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.

Well, the ACME Brass Company’s X-Mas X-ing (Kampini Records KAB60298) knocked me out.

musician Tom Kamp’s album is sheer genius: a remarkably inventive concept executed with impressive musicianship. Each of this album’s 13 tracks is a familiar Christmas theme that has been interpolated in the manner of a different jazz classic, and/or in the style of a well-known jazz icon.

Thus, the CD opens with “Jingle Duke”: “Jingle Bells” arranged in the familiar style of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train,” with nods along the way toward “Satin Doll,” “C-Jam Blues” and a few other bits of Ellingtonia.

“Silent Miles” is a clever blend of “Silent Night” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” along with nods toward that jazz master’s “Four,” “Tune-Up,” “Freddie Freeloader” and others. You’ll even catch an echo of “Blue X-Mas,” made famous years ago thanks to Bob Dorough’s deliciously caustic vocal.

Kamp wrote all these arrangements himself, and they’re brilliant. The results aren’t uniformly successful; a few tracks are a bit too busy for their own good — “No More Blue Christmas Bossa” (“Blue Christmas” by way of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa” and Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade,” with a nod to Elvis Presley’s band style) comes to mind — but by and large veteran jazz fans will be delighted by the game, as they listen carefully and try to extract every little musical quote and reference.

Kamp assembled a good band, as well: Bill Ash and Matt Krempasky on trumpet and flugelhorn, R.J. Kelley on French horn, Dale Turk on bass trombone (to Kamp’s trombone), Linda Presgrave with her solid piano chops, Ron Haspo on bass, and Rick Visone on percussion.

Although casual listeners think of jazz as a lively, up-tempo form, the genre also has its softer side. Snowfall (JazzCompass JC1009) is a gorgeous album that often sounds like the best possible blend of jazz and classical motifs. This quintet’s five musicians — Clay Jenkins, trumpet; Larry Koonse, guitar; Bill Cunliffe, piano; Tom Warrington, bass; and Joe La Barbera, drums — work impeccably together, and the result is an album that sounds better each time I hear it. Every track is a keeper.

This is traditional give-and-take jazz, with each musician granted a chance to shine, often trading riffs in various duets. Thus, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” opens with Cunliffe’s smooth, gently swinging piano, which then gives way to Warrington’s equally divine bass. “Silent Night” features similar interplay between Koonse and Cunliffe.

The material reflects the album’s classical stylings, with quieter songs such as “Greensleaves,” “O Come Emmanuel” (a haunting trumpet lament from Jenkins) and even a droll bit of Bach, in “Sleepers Wake.” The interwoven medley of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and “Jingle Bells” is a clever arrangement, with Jenkins’ trumpet showing plenty of “Jolly,” while Koonse counterpoints with his similarly lively “Jingle.”

Pianist Bobby Floyd delivers a treat with Floyd’s Finest Gift (Cojazz CD-1017) a tasty mix of solo works and lively ensemble numbers. This is a rich, old-fashioned trio jazz session, with extended arrangements and plenty of solos, which I’d expect from a veteran who has done the nightclub scene with the likes of Ray Charles, Jeff Tyzik and Sarah Morrow.

Floyd is all over the keyboard, and he opens the album with an aggressively up-tempo reading of “What Child Is This” that features ample support from sidemen Derek DiCenzo (bass) and Reggie Jackson (drums), and likely will make you forget that this song generally is performed softly and slowly.

DiCenzo also adds some solid bass licks to “O Christmas Tree” and a lovely melding of “Away in a Manger” and “A Child Is Born.”

Floyd delivers gentler arrangements of traditionally faster songs such as “Jingle Bells” and “ The Christmas Song,” and his solo on “Christmas Time Is Here” is sublime. Another solo, a theme and variations on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” is an effortless showcase of different keyboard styles.

Put this album on top of the stack. It’s a keeper.

Last year’s round-up included the Ken Foster Trio’s O Christmas Trio, a lively collection of tracks recorded in all sorts of styles. The group — Ken Foster, piano and keyboards; Brian Foster, bass; and Bob Macart, drums — has released another holiday jazz collection, the equally droll A Holly Jolly Christmas (Foster Music Enterprises,

The arrangements are just as clever; I’m particularly fond of the lively cover of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which opens with the first few bars of “In the Mood” and continues in that vein. A bluesy rendition of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” begins with an echo of “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” boasts a hip-swaying reggae flavor that will be enjoyed by those who treasure their copy of Jimmy Buffett’s Christmas Island.

Unfortunately, a few tracks suffer from too much studio sweetening, particularly those where the basic trio sound is marred by the presence of digitized strings; “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” for example, is way too syrupy. (Have faith in your own talents, guys; you don’t want to slide into the purgatory of elevator jazz!) The entire album also sounds a bit tinny, as if the cues had been compressed too much during the mixing process.

Those caveats aside, A Holly Jolly Christmas garners considerable good will for the aforementioned arrangements and its blend of lively toe-tappers and quieter hymns; Ken Foster’s keyboard solo on “Good King Wenceslas” is particularly lovely.

Besides ... how could I not enjoy an album when the musicians “double-triple-dog-dare” me to listen?

The Peter Smith Quartet’s Yule Like This isn’t entirely a Christmas album, as four of its 12 tracks don’t have anything to do with the holiday.

But you’ll get plenty of seasonal snap from the assortment. Smith includes an uncommon reading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; although the song generally is performed as a duet, Heather Bambrick’s sparkling vocal is accompanied only by Smith’s mischievous saxophone. It works beautifully; you won’t even notice the missing “other half” of the lyrics.

Smith and his band also deliver a truly lovely reading of Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born” — one of the best I’ve heard — and their cover of “Blue Christmas” turns it into a luxuriously romantic ballad that deserves to be shared on a dance floor with one you love.

I’m less pleased with “Nature Boy,” which Smith turns into a tango — an odd choice for this sensitive composition — and the final cut, a rather weird arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy,” leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. But those two tracks can be rotated out of play; the rest of the album goes down quite nicely.

Speaking of things I don’t like, truth in packaging comes to mind. The line separating smooth jazz from puerile EZ-listening junk can get quite narrow, and Christmas in the City (Green Hill GHD5442) crosses it. Repeatedly. Under no circumstances can this bland, lowest-common-denominator noise be termed jazz ... not even “light jazz,” as the liner notes insist.

Green Hill has courted disaster in some of its earlier over-produced “genre blends,” and this one truly goes over the edge.

This album pairs the Stephen Kummer Trio with the Chris McDonald Orchestra, much to the former’s detriment. Every time one of these tracks flirts with a hint of jazz — say, during the opening bars of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “ The Christmas Waltz” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” — McDonald (who also produced) buries the trio beneath overwrought strings and other sickly-sweet orchestral accents.

You’ll even hear a faux wind blowing during “Christmas Time Is Here,” which turns the song into a Disney ride.

All pretense goes out the window during the later tracks, which don’t even pretend to be jazz; “When My Heart Finds Christmas” (a Harry Connick original that deserves better), “My Favorite Things” and “What a Wonderful World” are buried beneath soggy sentimentality and the ghastly swelling of too many orchestral flourishes; the result is like the worst possible marriage between Ferrante and Teicher, Liberace and The Living Strings.

Funny, though, how everything is a matter of degree. Those seeking a good holiday “snuggle album” will be better served by Christmas by the Fire (Village Square VSD3049,, which gives sax player Sam Levine a chance to channel Kenny G. Although this album occasionally suffers from the smooth jazz curse of what sounds like canned percussion, the overall orchestrations and arrangements aren’t nearly as sickly sweet as those found on Christmas in the City.

The slower numbers work quite well here; Levine’s soulful sax work is particularly nice on “The Christmas Song” and “White Christmas,” and pianist David Huntsinger lends able support on several numbers, particularly “Jingle Bells.”

The atmospheric “fit” isn’t quite as successful on songs generally known to be up-tempo, such as “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Let it Snow”; I kept waiting for the intro to be over, so Levine and the rest could kick into gear. But that never happens, nor should it, on a laid-back album designed to be “the perfect soundtrack for a romantic holiday evening by the fire.”

I dunno about perfect, but those who buy Kenny G’s albums — a disease I don’t understand, although I recognize its existence — should be equally happy with Christmas by the Fire.

Green Hill fares better with its second 2005 release, the salsa-laden Feliz Navidad (GHD5444), featuring percussionist Lalo Davila and Orkesta Cubana. Salsa bands usually are more fun in person than on a recording, where the claps, grunts, whistles and shout-outs can get a bit tiresome, but there’s no denying the vibrant energy presented in this selection of Christmas covers “from the Cabana Lounge.”

The best salsa cuts are impossible to ignore — you can’t help wanting to dance — and Davila & Co. have a lot of fun with “Feliz Navidad,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” The album’s final track — “Here Comes Santa Claus” — is the best, boasting an arrangement that reveals a bit more complexity than usual.

The sound is equally nice when the tempo slows, during the languid covers of “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (the latter featuring a lovely flute solo by Jeff Coffin).

Unfortunately, some of the tracks suffer from too much production and an over-abundance of cute affectations; hearing the band repeatedly shout “You really wanna let it snow” during “Let It Snow” is simply embarrassing.

Rotate those cuts out, and blend what’s left with other CDs are on the changer, and you’ll probably enjoy the results more.

Green Hill does deserve credit for introducing me to pianist Beegie Adair a few years ago, and I’ve followed her career ever since. She performed in Sacramento recently, which gave me an opportunity to chat with her; of course one of the first questions asked of any musician always revolves around who she likes to listen to.

Among others, she cited pianist Lori Mechem, who has her own holiday jazz album this year, Brazilian Christmas (Village Square VSD3044). The good news is that Adair’s taste is as flawless as her musicianship; Mechem has serious piano chops. The bad news is that they’re too often buried beneath a string sextet — four violins, two cellos — that sadly overshadows Mechem and her Brazilian group, Ritmos Picantes.

Try as she might, Mechem just can’t emerge from these smothering, saccharin strings on roughly half this album’s cuts. As my father often has said, strings ain’t got no swing ... and he’s right.

Fortunately, the violins pull back often enough to let Mechem shine. She and guitarist Pete Huttlinger deliver a tasty reading of “ The Christmas Song” and “Greensleaves,” and the entire group has a good time with the cleverly arranged “We Three Kings.” Denis Solee contributes a solid sax line on a few other cuts, and his flute is particularly memorable on “The Christmas Waltz.”

But the group only truly goes to town on one track, a lively, salsa-laden reading of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Is Coming,” which is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.

I’m eager to hear Mechem without all the extraneous orchestration.

Soul diva Anita Baker waited a long time to crack this genre, and the result is this year’s Christmas Fantasy (Blue Note 0946 3 32173 2 4). Sadly, it’s not one of her better albums, and it’s not even a very inspired holiday release.

The honey-voiced singer who made such a splash in the 1980s is in fine form with the album’s opening track, a Dixieland-hued riff on a familiar snowman dubbed “Frosty’s Rag”; the lively song is a delectable showcase for both Baker’s Sarah Vaughan-ish vocal shading and sidemen George Duke (piano) and Larry Carlton (guitar). She also digs into a sultry reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which benefits from Barry Eastmond’s aggressive piano chops.

Unfortunately, Baker’s breathy, warbling vocal stylings wear thin as one moves through the album, and her phrasing gets quite redundant in the original compositions she co-wrote — “Christmas Fantasy” and “Moonlight Sleighride” — both of which sound as if they were penned for overwrought TV movies. The third original, “Family of Man,” is even worse; its preaching, shmaltzy sentimentality sounds like something the Fifth Dimension would have done back in the ’70s.

Baker is, as many have observed, an acquired taste; fans love the way she slides from one note to the next. I find her too self-consciously affected, and her attack doesn’t suit the material here.

Saxman Greg Vail caught my attention immediately, by opening Is It Christmas Yet? ( with a particularly soulful reading of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The rest of the album is just as smooth; indeed, Vail blends solid jazz chops with pleasant arrangements throughout. A few tracks — “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “White Christmas” — move to a faster beat, which allows Vail and a variety of sidemen to strut their stuff.

You’ll detect a few other influences, as well; Vail’s droll arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” includes a musical quote from “Alfie,” while his take on “Winter Wonderland” opens with the immediately familiar bass line from “Killer Joe.” And Vail’s arrangement of “ The Little Drummer Boy” is strongly reminiscent of Duke Pearson’s classic version, recorded back in the ’60s (and still not available on CD, dadgummit).

My quibbles are minor. Considering the album’s tasty pleasures, Vail’s squawky riffs on “We Three Kings” are jarring and out of place. And I’ve never cared for performers who find it “cute” to allow little children to intrude on the music, as happens three times during the course of this disc — an affectation that makes an album seem more like a family Christmas card than a professional product — but, fortunately, all three cases are isolated from the genuinely pleasant jazz, and easily skipped.

Speaking of A Charlie Brown Christmas, that venerable TV special’s 40th anniversary has prompted the release of 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak Records PKD-8534-2), a compilation album produced by jazz pianist and current Peanuts music torch-bearer David Benoit, who also performs on many of the tracks.

(It should be noted that the version of this album available at Target contains two additional tracks not present if you purchase it anywhere else ... yet another example of this obnoxious — and, sadly, increasingly common — marketing practice.)

This new album covers all the Guaraldi themes and traditional Christmas songs used in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the results are mixed, to say the least. Jazz purists will lament the frequent use of strings and vocal wah-wah accents, and the percussion is too heavy at times, particularly on “O Tannenbaum,” where the disco-style beat overwhelms Gerald Albright’s lush sax work.

But a few of the cuts are quite nice, starting with Benoit’s punchy, swinging cover of “Christmas Is Coming,” which gets the album off to a great start. Smooth jazz stalwart Dave Koz delivers an equally lively reading of “Linus and Lucy,” trumpet player Rick Braun supplies a solid rendition of “My Little Drum,” and Vanessa Williams brings heart-breaking poignance to the one new song, Benoit’s “Just Like Me.”

On the other hand, Toni Braxton destroys “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” — a song not even in A Charlie Brown Christmas — with a breathy, microphone-swallowing delivery that sounds as if each word is bursting between her lips during the height of sexual passion. And as bad as Braxton’s delivery is, Chaka Khan is even worse on “The Christmas Song”: outrageously overwrought, her harsh, unappealing voice building to a (literally) shrieking climax. Somebody should have muzzled her.

Tribute albums always run the risk of tainting pleasant memories of the original material, and it’s sad, but true: The contributions by Braxton, Khan and The Rippingtons (“Red Baron”) are so dreadful that they overshadow the rest.

Despite its title, Jack Wilkins’ solo Christmas Jazz Guitar (Mel Bay Records MB20257CD) ain’t jazz. It’s a gorgeous listen, and Wilkins obviously put a lot of love into this disc, but it belongs with Windham Hill’s Winter’s Solstice series: a quiet-time blend of instrumental folk/New Age, designed for that final exhausted moment before bed on Dec. 24, when you’re happily sipping one last mug of egg nog.

Almost all the tracks on this short album are peaceful readings of traditional carols and hymns. The arrangements are as familiar as the song list, although I was pleased to note the presence of “Barbara Allen,” from the 1951 British film version of Scrooge (the best one, with Alastair Sim).

Wilkins cuts loose only once, during his cover of “Sleigh Ride”: a lively interpretation that suggests he could, indeed, deliver an album of jazz guitar more in keeping with, say, Ron Eschete’s Christmas Impressions. But this one isn’t it.

Those seeking to nourish that jazz guitar jones will be much happier with Canadian-based Edward Tobin’s ’Tis the Season to Be Groovy (ECV Records ESCD-101502), a lively collection of traditional songs and one original composition. (And no, “Honky, The Christmas Goose” is not Tobin’s original!) Although you’ll swear this is a trio or quartet, in fact Tobin recorded, mixed, arranged and played everything himself, and the results are impressive. He’s clearly more comfortable with the strings than with the percussion, but the latter isn’t nearly as aseptic as often is the case, with one-man productions of this nature.

Tobin is equally adept at all tempos; he cooks on lively readings of “Winter Wonderland,” “We Three Kings” and “Sleigh Ride,” and then rachets back for a pleasantly subdued “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and a gently swinging “O Christmas Tree.” He also has a sense of humor; his arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is certain to raise a smile.

Most important, Tobin is inventive. Instrumental soloists sometimes confine themselves to short interpretations — as Wilkins does, on his album — because it can be hard to hold one’s interest for four or five minutes. But Tobin has no trouble with that; he clearly has a lot of fun with his arrangements, and the result is equally enjoyable for the listener.

I love vibes, and it seems the jazz world has too few musicians who feel comfortable on this instrument. Happily, Brad Stirtz’s Christmas Vibes ( is a long-overdue exception: a smooth assortment of secular favorites and Christmas hymns, all of them a joy to hear. Stirtz handles the vibes — with an occasional piano overdub — and his sound often is blended beautifully with Kraig McCreary’s guitar work.

The album opens with a deceptively slow prologue to “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” until the quartet — which includes Larry Kohut, bass; and Mark Walker, percussion — kicks up the tempo. Stirtz’s arrangements are clever throughout; the usually quiet “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is delivered as a toe-tapping swinger, while “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” is livelier than usual.

These guys simply have a lot of fun. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” opens with a riff that echoes the long-ago “Secret Agent Man,” while “Joy to the World” begins with an approach that’ll make you swear we’re about to hear “Jingle Bells”; indeed, “Joy” is the album’s highlight, a lively shuffle certain to send listeners to the dance floor.

Stirtz and his sidemen are equally adept with the quieter numbers; “Away in a Manger” is a remarkably pretty mix of vibes and guitar, while “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and “Savior of the Nation” would be perfect accompaniment for a late-night Christmas Eve church service. High marks throughout.

The David Leonhardt Jazz Group — Leonhardt, piano; Larry McKenna, sax; Matthew Parrish, bass; and Taro Okamoto, drums — delivers some solid traditional sounds in I’ll Be Home for Christmas (Big Bang Records BBR9576,, a mostly tasty collection of familiar carols and songs.

I say “mostly” only because vocalist Nancy Reed — who has a lovely voice when she sings on “Winter Wonderland,” “Sleigh Ride” and a particularly sultry “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — has a distressing habit of contributing “shading” to a few other tracks. Kinder listeners might assume she’s lending color or trying to scat, but I’ve never had any patience with vocalists who insert wholly unnecessary lah-lah-lahs or doobie-doos on top of instrumental solos that would sound just fine without such superfluous nonsense.

Fortunately, she doesn’t do it often ... and the quartet is so tight that I’m inclined to forgive the transgression.

Leonhardt’s arrangements are lively and frequently whimsical; the group has a good time with “Jingle Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” both of which benefit from Okamoto’s driving beat. “Frosty the Snowman” also boasts a cute arrangement and a clever percussion line.

McKenna takes the lead with some poignant sax riffs during a gentle reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and Leonhardt’s solid keyboard chops are on evidence in every track.

The band brings it all home with a swinging cover of “White Christmas,” which concludes the album in style.

Pianist Michael Allen Harrison’s Holiday Jazz (MAH040) is a bit misleading. Although the album claims to feature Harrison’s quartet — with Phil Baker, bass; Tim Ellis, guitar; and Israel Annoh, drums — six of these 12 tracks are piano solos ... and very slow and quiet solos, at that. Harrison does have a nice touch, but his solo work is tranquilizing: suitable for bedtime lullabyes, perhaps, but by no means jazz.

Fortunately, the other six tracks — with the sidemen — are upbeat and lively, in many cases with inventive arrangements; the group’s rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is particularly droll. The quartet has a good time with “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and their reading of “Sleigh Ride” is noteworthy for its bluesy, reined-in approach.

Al Grey’s Christmas Stockin’ Stuffer (Capri 74039-2) is by no means new, but it’s new to me, having popped up during a visit to (which actually has a section devoted to Christmas jazz, bless their little hearts!). The bluesy, New Orleans-flavored collection is a bit uneven, but the good certainly outweighs the lamentable.

Grey, on trombone, gets solid support from a good-sized band that seems happiest with quieter readings of holiday classics such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”; the ensemble’s handling of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is particularly soulful.

The pace rarely turn up-tempo, with the exception of a finger-snapping cover of “Jingle Bells,” delivered in a Dixieland groove; and a bossa-nova “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” has a particularly fine muted trumpet solo by Joe Cohn.

Jon Hendricks delivers vocals on two originals co-written with Grey: the album’s lively title track, and the Calypso-fueled “How Santa Got Thin,” which deserves a permanent place in the Christmas Novelty Song Hall of Fame.

Obtaining a copy of the European Jazz Trio’s White Christmas (M&I Jazz MYCJ-30231) was incredibly difficult, but well worth the struggle. Despite its name, the group records on a Japanese label, and attempts to order it via domestic sources (even Amazon) proved dodgy. I finally relied on a Japanese friend who mailed me the CD.

This is a truly tasty album, and my sole complaint is that it’s so short: The seven tracks clock in at only 28 minutes. Still, every note and arrangement are top-notch, so I can’t complain about a group that sacrifices quantity for quality.

You won’t find weird or otherwise creative arrangements here; this is classic trio jazz at its finest ... the sort of stuff one craves in a jazz club with a glass of port in one hand, and a cherished companion on the other arm. Pianist Marc van Roon dominates the first two tracks — a dreamy reading of “White Christmas” and a lively rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — in a session recorded in 2002.

Frans van der Hoeven (bass) and Roy Dackus (drums) are consistent throughout, but the remaining five tracks feature pianist Karel Boehlee, in a session recorded quite a bit earlier, in 1991. Although a solid pianist, Boehlee hasn’t quite the sparkle or snap of van Roon ... but it’s a close race.

I like this one. A lot.

Pianist Brad Hatfield’s Holidays at Home is a fascinating album: a collection of familiar Christmas carols — and one original — designed to be performed for film and TV show background usages. Because of the demands of an underscore, all the arrangements maintain an identity, stick close to the melody and — in Hatfield’s words — “try to stay out of the way.”

Many of these cues have been used in films such as Surviving Christmas and television shows such as The District, The Sopranos and Roswell, along with dozens of others. Next time you watch Mystic River, take note of the solo pianist; that’s Hatfield, playing Eastwood’s score.

The 26 tracks include multiple versions of the same songs, but always with different instrumentation. For example, you’ll find “Good King Wenceslas” four times: a relaxed swing version with clarinet accompaniment, a jazzier version with clarinet, and two versions with sax.

Because of the redundancy, you’ll probably want to sample this CD rather than play it straight through, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that the contents are bland or become tiresome. Far from it: The album opens with a wonderfully smooth version of “Silent Night,” and I love Hatfield’s “Swingle Bells,” an up-tempo take on “Jingle Bells.” He also delivers a great version of “O Christmas Tree.”

The collection concludes with six piano solos: three quiet and three jazzy, and all a pleasure.

I was drawn to Nelson Rangell’s All I Hope for Christmas (Koch KOC-CD-9592) by fond memories of the sax/flute/piccolo player’s sparkling rendition of “Let It Snow” on 1991’s GRP Christmas Collection II. Apparently Rangell himself liked that arrangement, because he pretty much repeats it as the first track on his new Christmas album ... with some new instrumental flourishes that aren’t an improvement.

Indeed, most of the rest of Rangell’s album is disappointing. Only two other tracks can be considered jazz: a swinging version of “Do You Hear What I Hear” and a lively arrangement of “My Favorite Things,” both proving that Rangell has some solid jazz chops, when he chooses to exercise them.

The remaining tracks, alas, run together in a sugary, over-produced, high-pitched blur of flute, piccolo and soprano sax. Honestly, Rangell’s version of “Silent Night” is so Disney-esque that I expected animated bluebirds to fly in through the window, while his sickly sweet arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gives Kenny G a good name.

I’m not the right audience for this disc, but this much is fact: It ain’t jazz. It ain’t even good mellow jazz.

But let’s conclude with style: The aptly named Dynamic Les DeMerle Band really goes to town with The Jazz Spirit of Christmas (Origin 82438), a lively collection of holiday standards from an ensemble that delivers a helluva lotta sound from just four musicians (DeMerle, drums; Ken Peplowski, tenor sax and clarinet; Thomas Snow, piano; and Bill McCrossen, bass).

These guys really cook, probably because DeMerle maintains a lively tempo on just about every track. Things get off to a rousing start with a finger-snapping “Winter Wonderland,” which introduces each player with a juicy solo; it’s followed by an equally smokin’ cover of “Let It Snow,” and the pace doesn’t flag until the band sends us home with a soulful reading of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

My only regret is that the album doesn’t feature more instrumentals. All but two of these 16 tracks are vocals, and while Bonnie Eisele has a lovely voice — which bears favorable comparison to Keely Smith — she’s not quite up to the caliber of her companions. She and DeMerle (sharing vocals) have a lot of fun with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Snow’s lively arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” and she tugs at the heartstrings with “Snowfall.”

Really, though, you can’t help getting fired up by the band. The way these guys rip through the album’s two instrumentals — a double-time sprint through “Sleigh Ride,” with Peplowski and Snow trading licks at an amazing speed; and an equally ferocious reading of “Little Bebop Drummer Boy” — just makes me want more of them ... and no disrespect intended to Eisele.

So ... that’s what I’ll be listening to, between now and Dec. 25th.

How about you?

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