Thursday, December 7, 2006

Holiday Jazz 2006: Yule be swingin'

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.06

[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 11 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

Researching this annual round-up just became a bit harder.

Whatever the chain’s other vices and virtues, Tower Records always displayed an impressive selection of seasonal music, and — at Sacramento’s Watt Avenue outlet — even divided the releases by genre. Flipping through discs to find new holiday jazz releases was an annual treat, and one I greatly anticipated each November.

But now, with Tower gone, my only local option is Borders. I’ve nothing but praise for their variety of books, but the music section has needed serious help for quite some time; it appears as if nobody even bothers to alphabetize the discs in many sections, let alone divide by sub-category. Have you ever tried to find a soundtrack in that mess?

Fortunately, the still-cherished “search the bins” experience remains a possibility, albeit with a bit more planning. Berkeley’s Amoeba Music sets up a dynamite display of holiday music in late November, and those folks also stock an impressive supply of used CDs and — wait for it — even LPs.

I call it paradise.

Even a visit to Amoeba, however, didn’t reveal all that much in the way of 2006 holiday jazz releases, which makes me wonder if the last decade’s “soft jazz”-inspired deluge finally might be receding. One year does not a trend make, but I am surprised by the relative scarcity of new material.

Thank goodness for the Internet, and for below-the-radar Web outlets such as cdbaby and I’ve long shouted the joys of cdbaby, but ejazzlines is new to me this year ... and they even have a special section wholly devoted to Christmas jazz.

Thanks to such resources, I found quite a few recent and even older CDs to round out this yearly celebration of holiday jazz. As usual, an initially reasonable article therefore blossomed into a monster of redwood status, and I’ll be mightily impressed by anybody who keeps reading to the bitter end.

But the journey, as the say, is reason enough. I had my usual good time with all this music, and I hope some of it winds up in your home, as well.

Those who’ve grown tired of the same old-same old in seasonal jazz will want to run, not walk, to find a copy of the Classical Jazz Quartet’s Christmas (Kind of Blue 10014). This positively sublime album features some of today’s finest jazz stars: Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Stefon Harris on vibes and marimba, and Lewis Nash on drums.

And you won’t find a trace of Rudolph, Frosty or the Chipmunks.

As befits the ensemble’s name, these guys have compiled an album of classically hued tracks: two stand-alone pieces — the “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, and Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and an ambitious, six-movement arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

The overall tone may be on the occasionally solemn side, but the jazz chops are magnificent. Harris struts his stuff with a dynamic interpretation of the melody line from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”; he yields to Barron’s equally vigorous piano work, and then the entire quartet goes to town.

Bach comes next: Carter gently plucks the opening melody, which expands to include both piano and vibes until kicking into high gear after another minute or so. Many Christmas jazz albums serve nicely as background music, but you can’t help but pay close attention to these four guys; musicians who complement each other so well demand a listener’s full concentration.

As for the nearly 40-minute “Nutcracker,” all I can say is wow. The second movement — the “March” — is particularly delightful.

I’d love to have been in the studio while this album was recorded, because these guys clearly had a great time. And they just might help sway that Bach, Beethoven and Mozart-oriented friend of yours, who hasn’t yet found a reason to like jazz.