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.

The season invariably brings some new compilation albums, although I found only two this year. Telarc’s Christmas Break: Relaxing Jazz for the Holidays is a good purchase for those who lack the original albums from which the contents are drawn, but you won’t find anything new on this disc.

The roster of jazz stars is quite impressive, however, with Dave Brubeck (“Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells”) and Oscar Peterson (“White Christmas,” “The Christmas Waltz”) leading a pack that also features George Shearing (“Donkey Carol”), Ray Brown (“The Christmas Song”) and Gerry Mulligan (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), among others. If your music library lacks holiday jazz, and you want to suggest otherwise, this disc will fool most visitors ... but you’d be much better off buying the original albums made by these folks.

On the other hand, Jazz Yule Love II (Mack Avenue MAC 1029), this year’s follow-up to 2002’s Jazz Yule Love, is a collection of cuts assembled specifically for this disc.

The solid jazz entries belong to trumpeter Sean Jones and the Bud Shank Quartet. Jones and his sidemen open the CD with a fast-paced arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a finger-snapping thrill ride that rips along and grants slick solos to Jones and pianist Orrin Evans. Shank and his sidemen deliver an equally fiery reading of “Let It Snow,” and then Jones returns — accompanied only by pianist Mulgrew Miller — for a slow, positively spiritual version of “O Holy Night.”

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra contributes a solid big-band arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” and that’s about where the true jazz stops. Although the Hot Club of Detroit has novel instrumentation — three guitars, bass, clarinet and button accordion — this group’s cover of “The Chipmunk Song” is more cute than rhythmic, while “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” qualifies as pretty, but not really jazz.

Vocalist Ilona Knopfler has a lovely voice, but she’s ill-served by too much orchestration and over-production on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and a second reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And guitarist/vocalist Oscar Castro-Neves delivers two gorgeous songs in the Antonio Carlos Jobim tradition, but neither really qualifies as a Christmas song (although the riff on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” comes close).

As often is the case with such collections, the contents are varied enough that most listeners will find something to enjoy, but probably too varied to be embraced completely by any single fan.

Guitarist Bob Shaw’s delightful A Celebration of Christmas (Varga Sound TO446) brings back pleasant memories of Ron Eschete’s Christmas Impressions, which remains one of my favorite holiday jazz guitar albums. Shaw has the same effortless, laid-back style, along with a knack for unexpected — and therefore quite pleasant — tempos.

Most folks, for example, would deliver “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” at a pretty fast clip; Shaw and his band turn it into a slow blues piece. The same is true of “Feliz Navidad,” also usually performed at a roar; I welcome the gentle, medium-tempo salsa shuffle it becomes on this disc.

The instrumentation also is a trifle unusual. Shaw is accompanied by the expected bass (Tommy Sauter) and drums (Oman Martinez), but the full group is a quartet: They’re joined by Annie Camp on cello, of all things. But any fears about “strings not swinging” are laid to rest with the first track, a lively reading of “Winter Wonderland” that gives Shaw an opportunity for a solid guitar solo.

Tom Roberts lends a solid acoustic guitar on three tracks, turning the quartet into a quintet.

True, a few tracks aren’t jazz. Shaw solos his way through a lovely reading of “What Child Is This,” and he duets with Camp on “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night”; all three tracks are a classically oriented departure from the rest of the album.

But the jazz elements remain elsewhere, even when the tempo slows; “Christmas Time Is Here” has just the right melancholy touch, and “Mary’s Boy Child” — a charming song often neglected on holiday albums — is given the same salsa style of “Feliz Navidad.”

And all the musicians have such fun with their whimsical reading of “O Christmas Tree,” that you can’t help smiling.

Speaking of jazz guitar, I’m even more pleased with Nathen Page’s Season’s Greetings (Hugo’s Music HMS 113). This isn’t a new album — indeed, it was recorded back in 1997 — but it’s new to me, as I only just discovered it at ejazzlines. As far as I’ve been able to find, this is the only source for Page’s excellent album (and one by Art Hodes, to be discussed below).

This is a live performance, although the applause isn’t too intrusive, and that scarcely matters anyway; this album’s joy comes from hearing Page get into some serious jams with younger colleagues Kevin Bales (piano), Lawrence Buckner (bass) and Barry Smith (drums). For a little more than an hour, this quartet has a great time with eight familiar Christmas carols.

The arrangements are lively, the delivery classic small-ensemble: Each musician gets a chance to display his chops with solos in most cuts. Bales’ keyboard work is particularly vibrant in “The Christmas Waltz” and “O Tannenbaum,” and I love the delivery on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”; the normally staid song is given a rhythmic strut that’ll make you snap your fingers and tap your toes ... if not boogie around the room.

The tracks all run long, but the solos never stray too far from the melody; you’ll always know which song you’re enjoying. Indeed, Page and his crew turn “We Three Kings” into a veritable symphony of jazz riffs; the track runs more than 10 minutes and grants ample lively solo work to each man in turn.

But Page also knows how to ramp it down, when appropriate; his sweet, melancholy handling of “The Christmas Song” truly conveys that song’s wistful longing.

Fans of the Manhattan Transfer have long enjoyed this quartet for one or both of two reasons: the achingly gorgeous harmonizing, either a cappella or when backed by a full-blown jazz band; and the lively, up-tempo arrangements that often highlight an album or concert performance.

I therefore was a little disappointed when the Transfer’s first seasonal release, 1992’s The Christmas Album, featured only two raucous, finger-snapping numbers among its 11 tracks. Two. Could they spare ‘em?

Granted, the four singers were in marvelous voice as always, but “slow and pretty” wasn’t the expected menu when I purchased that album.

Flash forward to 2006, and the Transfer’s release of An Acapella Christmas (Rhino R2 74739). Finally, I thought; they realized the earlier mistake, and this album will be more of a jazzy bopper.

Wrong again.

Although the group gets off to a good, medium-tempo start with a clever arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” for the most part An Acapella Christmas is even more disappointing. For openers, it’s short; 36 minutes is pretty thin these days, particularly given the standard retail price of a new CD. More critically, most of the songs once again fall into the soggily sentimental category; the quartet slows “Christmas Time Is Here” to such a crawl that it becomes painful ... and “Toyland” sounds more like a dirge than a Christmas song.

Worse yet, a few tracks include the participation of the quartet’s children.

I’ve no desire to speak ill of kids, and in fairness they don’t sound that bad ... but they’re a far cry from what most fans will expect from this CD. Parental indulgence doesn’t excuse a vanity audio Christmas card that’s masquerading as a serious mainstream release.

In good conscience, I can’t recommend it at all.

Which means we’re still waiting for a definitive Manhattan Transfer Christmas album.

Gap Mangione’s Family Holidays (JM 2005), a 2004 release that the keyboardist intends to represent and reflect the traditional Mangione family holiday experience, has something of an identity crisis ... not unpleasant, mind you, but occasionally unexpected.

Roughly half the numbers are familiar Christmas carols delivered in a rousing big band style: wonderfully entertaining, and every one a finger-snapping swinger. The others are a mixed batch of various family members’ favorite tunes or hymns ... or, in the case of a rousing cover of Leroy Anderson’s “Serenata,” something that Mangione remembers from “philharmonic pops concerts that often took place during the holiday season.” (And I don’t expect many other holiday albums to include “Tarentellas.”)

One of the nonholiday originals, “Sweet Cheryl Lynn,” bears the unmistakable artistic stamp of its composer, Chuck Mangione. As with the best of his many tunes, this one is bouncy and effortlessly melodic, its reading highlighted by Gerry Niewood’s vibrant soprano sax solo.

Actually, that’s one of the best parts of this album’s liner notes : the meticulous attention to solo details. I love being able to praise Pat LaBarbera and Jack Schantz for their tenor sax and trumpet solos (respectively) on the gentle reading of “The Christmas Waltz,” and Grant Geissman is all over the place during a slow, rhythmic shuffle version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” easily the CD’s most delightful track.

As for the gorgeous, rousing fury of a classic big band sound, go no further than “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and “O Christmas Tree,” both of which allow plenty of time for numerous sidemen to shine.

The album concludes with tenor saxman Andy Weinzler’s sublime reading of “Silent Night,” a quiet finish to what sounds like it could have been one incredible Christmas party.

Speaking of big bands, the liner notes on Bob Conti’s Big Band Christmas (NorthSound CD 40332) compare this large, 50-piece ensemble to the traditional stylings of big bands fronted by the likes of Stan Kenton, Count Basie ... and Henry Mancini.

I’d say much closer to the latter than any of the former; this nine-track collection is far from a screaming jazz band, and indeed doesn’t even stray that close to swing on many occasions. Call it old-style dance music, and it’s unlikely to light any fires.

A few tracks show promise: Larry Klimas delivers a lovely sax solo in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and David McKelvy’s harmonica brings an unexpected touch to a gentle reading of “The Christmas Song.” And, wonder of wonders, Conti proves that his band can generate some heat, with an up-tempo arrangement of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

But that, the fifth track, is where the excitement stops. The next three cuts are vocals, fronting rather syrupy arrangements dominated by strings; the only appropriate description is “maudlin.” While only a Scrooge would criticize a reading of “O Holy Night” that concludes with a small child’s plaintive prayer, that track is designed for those seeking sentiment rather than solid musical chops.

Send this one to Great-Great Aunt Tillie in Schenectady.

I must confess that Dixieland generally doesn’t appeal to me, but I couldn’t pass up the Side Street Strutters Jazz Band’s Winter Wonderland (Stop Time Records). This lively group, together since 1983, has presented weekly performances at Disneyland’s Main Street and New Orleans Square for more than two decades; the mix slides from Bourbon Street blues to a more traditional jazz approach, and these guys deliver a lot of sound for a sextet.

The Magic Kingdom has long been known for the high quality of its street musicians, and the Strutters are no exception. They deliver some traditionally tasty readings of familiar carols such as “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” while swinging into a lively Dixieland strut for “Let It Snow,” “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.” The individual musicians get ample time for solos, and it’s obvious these guys can swing, when they set their minds to it.

And you can tell when the mood shifts to Dixieland, because John Noreyko and Greg Varlotta get workouts on tuba and banjo, respectively.

The guys deliver a solid reading of “Little Drummer Boy,” starting quietly and building into a nice finger-snapper, and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” can’t help but bring a smile.

Unfortunately, a few tracks suffer from over-production, notably an otherwise nice interpretation of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that slides into bathos when some strings intrude; and a Dixieland-style “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which indulges in far too many aggressively cute sound effects.

And the disc’s opening and closing tracks — “Winter Wonderland” and “Deck the Halls,” respectively — are both over-produced and an odd stylistic mix, as if battling for attention at the top and bottom of some forgettable TV special.

So ... rotate out three, maybe four tracks, but you’ll find plenty to enjoy with the rest.

Record companies looking to make new money from old material have been milking a rather clever scheme lately: the “re-mastered” CD. The results? Plenty of fans can be suckered ... ah, persuaded ... into purchasing a second copy of an album that they probably already re-purchased when upgrading from LP to CD.

Many re-mastered albums aren’t sufficiently “improved” to justify the additional out-of-pocket expense, but I’m delighted to report that Fantasy’s new re-release of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas (FCD-30066-2) is worth every penny. It’s a magnificent job, and kudos go to Cheryl Pawelski (producer), Stephen Hart (remixing) and George Horn (remastering).

I’d be embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve purchased this album over the years, in one format or another; I mention that only by way of explaining that I know these tracks inside out and sideways. And my admiration comes from the fact that, despite the billing, this really isn’t just a re-mastering: Several of the tracks are entirely different takes, which for a jazz purist is absolute gold. I’d have to call this a different album entirely.

You can tell right away, because the opening cover of “O Tannenbaum” begins with a quick piano filigree and cymbal brush that aren’t present on the original album. Similarly, this version of the ubiquitous Peanuts theme, “Linus and Lucy,” boasts an entirely different improvisational bridge, and Guaraldi’s other original composition — “Christmas Is Coming” — is, as well, an alternate take.

And these are in addition to the four bonus tracks, which grant fans yet more alternate takes of “The Christmas Song,” “Greensleeves” and “Christmas Time Is Here.”

The listening experience is sharper and brighter throughout, which allows us to hear many more of the subtler jazz riffs that have made the album a seasonal classic since its 1965 release.

This probably isn’t a necessary purchase for casual listeners. But Peanuts fans and jazz buffs who adore the lively differences of alternate takes — where the instrumental riffs really are different, from one take to the next — will want this album on their “must have” lists.

Bravo to Fantasy, and all involved with this CD. Even the packaging and enclosed booklet are A-plus efforts.

Pianist/trombonist Barry Sames’ Celebrate (Intrigue Productions IR1005) has more on its mind than mere music; listening to the entire album is like sitting in the middle of a lively holiday jazz mass at a neighborhood gospel church. Sames and his many friends pumped plenty of energy into this disc, although some may find the results too diverse; very few discs open with a solemn spoken prayer/poem, accelerate into revival-style chorus numbers and find time for several tasty, traditional jazz instrumentals.

I’m most interested in the latter. Sean Jones delivers a vibrant trumpet solo during an uncharacteristically up-tempo reading of “The First Noel,” while Chris Farr and Shawn Qaissaunee contribute tasty solos on soprano sax and guitar, respectively, during a gentle cover of “Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming.”

The strings-hued “We Three Kings” gives Meg Okura a chance to prove that a violin can swing — a bit, anyway — while Randy Sutin’s vibes work takes center stage on the soothing cover of “Silent Night.”

All the remaining tracks are vocals of one sort or another, usually anchored by Sames’ solid keyboard work; some tracks also give energetic solos to other sidemen. Singer Sherry Wilson-Butler’s work on the gentle “Breath of Heaven” is achingly poignant, and Mikki Kornegay is equally touching on “Away in a Manger.”

On the other hand, two tracks will raise eyebrows. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is just plain weird: the sort of free-form nonsense that musicians like to label “experimental.” And while I admire the sentiment behind the album’s one original composition, “Tender Time of Year” — a reminder that not everybody enjoys the holidays — the song’s a total downer, with its repeated references to losing loved ones.

At first glance, I wondered if pianist Joel Clemons had taken leave of his senses, and overlooked provocative implications by titling his 2003 release Christmas Trim (Fleur de Lis) and surrounding himself, on the cover, with a bevy of barely clad mistletoe honeys.

But listening to the lyrics of the title track, which Clemons penned, leaves little doubt; references to “yuletide logs” and things “hanging high (and) dangling low” reveal that ol’ Joel must be seeking the frat-boy holiday jazz market.

That’s not aiming terribly high, and I wince at the thought of unsuspecting mothers and daughters being in the room when this album hits the changer. Worse yet, the ladies are lamentably, um, stiff and tin-eared with their supporting vocals, and their coy little vocal interludes aren’t nearly as cute as Clemons probably hopes.

But when he and his band get serious and concentrate on jes’ plain jazz, things improve considerably. The ensemble shows its stuff with swingin’ covers of “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Deck the Halls,” the latter highlighted by Clemons’ keyboard chops, Jeff Kaye’s solid trumpet solo and percussionist Chris Steele’s driving beat.

Guitarist Seth Greenberg lays down a solid solo in “Jingle Bells,” and he opens a mid-tempo version of “O Christmas Tree” with similar panache.

Clemons’ other original songs are less salacious but no more memorable; I’d rotate them out, along with every track featuring the gal chorus. But that still leaves some good music, and I couldn’t help wishing Clemons had ignored the silly stuff in favor of a wholly instrumental album.

Happily, that wish was granted with his follow-up holiday album, 2005’s Christmas Is Cool (Fleur de Lis), with nary a nightgowned babe to be seen ... or, more critically, heard. Clemons’ lively sextet gives this second seasonal collection a distinctly salsa feel, thanks in great part to flutist Javier Vergara and trumpet player Kenneth J. Bausano, the latter often working with a mute.

This band turns “We Three Kings” into a lively bopper, and the musicians have a good time with an up-tempo reading of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Clemons contributes introductory piano solos to four songs; his intros to “12 Days” and “Good King Wenceslas” flow nicely into the full-blown band arrangements, but the solo piano noodlings seem a bit pointless in front of “Up on the Rooftop” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

And I really love the toe-tapping fun of the album’s opening track ... but I defy casual listeners to correctly identify it as “I Saw Three Ships.”

So, between the two CDs, with a little mixing we can assemble one album’s worth of solid holiday jazz. Not usually the way it works, but the results are all we care about, right?

The Canadian label Cellar Live’s A Cellar Live Christmas (CL082905) is one of this season’s treasures. The compilation album features five cuts apiece by the B3 Kings (Cory Weeds, alto sax; Bill Coon, guitar; Chris Gestrin, B3 organ; Denzal Sinclaire, drums) and the Bruno Hubert Trio (Hubert, piano; André Lachance, bass; Brad Turner, drums), with the tracks alternating between the two groups.

This is a mostly quiet album, with inventive arrangements just perfect for those late evenings following a party or an extended gift-wrapping session, when you’re finally relaxing with a Significant Other over that final snifter of port.

The great Jimmy Smith notwithstanding, most jazz organists can’t get enough rhythm from their instruments; Gestrin is another welcome exception. The B3 Kings deliver a lively reading of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which boasts a great sax opener by Weeds. The group’s interpretation of “Dance of the Sugar Plums” is wonderfully mysterious and atmospheric, and the CD begins with a clever arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” done as a minor key lament.

Hubert’s piano dominates his trio’s half of the album, and he does a particularly stylish reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Hubert makes a point of highlighting lesser-heard carols; “I Saw Three Ships” emerges as a perky toe-tapper, while “O Come Emmanuel” is positively poetic: leisurely and achingly poignant.

Sinclaire contributes two vocals, one for each group; his rich delivery on “Little Drummer Boy” brings fresh gravity to this familiar story-song, and he helps transform “We Three Kings” into a gentle little swinger.

Put this one at the top of your play list.

A few years ago, while serving as music conductor and pianist for a local production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, I had to contend with a drummer who developed the habit, during performances, of punctuating an increasing percentage of the play’s funnier lines with rim shots.

This blossomed into an epidemic, and the cast threatened to do something highly unsanitary with my guy’s drum sticks. They had ample cause: Good dialogue, when properly delivered by talented and well-rehearsed performers, does not require the insulting flourish of timpani shots.

I told my drummer to knock it off, and I pass along the same message to pianist James G. Skafish, who too frequently mars the otherwise pleasant trio work on Tidings of Comfort and Joy (La Befana Records LB0001) with the sort of butterfly noodling that made Liberace such a joke as a serious musician.

Skafish simply can’t resist the impulse to clutter up these tracks with finger-fluttering flourishes at the end of every damn measure ... or at least it seems that way. We get an immediate indication of the bad news to come with the album’s opener, a lively reading of “Joy to the World” that quickly devolves into an endless string of trills, runs and other keyboard affectations. It’s like the old water torture: We start to go mad, waiting for the next one.

That’s a shame, because some of Skafish’s arrangements are pleasant, particularly his handling of “O Come Emmanuel.” I also like the trio’s covers of “The First Noel” and “Away in a Manger,” because — comparatively shorn of the butterfly noodlings — they allow some solid jazz to emerge. This album’s slower arrangements tend to be better, because they mostly defeat Skafish’s impulses to screw around with their presentation.

I’m surprised that the other two musicians — bassist Lawrence Kohut and drummer Tom Hipskind — haven’t threatened to do something similarly unsanitary with Skafish’s keyboard. He’d certainly deserve it.

Trust your abilities, James; you’re a good pianist, and you don’t need all the extraneous, self-indulgent, look-how-clever-I-am frills.

Pianist Rick Gallagher’s brand-spanking-new Snowriding (Ridgetone Music 6244) arrived at literally the last second, and I’m sure glad it did. I didn’t get to shout “Stop the presses,” but playing this CD the required minimum of three times — while still making my deadline — was a bit of a scramble.

Worth it, though. I covered Gallagher’s first reasonal release, A Sleigh, a Song and a Baby Boy, in 2003, and rated it one of the year’s keepers.

This one’s even better.

With ample support from his sidemen — Paul Thompson (bass), Thomas Wendt (drums) and George Jones (percussion) — Gallagher delivers a set of truly tasty jazz: solid solos, well-rehearsed give-and-take between musicians, and inventive arrangements that never stray too far from the melody.

The song selection is good, as well: “Here We Come A-Wassailing” (cute delivery one that one) and “Caroling, Caroling” don’t pop up that often on holiday jazz albums, and this disc also features the first jazz cover I’ve heard of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”

It’s a clever presentation, highlighted by the just-enough use of background jingle bells.

The handling of “Joy to the World” is equally inventive; the carol emerges as a medium-tempo strut of the sort that would bring the congregation to its feet. “Carol of the Bells” and “Silver Bells” are lively finger-snappers, the latter featuring a lovely bass solo by Thompson.

Gallagher includes an original composition, “Snowriding,” which boasts Vince Guaraldi-style piano hooks and occasional echoes of that composer’s “Skating.” Gallagher’s work is equally catchy; if this is any example, he should write more stuff.

The album concludes with Gallagher’s haunting, solo piano version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”: the perfect way to finish off a sublime collection of music.

Legendary blues pianist Art Hodes died in 1993, but the beauty of recorded music is that his talent remains. Thanks again to ejazzlines, I came across a 1992 CD compilation of two albums Hodes recorded in the late ’80s Art Hodes: Volume 1 — Solos (Parkwood Records PWCD 114) opens with the short but impressive album Christmas Time Jazz and Blues, which Hodes recorded in the spring of 1987 in Windsor, Ontario.

It’s a lovely collection of eight solo piano tracks, all displaying the contemplative, heartfelt approach Hodes put into his blues keyboard work. With the exception of a rollicking, rag-style arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” these are quiet interpretations, none sweeter than a truly lovely reading of “Away in a Manger.”

Some pianists get a lot of noise out of the instrument, hoping to impress with flash and crowd-pleasing dynamics. Hodes avoids such ostentatious flourishes and goes for depth of feeling instead; you get the sense, listening to these tracks, that he wanted each to be the best possible performance he could deliver.

“Silent Night” also is lovely: wistful, full of feeling and just this side of somber ... not quite an elegy, but certainly heading in that direction.

Christmas Time Jazz and Blues isn’t party music; you won’t want to play this for a crowd. But late Dec. 24, after tucking the kids into bed and making sure things are ready for the following morning, I can think of nothing better than this album, as a means of reflecting on the quieter elements — the actual reason for the season — that we too often overlook each Christmas.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I've picked up on a lot of great Christmas jazz because of this article. One thing I cannot find, however, is Nathen Page's "Season's Greetings". Any idea where I might find a copy?