which makes this disc perfect for visitors who claim not to like jazz. McDonald does all his own arrangements, and the results are what my father would call “very tasty.” Each cut gives solo spots to one or more players, and there’s not a vocal to be found.

Every track is pleasant, but the orchestra does a particularly nice up-tempo cover of “Greensleeves” and an exceptionally whimsical reading of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which gives bass trombonist Ernie Collins plenty of time to shine.

Dixieland often gets a bad rap from listeners who complain that a) the banjo dominates too much of the music, which b) all sounds the same anyway. I suggest that such folks give a listen to the Magnolia Jazz Band’s Christmas Time (GHB BCD-420), a well-crafted collection of seasonal music that ranges from standard-issue toe-tappers to leisurely and unexpectedly sensitive readings of songs such as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Let It Snow” and “The Christmas Song.”

The arrangements are undemanding and the presentation fairly standard: some introductory bars of melody, followed by a series of solo spots granted to various sidemen. The band’s arrangement of “O Tannenbaum” will surprise you, however; it noodles through an extended introduction before settling into the familiar carol.

Sadly, this otherwise pleasant album frequently is marred by the fact that it was recorded live, in front of an audience that applauded everything: every solo, every gesture and undoubtedly every smile tossed from one or more of the musicians. This incessant clapping ruins an otherwise enchantingly bluesy cover of “Mary’s Boy Child,” and the noise is quite intrusive at other times, as well.

Even so, I recommend grabbing this CD the next time somebody complains about the “Dixieland sound.” The Magnolia Jazz Band knows how to blend the fast with the slow, the rolling boogie-woogie with the softer shuffle.

Getting back to Kenny G, the “best-selling instrumental artist of all time” — as the liner notes remind us — has released his third collection of holiday covers, Wishes (Arista 07822-14753-2). At this late date, little can be said about ol’ Kenny that hasn’t been mentioned many times before; avid fans think he’s just this side of a musical Second Coming, while detractors have been known to curl their lips and switch elevators when his stuff comes on.

Either way, one must acknowledge that Mr. G knows what sells, and quite successfully caters to his fan base. That leaves the rest of us to shake our heads and lament what might have been, had he not turned his talent to the Dark Side of The Force. Wishes grants us one brief taste of authentic jazz: a rousing medley of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” that genuinely swings.

On the other hand, the album concludes with the sax player at his sappy worst, with a “freedom mix” of “Auld Lang Syne,” the song intercut to news squibs and sound bites designed to remind us that nothing can destroy our great United States. Gag me with a candy cane.

Jazz vocalist Steve Tyrell, taking advantage of the publicity he received for covering “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” in the soundtrack of The Santa Clause 2, has released a cheerful collection of holiday hits called This Time of the Year (Columbia CK 86638). The album is a pleasure for all ages, and kids will particularly enjoy Tyrell’s slightly revised interpretation of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which features guest vocalist Clark “Mumbles” Terry’s explanation of Bruno, another reindeer you never heard about.

Tyrell sounds a lot like Lou Rawls on many of these tracks, which are orchestrated with the same catchy elan that has made Rawls’ Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho a delight for so many years. I don’t think Rawls has much to worry about, but Tyrell also deserves credit for surrounding himself with a classy band, including guest riffs by Terry, on trumpet, and Toots Thielemans, on harmonica.

Speaking of vocalists, when one considers female jazz chanteuses, the conversation always starts with a single two-syllable word: Ella.

The divine Ms. Fitzgerald originally recorded her classic Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas back in 1959 and ’60, and the album has graced the shelves of jazz and holiday music fans ever since. Yes, it’s a bit dated, and the background choruses are occasionally obnoxious, and one could wish for a bit more swing from Frank DeVol and Russ Garcia’s orchestras ... but, even so, when Ella tears into a song — as she does with “Jingle Bells” — she’s beyond compare.

The album has been re-issued this year (Verve 440 065 086-2) with six bonus tracks: “The Secret of Christmas,” presented as a poignant spiritual; “Christmas Island” and a medley of “We Three Kings” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; and alternate takes of “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” The latter is particularly droll, as Fitzgerald clearly employs a little-girl lisp to deliver the lyrics; the result is quite different from the first-used version.

The still-growing retro trend, with its emphasis on lounge music, continues to dip into history’s well of classic performances. But be careful with this year’s Swingin’ Christmas Party (Bluebird Jazz 09026-63974-2), because most of this stuff is really old. (You can’t tell how old, though, because the atrocious liner notes are practically useless.) Most of the cuts are enhanced — or destroyed — by vocals that can be called quaint at best, and at worst will make you roll your eyes.

I always judge music on the basis of whether I’d play it for friends without first having to apologize for doing so, and this album definitely would prompt a wincing disclaimer. Or three.

Most of the cuts are vocals, with two notable exceptions: Ralph Flanagan’s full orchestral reading of “Winter Wonderland” boasts a very nice big band sound, and the Claude Thornhill Orchestra’s rendition of “Snowfall” is enchanting. The always enjoyable Fats Waller also delivers a sassy interpretation of “Winter Weather.”

Things suddenly turn very silly for the album’s final cuts: another by Fats Waller, “Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells”; and Spike Jones’ lisping “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” The program concludes with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians doing “Auld Lang Syne,” an arrangement so stodgy that it might be considered slow even by the standards set during Lawrence Welk’s television years.

The Thornhill and Flanagan cuts have appeared on other holiday jazz compilations, which means I can’t think of a good reason to buy this one.

If you happen to come across a copy of Martinis & Mistletoe (Delta 55 792), run very quickly in the opposite direction. This manufactured swill, available either as a single CD or in a (gaaah!) three-disc set, claims to be performed by “The Yuletide Lounge Band,” but the sleeve credits only producer Tim Branom ... which is appropriate, since all three albums sound like they were manufactured on a desktop computer.

Except for the gawdawful vocals, also unidentified, which are in a horrific class all their own.

You’re most likely to encounter Branom’s vile mix — I refuse to dignify this garbage by calling it music — in a three-pack in big-box stores like CostCo, but even at $9.99 for the entire set, this is a waste of money. Brrrrrrrr...

As often is the case, one of the season’s nicest surprises also was the most unexpected. While prowling through the used CD bins at Berkeley’s Rasputin Music, I came across Bill Augustine and Malcolm Cecil’s A Merry Jazz Christmas (MCA MCAD-21038). It’s a divine duo presentation — Augustine on piano, Cecil on bass — of 10 Christmas standards, from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (a gorgeous reading) to a sassy cover of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

Despite its major-label affiliation, I’ve not encountered this 1997 disc until now, and I suspect that finding additional copies will be difficult ... but give it a shot anyway. Try their fan club address: 23852 Pacific Coast Highway #906, Malibu, CA 90265.

And the best part? It was a mere $1.95 ... but it’ll clearly get far more play in our home, than most of this year’s $15-and-up new releases.

Further on the subject of good stuff, the tiny Sea Breeze Jazz label has released a marvelous album starring the Tom Kubis Big Band, A Jazz Musician’s Christmas (SB-2121). This one starts strong, with a swinging cover of “Joy to the World,” and maintains the wonderfully frenetic pace for another 16 cuts (other stand-outs including “God Rest Ye Merry, Trombones” and “Deck the Halls”). This is a true big band, with — depending on the cut — four or five trumpets, five saxophones, four or five trombones and a busy rhythm section with piano, bass, guitar, drums and additional percussion.

Kubis clearly loves a screaming trumpet in the Maynard Ferguson vein, and this album’s lively reading of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” gives a ferocious solo to trumpeter Wayne Bergeron; Stan Martin also wails on his trumpet, in a medley of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Trumpeter Jack Sheldon guest-solos on two cuts, both of which he also sings. He’s no Mel Torme, but both songs are clever enough that I’m willing to cut him some slack. The second, in particular — an extremely entertaining variation on “The 12 Days of Christmas” — is a hoot.

And may all your holidays be merry ... and filled with the swingin’ sounds of yuletide jazz.

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