Sunday, December 7, 2003

Holiday Jazz 2003: God rest ye merry, jazzmen (and women)

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.03

[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.]

I must’ve hit Santa’s good list, because this year’s crop of holiday jazz is quite impressive.

And the best news: Straight-ahead jazz is reclaiming the throne co-opted by elevator music.

As a result of two trends in the 1980s and ’90s — the success of Windham Hill’s signature sound, and the revival of lounge music — “jazz” was transmogrified into an all-encompassing designation that included everything from monotonous synth slush to puerile E-Z listening schlock.

Every half-baked solo instrumentalist (most often a sax player) with access to a computer cranked out monotonous covers of the usual suspects — “Jingle Bells,” “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” among the worst offenders — that were virtually indistinguishable. And no wonder: The programmed “fill” and percussion sections were an infantile insult to true musicians.

On the positive side, the Internet has turned my annual search into a true treasure hunt, since imagination is required to track down the offerings from micro-labels. Mind you, “homemade” isn’t necessarily a pejorative these days; CD technology has turned living rooms into high-tech recording studios, and Web sites provide the best in free advertising to the entire world.

The Web’s streaming radio networks can be quite useful (although registration might be required). Two of the largest — and — play the sounds of the season 24/7. As-yet undiscovered artists also post their efforts, often as downloadable MP3 files, at Web “collectives” such as CD Baby (, which had hundreds of holiday-themed albums that I’d never before encountered, several of them mentioned below. But be careful: Some of the “artists” you’ll find at CD Baby and its clones deserve to remain undiscovered.

Let’s start out with a few carryovers that arrived too late to be included in my 2002 survey. First up is producer Stix Hooper’s Jazz Yule Love (Mack Avenue Records, MAC 1007), a grand anthology of tracks by numerous jazz stars. The album’s standout cuts are a swinging reading of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by the Pete Jolly Trio (Jolly on piano, Chuck Berghoffer on bass, Nick Martinis on drums); and a show-stopping cover of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by the Eugene Maslov Trio (Maslov on piano, Boris Kozlov on bass, Joe LaBarbera on drums).

Not everything is up-tempo and fierce. Two of the album’s other high points are solos: tenor saxman Teddy Edwards’ poignant cover of “Silent Night,” and Maslov’s melancholy interpretation of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The one jarring note comes from Les McCann, who delivers a frankly weird original dubbed “Christmas Heart” (no doubt included because of Hooper’s participation on drums).

A review in The Los Angeles Times prompted me to pick up The Gypsy Hombres’ Django Bells (Dot 0204), an album that sorta-kinda belongs in the jazz category, and certainly displays some swing roots with pride. Group founder Peter Hyrka (violin, violalin, mandolin, accordion and percussion) thinks in terms of channeling the Gypsy spirit found in music by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, and the results range from charming to impressive.

The trio — Hyrka is joined by David Spicher, bass; and Justin Thompson, guitars — gets a lot of mileage from its string sound, and the inventive arrangements will please Klezmer fans. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” for example, is performed as if it were a track accidentally left out from the score to Fiddler on the Roof. In contrast, “Here Comes Santa Claus” emerges with a distinctive surf-music edge; indeed, at times this album sounds like the upscale cousin of efforts by The Ventures.

You’ll also catch familiar quotes: “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” includes a riff from “Secret Agent Man,” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” opens — quite appropriately — with the familiar four-note intro from the Dragnet theme. All in all, this is an unusual but quite entertaining collection of 10 holiday cuts.

I always enjoy the National Public Radio piano jazz compilations, particularly those featuring Marian McPartland; An NPR Jazz Christmas II (NPR CD 0018) is no exception. This album’s 20 cuts are arranged much like an installment of McPartland’s weekly radio series, with the veteran pianist teaming with an impressive roster of guest artists, or performing an occasional solo. Her unaccompanied readings of “A Child Is Born” and “What Child Is This” are sublime.

Every track on this disc is choice. The many guests include Christian McBride, bass; Russell Malone, guitar; Roy Hargrove, trumpet; Holly Hofmann, flute; and Bill Cunliffe, Makoto Ozoné, David Hazeltine, Noreen Grey Lienhard and Bill Charlap, piano. Half a dozen of the cuts are vocals, with gorgeous performances by Nnenna Freelon, Eden Atwood, Valerie Capers, Jeanie Bryson and Karrin Allyson.

Proceeds from the sale of this disc support both NPR and McPartland’s show, but I can’t imagine this ploy is very successful; the album is extremely difficult to locate in retail outlets. You’ll have better luck at

I came close to dismissing the next one as a joke. One must be wary of a company (Sugo Music) that produces a series dubbed “Gourmet Grooves,” which promises that “entertaining at home is easy with music that sets the right mood.” Aside from Christmas Celebration, the one under consideration here, others in the series have titles such as Cosmopolitan, Entertaining Friends, Enchanted Evening and Life of the Party. Perhaps more ominous, an entire page of the minimal liner notes on Christmas Celebration is taken up with the recipe for a champagne cocktail (hardly a reasonable use of space for so simple a drink).

And yet the ensemble, dubbed Indigo, is a quite respectable 24-piece band/orchestra, although not quite a screaming jazz band. (As my father would be the first to point out, any ensemble with six violins, two violas and two cellos is more orchestra than band.) That said, the CD is a happy surprise: dynamic enough to remain interesting, while pleasant enough to serve as good background music for folks not certain if they really like jazz. The group’s leisurely takes on “Good King Wenceslas” and “The First Noel” are quite nice, particularly the latter, which emerges as a sultry shuffle.

My favorite cut, though, is arranger Brian Withycombe’s imaginative handling of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. It starts slow but turns into a truly swingin’ interpretation, with plenty of nice solos. The album concludes with reed and woodwind player Andy Suzuki’s quiet and truly poignant cover of “O Christmas Tree.”

A few tracks are carryovers from an earlier 1996 album, Indigo Christmas (Sugo Music SR9618), but most of the contents here are new. And yes, the first album also is worth your time.

Moving to this year’s new releases, the first to reach my hands was pianist Eric Reed’s Merry Magic (MaxJazz MXJ302). Much as I enjoy Reed’s keyboard work and his earlier albums, this one’s uneven. It starts off well, with a swingin’ quartet version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” — Reed on piano, Rodney Green on drums, Barak Mori on bass, and Steve Nelson on vibes — but the album has a real identity problem: Similar straight-ahead jazz cuts alternate with quiet spirituals so poignant they’d not feel out of place during a church service.

Reed offers a lovely solo reading of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” for example, and then teams with Mori and vocalist Erin Bode for a similarly touching cover of “I Wonder as I Wander.” Both seem out of place, though, when the album switches gears with up-tempo versions of “Santa Baby” and “Little Drummer Boy” ... the latter so wild that the melody almost never surfaces.

Two of the cuts — an ultra-slow “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” — are melodramatically overproduced to the point of absurdity. I expect better of Reed ... and, for that matter, also of MaxJazz.

Harry Connick Jr.’s Harry for the Holidays (Columbia CK 90550), also a mixed bag, begins well and concludes horribly. Also, much as I enjoy watching Connick in person, his albums can be less satisfying, in part because they often attempt to duplicate — with limited success — the live performance experience. Thus, while the enthusiastic children who accompany his CD-opening rendition of “Frosty the Snowman” might make an entertaining music video, it simply doesn’t work as an audio-only experience.

The results are much more satisfying when Connick and his musicians concentrate on the true jazz experience, as with his swingin’ covers of “Blue Christmas,” “Silver Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” each of which delivers an authentic big-band sound while granting plenty of space for instrumental solos.

Connick also has a tendency to over-produce some of his stuff, and this CD’s version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is positively ghastly and pompously melodramatic ... as is “Nature Boy,” which by no definition can be viewed as a holiday tune.

As he did on his first Christmas-themed album, 1993’s When My Heart Finds Christmas, Connick includes several of his own original holiday compositions. Most of those here are quite forgettable, and one of them, a duet with George Jones on “Nothin’ New for New Year,” is crummy country corn.

This album made a reasonable TV special last week ... but the disc itself won’t get much play in our home.

On the other hand, Christmas with the Steve Rudolph Trio (R&L Records, R&LCD1054) is a marvelous album, and one that’ll probably get left in the CD changer. Pianist Steve Rudolph and his buddies — Paul Langosch, bass; and Matt Wilson, drums — deliver fresh, inventive and quite entertaining readings of 11 familiar Christmas carols. The arrangements are engaging, the tempos tend toward finger-snapping fast, and the musical interplay between these three is always tight; I particularly enjoy “We Three Kings” and “Deck the Halls.”

There’s just one minor quibble: One of these guys — I’ll assume it’s Rudolph — mumbles audibly during aggressive passages, the same way Keith Jarrett moans on most of his albums. I’ve always loathed this affectation, since it utterly destroys the musical ambiance and makes one think that the performer in question is trying to imitate a pregnant water buffalo. Fortunately, this isn’t an issue on more than three cuts here, and the album’s essential excellence more than compensates.

Brian Gorrell and Shane Conaway team up for the truly lovely In the Swing of Christmas (Brimick 02382), which falls into the category of pleasant listening that my father always calls “tasty jazz.” Gorrell (sax, keyboards) and Conaway (guitar) are joined by Johnny Nelson (bass) and Mike Walker (drums) for 11 nicely arranged and smoothly delivered tracks on an album that belongs in everybody’s library.

The quartet’s delivery of “The Christmas Waltz” is lively and peppy — a truly entertaining cut — and their clever approach to “We Three Kings” is just as much fun. “Go Tell It On the Mountain” has a nice gospel flavor, and it concludes with an up-tempo tag that’ll put the listener smack in the middle of a Southern Baptist church celebration.

The balance of mood is also fine, and handled much more successfully than on Eric Reed’s album; the livelier tracks alternate with a quiet approach when appropriate. “What Child Is This” and “The First Noel” are particularly sweet, without becoming cloying.

Concord, often a reliable source of excellent holiday jazz compilations, got sneaky this year. Its first “new” album, Latin Jazz Christmas (Concord CCD-2202-2), is a classic bait-and-switch scam: a newly titled re-release of 2001’s Playboy’s Latin Jazz Christmas. (I guess the sexy babe on the original cover was deemed a liability?) The back of the CD jacket does acknowledge this in teeny-tiny type, but I’ll bet quite a few people don’t notice. Shameful.

I covered the album back in ’01; feel free to check the blog archives.

Concord’s second “new” release this year isn’t a CD at all; it’s a slick-looking DVD in the label’s “Music with a View” series, titled Jazzscapes: Visions of Christmas. The idea is that you get something to watch on the TV screen while listening to the music.

The program of 14 holiday-themed jazz tracks is excellent ... but that also was true in 1994 and ’96. All but a couple of these cuts were released previously on A Concord Jazz Christmas and A Concord Jazz Christmas 2, so there’s no point buying this for the music, if you already have one or both of those albums.

And while the concept of the “visual atmosphere” is clever, the execution leaves much to be desired. The three choices — a virtual fireplace, various images of Christmas and animated Christmas lights — are digital and obviously artificial ... and not very well done, at that. The fireplace, in particular, is boring beyond belief; the image never changes and is likely to hypnotize anybody who sits in front of it. C’mon, folks ... you couldn’t even film an actual yule log and put it on, say, a 30-minute loop? Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Those who enjoy Maynard Ferguson and other screamin’ horn players will get a kick out of Bob Secor’s Christmas Brass Vol. 1 & 2, a single CD re-release of two albums which, thanks to the magic of studio engineering, deliver an impressive level of sound from just nine and 13 musicians, respectively. Secor and his small brass ensemble layered tracks together to create a “simulated big band,” and — aside from the oddly hollow percussion section, in spots — the results are pretty impressive.

Secor delivers imaginative arrangements of 14 holiday standards and two original compositions; he opens the CD with a ferocious cover of “Deck the Halls,” and further along delivers a great up-tempo arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and a whimsically unusual version of “Sleigh Ride.”

He also has a sense of humor; all the tracks are sprinkled with brief quotes from cultural signposts such as TV show themes (The Jetsons, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Dragnet) and jazz standards (“In the Mood” and “The Baby Elephant Walk”).

Trumpet also is front and center on Christmas with Sterling, which features Sterling himself (if he has a first name, he ain’t sharing it with us) on that instrument, backed by Carl Ratcliff (sax), Chad Lawson (piano), Vince Rivers (bass) and Al Sergel (drums). This album is more of a true jazz production than most of its holiday-themed cousins; the half-dozen tracks are much longer than usual, and thus afford plenty of room for solos and improvisation.

Sometimes that works well, as with a great, sassy treatment of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and a barrel-house-style reading of “Auld Lang Syne”; at other times, Sterling goes on far too long, as with his 12-minute take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which opens well but soon grows tiresome.

The lead musician’s tendency toward self-indulgence always is a potential problem with any trumpet-dominated album, and this one’s no exception. Although he mostly keeps himself under control, Sterling can get pretty shrill and squawky, and you may wince a few times. Mostly, though, this is a solid CD, and I’ll be looking for Sterling’s future releases.

You can’t go wrong with Plas Johnson’s Christmas in Hollywood (Carell Music CM104-CD), an absolutely sensational disc by the tenor sax legend who, among other things, gave the Pink Panther his characteristic jazz swing in all those Henry Mancini scores, and provided the sax counterpoint to Harry “Sweets” Edison’s trumpet on Neal Hefti’s main theme to The Odd Couple. Johnson has worked with everybody, from Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole to Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt and Sarah Vaughan.

He opens this album with a peppy cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and then segues into a reading of “Christmastime Is Here” that’s so sweet, it can bring tears to your eyes. Aside from the familiar tracks, the album also includes one impudent Johnson original (“Dingle Dongs”) and a second (“How Can I Face Wintertime Alone”) by bass player and arranger Joey Altruda.

The sidemen are equally excellent, from keyboardist Red Young, guitarist Anthony Wilson and drummer Willie McNeil, to vocalist and “blues shouter” Ernie Andrews, who belts out two of these cuts — “What Are You Doing New Years Eve?” and “Merry Christmas, Baby” — and delivers a poignant reading of a third (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”).

This one’s a keeper.

Another album certain to enjoy a lot of play in our home this holiday season is the Jimmy Calire Piano Trio’s Spirited Christmas (Five Smooth Stones Publishing, self-produced). Calire and sidemen Jim Christie (drums) and Chris Symer (bass) get a lot of sound from their three instruments, and the inventive arrangements both sizzle and raise a smile. The album opens with a marvelous reading of “Joy to the World,” and Calire also does wonderful things with “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Jingle Bells.”

He delivers a rousing, barrelhouse-roll interpretation of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and his interpretation of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” emerges in a smooth two-beat shuffle; I defy you to listen without tapping a toe or snapping a finger.

Calire goes a bit overboard at times with his “mashing keys” technique; a few of the cuts dissolve into a somewhat unpalatable cacophony ... but this discordance never lasts long, and he soon regains the listener’s trust.

I wish I had better things to say about the James Bazen Big Band’s Merry Christmas: Take One (Music Unlimited MU-3). It gets off to a respectable start, with a rousing rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” and the entire band truly comes alive during a positively exciting take on “Silent Night,” definitely the album’s high point. Paul Jennings’ arrangement of “The Christmas Song” is lovely, and Bazen’s handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a classic, old-style big-band interpretation, with room for plenty of smooth solos.

Unfortunately, six of the album’s 13 tracks are vocals, and the two singers simply aren’t up to the quality of the instrumentalists. Bazen also miscalculates when it comes to the application of electric guitar, which overpowers a few cuts. And it’s always bad to leave the stage on a sour note: The album concludes with by far its weakest cut, a noisy, interminable jam called “The ‘Spirit’ of Christmas Present,” which channels “The Little Drummer Boy” but wears out its welcome long before its 10 minutes and 22 seconds are up.

Based as we are in a university community, I’m quite pleased to call attention to A Simple Christmas and A Simple Christmas 2, both originally released on SandStorm Records and now available exclusively from This trio is fronted by New Hampshire’s Plymouth State College jazz faculty member Rik Pfenninger, who plays saxophone and flute; he’s accompanied by Paul Bourgelais on guitar, and Don Williams on bass.

Pfenninger is a busy boy; he has toured Cuba, Europe, the United States and Canada with various jazz and show groups, along the way performing with Randy Brecker, Marvin Stamm, the Righteous Brothers, the Supremes and the Temptations. His groups have opened for Dianne Reeves, the Yellow Jackets and Gary Burton. And — let it be said — both of his holiday-themed albums are truly, truly lovely.

The first opens with a gorgeous reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” and continues through equally smooth covers of nine other carols; I particularly enjoy his version of “I Saw Three Ships.” The second album opens with a spirited “Deck the Halls,” includes a soulful rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and concludes (quite appropriately) with a poignant take on “Auld Lang Syne.” If your taste in jazz runs toward the quieter side, you cannot go wrong with these CDs.

The Steve Draper Quartet’s Have a Very Mellow Christmas is another lovely album for those who prefer their jazz soft and melodious. Although Draper himself plays keyboards, you’ll most often be struck by the beauty of Bob Chadwick’s flute, which compares favorably to Paul Horn (whose 1988 release, The Peace Album, springs to mind when I listen to this new disc).

Draper and his sidemen — Steve Montgomery, bass guitar; and Richard Chalakian, percussion — open with an amusingly moody interpretation of “What Child Is This,” easily the album’s best cut. I’m also drawn to their charming reading of “O Christmas Tree,” in an arrangement with echoes of Vince Guaraldi’s handling of the carol for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The album is short but very sweet.

A Very Jazzy Christmas (Medalist 60114) leaped at me from a bin near the cash register in one of the ubiquitous Christmas stores that dot malls at this time of year. Aside from a track listing, the back of the CD conveys no other information ... always a troubling sign, and a possible indication of a project cooked up in somebody’s computer.

Happily, the album is far from a waste of time. Although sounding tinny in spots, as though recorded in a phone booth, the instrumentation is pleasant, and some of the arrangements are quite creative; I particularly like the tempo changes in “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” For that matter, the song selection itself shows imagination, with several cuts — “Up on the House Top” and “Fum, Fum, Fum,” in addition to the one just mentioned — not often covered and therefore a welcome novelty.

And I’d be happy to credit the musicians ... but they’re not cited inside, either. Four producers are named, and Tom Browning gets an acknowledgment for his cover illustration, and then several dozen people get “special thanks.” Are these the musicians?

If so, I’d sure never work for Medalist; what’s the point of hooking up with a label that won’t even credit its performers?

I’ve saved the best for last, in part because it was released literally the day this story hit its final deadline. Big band fans will adore The New England Jazz Ensemble’s A Cookin’ Christmas (Sea Breeze SB-2125), which evokes pleasant memories of Stan Kenton’s marvelous 1961 Capitol album, A Merry Christmas. The 16-member New England Jazz Ensemble lives up to this CD’s title by cookin’ through seven inventive arrangements of traditional carols, but the album’s highlight is a modern transcription (by trumpeter David Berger) of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn jazz arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite.”

While numerous holiday jazz albums have featured extracts from this classic work — usually the “Waltz of the Flowers” or the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” — the New England Ensemble presents a gorgeous and quite lengthy nine-part interpretation, which remains true to the original while allowing plenty of solos. It’s a blast.

I also love pianist/music director Walt Gwardyak’s whimsically funky arrangement of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which includes way-down solos by alto sax player John Mastroianni and trumpeter Phil Person, along with brief quotes from “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride.”

My only caveat is one of déjà vu: The album opens with the same two songs (“We Wish You a Cookin’ Christmas” and “Jolly Ole St. Nick”), in the same order, as can be found on The Ritz-Carlton Orchestra’s 1996 release, Swing Ye Noel. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem ... but in this case, trumpeter Jeff Holmes’ quite distinctive arrangements are used in both cases. Even though the band personnel are completely different, the orchestrations are darn near identical. For those of us with the Ritz-Carlton album, that’s a bit jarring (but certainly no reason to avoid this new disc, since the older one is impossible to find these days).

So ... happy holidays to all, and may your music tidings be filled with swing!

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