Thursday, December 9, 2004

Holiday Jazz 2004: The (Christmas) beat goes on

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.9.04

[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.]

It used to be so simple.

Back in the late 1970s, when I first started collecting holiday jazz albums, the entire sub-genre probably included no more than two dozen albums (a few of which still haven’t been released on CD, dagnabbit!).

These days, at least that many pass through my fingers each year.

As with the 2003 round-up, this year’s cornucopia of wealth results in great part from several afternoons spent listening at cdbaby, where I found roughly half of the albums cited below. Being able to pre-listen to multiple cuts allowed me to avoid some obvious clunkers (and the better part of valor demands that the guilty parties simply go unrecognized).

Still and all, it’s once again a very good year for holiday jazz, as the exhaustive discussion below reveals. Given the increased consolidation of radio station and music store ownership, it’s now irrefutably true that you’ll never hear or see some of the best music at conventional outlets. The world is full of talented musicians, far too many of whom struggle to be noticed beneath the ClearChannel/Wal-Mart radar.

Do yourself a favor: Get a few of the cdbaby listings cited here. Santa’s swingin’ elves are certain you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Let’s start with a welcome blast from the past.

Longtime music fans always maintain a List of Those That Got Away, generally vinyl LPs that are decades out of print. Despite the now quite impressive size of my Christmas jazz library, I have just such a list, and one album thereon — jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell’s 1966 release, Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (Cadet 779) — finally has been re-issued on CD.

The album sounds a bit quaint, due mostly to the overly large orchestra backing Burrell, who really doesn’t need so much gloss or glitz. When he cooks, though, he really cooks, as with his reading of “My Favorite Things.” I still don’t regard this cut from The Sound of Music as a true holiday song, but Burrell comes close to making me a believer.

He contributes a wonderfully bluesy rendition of “Merry Christmas, Baby,” and puts considerable swing into his cover of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” One of the album’s best finger-snappers isn’t a Christmas tune; “Go Where I Send Thee” is a church spiritual, and in Burrell’s fingers it blossoms into a bring-down-the-house gospel number.

It’s sure nice when something proves worth the wait.

Moving to recent releases in the same vein, I was delighted when Royce Campbell’s A Jazz Guitar Christmas (Moon Cycle Records EG 1958) dropped into my lap. Kenny Burrell’s 1966 album notwithstanding, Christmas jazz guitar practically is an endangered species; I’ve worn down the grooves on my original LP version of Ron Eschete’s Christmas Impressions (one that hasn’t made the transition to CD).

So the mere existence of Campbell’s album is happy news; its quality is the icing on the cake (and his band is better than Eschete’s).

Campbell is a veteran jazz guitarist, having worked with everyone from Henry Mancini and Marvin Gaye to Quincy Jones, Mel Torme and the Fifth Dimension. He teams here with Tom Baldwin on bass and Howard Curtis on drums; they open with a spirited 4/4 swing rendition of “Let It Snow,” and breeze their way through every subsequent cut. The album’s highlight is Campbell’s clever, funk-inspired arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” a truly infectious reading that I defy you to hear without bobbing your head or otherwise swaying in time.

Campbell’s cover of “O Christmas Tree” also is nice, interpreted here in 4/4 swing instead of the usual 3/4 waltz. The album concludes with a soft and positively gorgeous solo by Campbell on “The Christmas Song.”

My fondness for jazz guitar notwithstanding, nothing beats a traditional piano trio or quartet, and therefore Rick Gallagher’s A Sleigh, A Song and a Baby Boy (Serendipity 803597010427) was certain to attract my attention. This is another marvelous album, thanks to Gallagher’s solid keyboard chops, imaginative arrangements and capable support from sidemen Paul Thompson (bass), Thomas Wendt (drums) and George Jones (percussion).

The album opens with a spirited reading of “Sleigh Ride,” which gives ample exposure to Gallagher’s abilities, and things just get better from then on. Highlights include a lively, funkified reading of “The Little Drummer Boy” and a great cover of “Let It Snow.” Honestly, though, the CD really doesn’t have any weak cuts (except for a final, oddly abbreviated take on “Silent Night,” which trails off unexpectedly and sounds like an engineering mistake).

Gallagher’s arrangements are inventive, and he has a knack for confounding expectations: Traditionally up-tempo numbers such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are delivered at a slower, bluesier pace, while the church hymn “Sing We Now of Christmas” emerges as a toe-tapping swinger.

Get this one; it’s a keeper.

When describing The Ken Foster Trio’s O Christmas Trio (Foster Music,, bass player Brian Foster warned that it’s “pretty much all over the place.” He speaks truth; the album’s stylistic mix ranges from a version of “Blue Christmas” re-fashioned as a countrified barrelhouse roll, to a solid rock ’n’ roll interpretation of “Silver Bells” — which even begins with the opening bars from Bob Segar’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” — to a lovely solo piano medley of “The First Noel,” “Greensleeves” and “Silent Night.”

Along the way, though, the trio — Ken Foster, piano; Brian Foster, bass; and Bob Macart, drums — delivers some solid jazz covers, none better than the hip-swayin’ version of “O Christmas Tree” that opens the album. “Jingle Bells” is another good swinger, and you’ve got to love the trio’s take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” interpreted here as a deliciously demented tango.

Speaking of fun, Ben Burdick obviously had a blast assembling the delightfully titled An Eclectic Acoustic Electric Fretless Christmas (Little House Recordings). Thanks to overdubbing, Burdick gets an impressively “full” sound on many of this disc’s 10 cuts, even when he’s playing alone ... or, to be more accurate, with himself ... and himself ... and himself.

Sam Strother contributes bass work on four tracks, but otherwise Burdick handles everything else. He used some drum loops, played a drum machine using his fingers on the pads in real time, and meticulously edited digital samples of other sounds.

This album also is all over the map; Burdick’s handling of “Greensleeves,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Christmas Tree” are cocktail club-style jazz, with a smooth guitar/bass/drums sound; “Carol of the Bells” and “The Twelve Guitars (Days) of Christmas” are breezy studio exercises designed to see just how many tracks can be layered atop one another.

Fancy tricks aside, though, Burdick sounds best at his simplest; the album opens with a lovely reading of “Away in a Manger,” and it closes with an equally melancholy cover of “Silent Night.”

Alto saxophonist Brandon Fields delivers a tasty holiday treat with A Coffeehouse Christmas (Blue Star Records PGI/BS 9401), ably supported by Steve Cárdenas (guitar), Dave Carpenter (bass) and Luis Conte (percussion). The album has a gentle Latin touch, thanks in part to Conte’s deft work on the bongos.

Conte establishes a smooth percussion line behind Fields’ cool opener on “Let It Snow,” while Cárdenas shines on the next two tracks, “We Three Kings” and “White Christmas.” Fields is a generous leader, giving all three sidemen ample opportunity to demonstrate their chops. The album includes lovely readings of “Carol of the Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” and the quartet has a lot of fun with “Sleigh Ride.” Fields brings things to a soft conclusion with a melancholy cover of “Silent Night,” obeying that most ancient of stage traditions: He leaves us wanting more.

Beegie Adair’s Jazz Piano Christmas was one of the brightest spots of 1999’s annual round-up, so I was delighted to learn that the jazz pianist has not just one, but two new holiday releases this year. Christmas Jazz (Village Square Music VSD3033) is a traditional combo album, with Adair and sidemen Roger Spencer (bass) and Chris Brown (drums) capably augmented by guest artists Sam Levine (soprano sax), Denis Solee (tenor sax), Jack Jezzro (guitar) and George Tidwell (flugelhorn).

The album doesn’t have any fancy or inventive arrangements, just the sort of solid jazz riffs you’d expect from a live show in a smoky cocktail lounge (although I guess they’re not smoky these days). Adair is a generous leader, and most cuts grant ample opportunity for the guest artists and sidemen to shine.

The album kicks off with Levine’s smooth soprano sax lead on “Let It Snow,” and progresses from there to Adair’s whimsical reading of “Jingle Bells,” which opens with a quote from “Guys and Dolls” and closes with a fanfare that further cements the horseracing motif. Jezzro’s guitar shines on “Home for the Holidays” and “Winter Wonderland,” while Solee’s tenor sax highlights a delightfully playful reading of “Up on the Housetop.”

The entire album is pure pleasure.

Adair’s second release this year — Quiet Christmas (Village Square Music VSD 3030) — might come as a surprise. While this 16-track collection (her first solo album) is beautifully arranged and performed, under no circumstances could it be termed jazz; the music has more of a liturgical atmosphere, and indeed many of the cuts reflect the holiday’s religious side: “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “O Come Emmanuel,” among others.

Adair’s piano work is as accomplished as ever, of course, but thematically I’d program this album alongside Cyrus Chestnut’s 1996 release, Blessed Quietness, which also highlights the season’s more spiritual elements.

Speaking of pianists, Silvan Zingg’s Boogie Woogie Xmas (Tyrolis CD 375 515) certainly isn’t a passive experience. Charleston Blues Festival organizer G. Erwin introduced the young man to audiences at the 1992 Masters of Boogie Woogie and Blues Piano Night as “the 18-year-old boogie woogie prodigy from Lugano, Switzerland.” Since then, Zingg has established himself as a master of boogie woogie keyboard chops, and I’ve no doubt his live concerts are high-energy treats.

As a living room listening experience, though, a little of this stuff goes a long way, and Boogie Woogie Xmas wears out its welcome ... in part because Zingg performs “Let It Snow” no fewer than three times in the space of 15 short cuts. Such redundancy tends to make one forget the razzmatazz in his covers of “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and an oddly moving “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).”

The album’s title notwithstanding, these aren’t all holiday tunes; Zingg also sneaks in “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Java” and “The Ketchup Song” (!).

Put this album in rotation with several others; you’re more likely to appreciate Zingg’s full-blown keyboard assaults in small doses.

Fans of the Latin side of jazz will be pleased with saxman Scott Martin’s A Martin Family Christmas (SCM Records 1225), a smooth project that the former 12-year member of the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band made as a family affair: The other instrumentalists include brothers Andy (trombone) and Stan (trumpet and flugelhorn); along with Scott’s 16-year-old son, Tyler (baritone sax and clarinet); and 68-year-old father, Dave (trumpet and flugelhorn).

I’d love to be in the Martin household during its next musical reunion.

Scott Martin also produced the disc, which delivers a pleasant dose of old-style jazz, with each song providing ample opportunity for individual solos. The arrangements are inventive and occasionally droll, the latter most evident during a whimsical reading of “Deck the Halls.” The album opens with a stylish cover of “Winter Wonderland,” and other high points include a sparkling “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and a languid and extremely pretty interpretation of “White Christmas.”

Pianist Scott Oakley certainly knows his way around a keyboard, and on Jazz for the Holidays (Invisible Music Records IM2027) he gets solid support from drummer Joe La Barbera, a veteran famed for his work with Bill Evans; and bassist Darek Oles, recently associated with Brad Mehldau. The result is an hour of solid jazz covers of popular secular favorites, from “Greensleeves” and an uncharacteristically up-tempo “Silent Night,” to “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “White Christmas.”

Oakley’s arrangements aren’t particularly inventive, although he delivers playful readings of “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.” Mostly, his album is about solid, no-frills musicianship. He attacks “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” with a feisty melodic trill and turns “O Tannenbaum” into a slightly mysterious number; the latter showcases La Barbera, who also shines on a percussive reading of “The Little Drummer Boy.” These three musicians make a tight trio, and I’d love to hear more of their work.

For pure listening pleasure this year, you probably can’t beat A Sentimental Christmas (North Star Records NS0053), featuring jazz guitarist Gerry Beaudoin and the Boston Jazz Ensemble — Bob Nieske, acoustic bass; Alan Dawson, drums; Paul Schmeling, piano; and Jeff Stout, trumpet and flugelhorn — along with special guests Dick Johnson, clarinet; and Fred Lipsius, alto sax. This is “tasty jazz” at its finest; every one of these dozen cuts will prompt a smile while satisfying the traditional jazz palate. While Beaudoin’s smooth guitar chops dominate each cut, he grants plenty of time for the sidemen to deliver their own licks.

It’s hard to cite individual cuts, since they all evoke a comfortable jazz club atmosphere. “Greensleeves” opens with a nice sax solo by Lipsius, before Beaudoin settles down for some fine guitar work; a particularly smooth reading of “Winter Wonderland” gives Johnson ample opportunity to shine on clarinet. Beaudoin and Schmeling have a lot of fun with some guitar/piano give-and-take during “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The song selection isn’t terribly imaginative, but who cares? When “Deck the Halls,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “The Christmas Song” and all the rest are played this well, your next holiday gathering is guaranteed to go better with Beaudoin & Co. in the background.

San Francisco-based pianist Bill Susman and his trio — Randy Whiting, bass; and Grant Smith, drums — really cook on Christmas Cool (available at These guys let us know they’re in charge with the very first cut, a swingin’ cover of “O Christmas Tree,” which segues deftly into an uncharacteristically up-tempo “What Child Is This.”

Susman & Co. are equally in tune with their mellow side, and their versions of “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are lovely. Susman handles his own arrangements, and the results always preserve each song’s core while allowing plenty of opportunities for toe-tappin’ jazz chops; I particularly like his very clever take on “Deck the Halls.”

Only one minor caveat: The album is recorded at a very low volume, so it’s hard to program in rotation with other discs.

The annual Absence of Imagination Award goes to Concord Records, represented this year by yet another redundant re-packaging of previous material: Jazz at the North Pole (Concord CCD-5226-2), a new installment of the label’s “Jazz Moods” series, which promises (ahem) “music that makes the moment.”

Or, to put it another way, “music we can snatch from earlier albums and throw out the door as a Yuppie-fied sales concept.”

Such origins notwithstanding, it’s a good assortment of music ... assuming you don’t already own A Concord Jazz Christmas, A Concord Jazz Christmas II and Playboy’s Latin Jazz Christmas, from which fully half these 14 tracks are taken. (I mean, really; the Playboy compilation is only a few years old!)

The Frank Vignola Quintet’s run at “Jingle Bells” is a lot of fun, as is piano wizard Dave McKenna’s lively rendition of “O Christmas Tree.” The Gene Harris Quartet’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is quite nice, as is George Shearing’s solo piano version of “My Favorite Things,” one of the few cuts on this CD that is new to me.

As this appears to be the season’s sole compilation CD, I can’t dismiss it entirely ... but c’mon, Concord: Can’t you get your musicians to record some new tracks?

I wish Anton Schwartz’s Holiday Time (Anton Jazz AJ-1003) were a full-length album instead of a five-song, 27-minute EP, although the accomplished tenor saxman obeys that crucial stage edict: He leaves me wanting more. Supported ably by Art Hirahara (piano), John Wiitala (bass) and Tim Bulkley (drums), Schwartz delivers quite tasty readings of four Christmas carols and one romantic snuggler. (After all, the disc is called Holiday Time, not Christmas Time.)

Schwartz opens with a swinging version of “Jingle Bells” that gives Hirahara ample opportunity for some solid keyboard chops; the pianist also shines on “Sleigh Ride.” Schwartz’s arrangement of “The Christmas Song” is slow and soulful, while his whimsical handling of “Winter Wonderland” is a lot of fun. The disc concludes with a gorgeous reading of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” which should match the happy, late-night exhaustion of Christmas Eve parents who’ve finally gotten all the gifts under the tree, and are settling back for a warming egg nog before getting (at most) two or three hours’ sleep.

I was disappointed by David Hoffman’s Christmas in Your Heart (Lakefront LK-009), for the simple reason that this veteran jazzman’s reputation preceded him. Knowing that Hoffman put in many seasons as a trumpet/flugelhorn soloist with the Ray Charles Orchestra sets up certain expectations ... namely, that at least some of this guy’s tracks would swing, darn it.

Sadly, that’s not the case with this album, which is many things — pleasant, heartfelt and gentle on the ears — but definitely not jazz. All 11 cuts are leisurely, and all the arrangements place too much weight on guest vocalists and some insufferable la-la-las and da-da-das from an uncredited chorus (a melodic affectation I truly loathe). Every time Hoffman and his band threaten to deliver some solid jazz riffs — as in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Winter Wonderland” — the effect is ruined when those chanting voices rise from the background.

Ah, well. They can’t all be winners.

I’m fussy when it comes to jazz vocalists; class acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, the Boys Choir of Harlem and the Manhattan Transfer set the bar pretty high, and many albums weaken solid background instrumentals with an untrained, inaudible or — worse yet — out of tune lead vocal.

That said, a few vocal releases slipped into this year’s stack of goodies. It’s Christmas (Sunnyside Music SS M 1002) is a brand-new release by the vocal quartet Jazz Spectrum: soprano Peggy Coniff, alto Stacy Eifert, tenor Dan Maher and bass Dale Tubaugh. The singers have a lot of fun with traditional melodies ranging from “Let it Snow” and “Winter Wonderland” to “Little Drummer Boy” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and pianist Bob Zaun deserves considerable credit for the cute arrangements and occasionally updated lyrics. The wordplay is very clever, and the group must be a lot of fun during its live appearances throughout parts of Illinois.

Ironically, the instrumental backing often lets the singers down. Don Martin’s trumpet accents in “We Need a Little Christmas” are weak, uncertain and poorly mixed, with a result that sounds tinny. Vibes player Eric Niessner is similarly hesitant with his contribution to “Jingle Bells.”

I’d love to hear Jazz Spectrum again in a few years, and with a stronger band behind them.

Christmas Time Is Here (Victoria VC4339) is a cool disc that showcases the vocal prowess of Monday Off with the solid jazz guitar chops of Bucky Pizzarelli, with an assist from the piano-bass-drums trio of Ray Kennedy, Jerry Bruno and Joe Cocuzzo.

The jazz quartet Monday Off — Danette Holden, Richard Roland, Raymond Sage and Sarah Solie — was formed in 1999 while Roland, Sage and Solie were touring the country with the Broadway production of Titanic. Holden joined the group for this Christmas CD, and let’s just say these Broadway veterans know how to sell a song.

(The group’s name reflects the fact that theaters traditionally are “dark” — closed — on Monday.)

The album opens with a fast-paced cover of “Deck the Halls” that features some solid scatting by the vocalists, and gives listeners a very good sense of the fun to come. “Winter Wonderland” is similarly up-tempo, while “Frosty the Snowman” benefits from some modified lyrics to introduce Pizzarelli’s lively guitar solo. He and Kennedy also deliver lovely solos in a truly gorgeous reading of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Finally, Connie Evingson’s The Secret of Christmas (Minnehaha Music MM2004) showcases both Evingson’s sparkling skills and a roster of solid instrumentalists. Jazziz magazine named this disc one of 2003’s “12 CDs of Christmas,” and it’s easy to see why; Evingson’s arrangements — with able assists from pianists Sanford Moore and Mary Louise Knutson, reed player Dave Karr and guest guitarist Robert Everest — are both inventive and swinging, and her updated lyrics for “Carol of the Bells” and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite are a hoot.

Indeed, the lengthy “Nutcracker Petite Suite” is this album’s centerpiece, highlighting Evingson’s droll lyrics in quick takes from each of the holiday favorite’s many segments, along with some lovely flute work by Karr. No less than Doc Severinsen lends impressive trumpet support to “Gesu Bambino,” which emerges with an Afro-Cuban beat; the traditional Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” starts slow but then blossoms into a New Orleans-style hand-clapper, with lively contributions from Karr (on sax) and special guest Ricky Peterson on organ.

Whew! Time to write cards, wrap presents and decorate trees ... tasks that will be a breeze with such cool tunes in the background.

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