Thursday, December 8, 2005

Holiday Jazz 2005: Jingle bell swing

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.8.05

[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 for roughly a decade, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

Time was, this annual column was hard to fill.

That was before the explosion of Christmas albums, a genre that has become one of the few genuine growth industries in the music biz.

Seems like everybody is recording holiday music these days, which is both good and bad ... good because it’s nice to hear more of this music, bad because science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon’s Law still holds: 90 percent of everything is garbage.

Which means more garbage.

As a result, canvassing record labels and the Internet for this annual survey of holiday jazz has become a lengthy process, because there’s no reason to waste space on the truly dreadful, with so many better albums at hand. But even though I’ve tried to be selective, this column can only be dubbed The Monster That Ate This Week’s Entertainment Section.

I’m not sure my wife will read all the way to the end. If you hang on that long, my hat’s off to you.

Some of the mainstream albums can be found in your local music shoppe, while many others are on sale only through cdbaby. A few others are even harder to track down, but this is the Internet age, and I have faith in your resourcefulness.

So: Nog some eggs, get the wrapping paper ready for a marathon session, and prepare for some groovy holiday mood music!

Starting with the ne plus ultra of 2005’s holiday releases , the season’s best news is Diana Krall’s modestly titled Christmas Songs (Verve B0004717-02), which best can be described with a single word:


Krall disappointed a few longtime fans with the introspective pop angst of her previous album, The Girl in the Other Room, which bewildered folks who prefer her sassy covers of standards and torch songs. Well, if that’s the Diana Krall you love, then you’ll adore this album, because it swings to a degree that hasn’t been true of any Christmas jazz album released for quite awhile.

Krall never has been shy about employing carnal undertones, and that’s equally true here: This holiday album is downright sexy. The recording quality is nothing short of amazing; I’m pretty sure I can hear her smile on more than one occasion.

Krall is backed on seven tracks by the full-blown fury of the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and the blend is awesome: by turns sassy, swinging and slyly droll. You can’t help grinning when, on “Winter Wonderland,” Krall modifies the lyric by singling, “...frolic and play/ the Canadian way.”

Two other songs — “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — are quieter reprises from Krall’s ultra-rare 1998 EP, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and it’s nice to have those tracks available on a more readily obtainable album.

This CD concludes with Irving Berlin’s poignant “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sleep,” from the 1954 film White Christmas ... perhaps more lullabye than carol, but nonetheless a marvelous way to conclude a magnificent album.

I’ve done these annual surveys for a long time now, and while I continue to be pleased by many new releases each year, I’m less likely to get excited; after all, we’re talking about a finite number of songs, and only so many variations on familiar themes.