Thursday, December 13, 2007

Holiday Jazz 2007: Quite a cool yule

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.07

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

OK, I admit it, I’m a holiday junkie. I’ve even got a new nickname: Captain Christmas.

Friends and family members just roll their eyes and shake their heads, when the calendar page flips from October to November, because they know what it means: Every free moment from that point onward is devoted to decorating the house ... first outside (gotta make it by Thanksgiving weekend!) and then inside.

Naturally, the proper mood must be set for such activities, and nothing keeps my spirits raised — particularly as I approach the conclusion of an all-day session — better than a toe-tapping, finger-snapping collection of Christmas jazz.

Having now been accumulating such albums for the better part of a quarter-century, I must have one of the best collections in the country ... with no end in sight.

Although mainstream labels have decreased their new releases during recent years, the flow has remained constant, thanks to Web sources such as cdbaby and Both are excellent sites, and the latter even has a section devoted to holiday jazz.

One must apply a bit of caveat emptor to cdbaby, though; since the site stocks and sells pretty much everything submitted, one can bring home an eye-opening grade of trash.

Fortunately, I’m here to help spare the pain. Yes, I listen to the bad ones, just so you won’t wind up with a nasty surprise.

While 2007 has not been a banner year for new arrivals — very few must-have stand-outs — most of the albums cited below would rate a solid B on the standard grading scale. That still makes them eminently listenable, and therefore worth your time.

Moving to it, then...

Searching for cool new sounds is a full-time endeavor, and the Christmas jazz sub-genre is no different. As always, several titles came to my attention just after I published last year’s edition of this annual round-up, so I’ll start with those.

Credit for calling this first album to my attention goes to Shaunna Morrison Machosky, music director at the Pittsburgh-based National Public Radio station WDUQ, who in late 2006 published her list of “the best holiday jazz CDs.” She resisted adding the word “ever” to that title, but since her compilation includes Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song and Ella Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas, her taste obviously is impressively wide-ranging.

Machosky’s list concluded with Diane Delin’s Offerings for a Peaceable Season (Blujazz BJ3351), and I was drawn to it by virtue of Delin’s instrument of choice: the violin.

Jazz violin, I hear you cry?

Indeed. This tasty little album proves that strings can swing, particularly when accompanied by solid support from a piano-bass-percussion trio. The tone is mostly quiet and contemplative, with several tracks — notably “My Favorite Things” and “Winter Wonderland” — demonstrating a gentle, Latin-hued samba beat that serves as ample foundation for Delin’s sassy violin chops.

I also like her program choice; she goes for lesser-known carols such as the traditional “Gloucestershire Wassail,” Victor Herbert’s “Toyland” and a lively bop version of the overture to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” (rapidly becoming a holiday staple).
Delin’s handling of “Deck the Halls,” with its piano and bass underscore, reminds me of Duke Pearson’s classic arrangement of “Sleigh Ride”; the result is impossible to resist.

She’s also a generous leader; an exquisitely pretty reading of “Petit Papa Noel” grants a full three minutes to pianist Dennis Luxion and bassist Eric Hochberg, before Delin’s violin finally weighs in.

She brings the set to a lively conclusion with her own up-tempo reading of “Sleigh Ride,” and I immediately wanted to listen to the entire album again. So will you.

Marian McPartland’s NPR show Piano Jazz is a habitual listen every Sunday at our house, and I’ve long enjoyed the parade of masters young and old who’ve shared keyboard duties with this veteran lady of jazz. The long-running program has generated several holiday-themed CDs over the years, because McPartland often persuades a guest to noodle through a familiar Christmas carol (a portion of the show we never seem to hear on the radio).

The newest is An NPR Jazz Christmas with Marian McPartland and Friends III (NPR CD 0038), which — while a pleasant listen — suffers from the same, ah, issue that has typified her show in recent years: It ain’t all keyboards. That much I could live with; after all, this CD’s title doesn’t contain the word “piano.”

But I’m also concerned about the use of the word “jazz,” because very few of this album’s 17 short cuts are remotely jazzy. The exceptions are Ayako Shirasaki’s marvelous up-tempo piano solo on “Sleigh Ride”; a lively reading of “Joy to the World” by McPartland (piano), Mimi Fox (electric guitar) and Gary Mazzaroppi (string bass); a clever piano duet version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” by McPartland and Francesca Tanksley; and vocalist Melissa Walker’s sultry version of “The Moon on Christmas Eve,” backed by Werner “Vana” Gierig (piano), Sean Conly (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums).

The remaining tracks best can be described as recital pieces. To be sure, some are gorgeous; I love McPartland’s solo reading of “The Holly and the Ivy,” and other highlights include pianist Billy Childs’ senstive “Jesu Parvule” and Bill Charlap’s keyboard accompaniment behind Sandy Stewart’s vocal on “Let It Snow.”

The overall tone, though, is far more “pretty” than swing. Blossom Dearie’s handling of “Liz and Ralph and Calvin” is a droll delight, but it has no business being part of a collection marketed to jazz fans ... and the same can be said of lyric soprano Renée Fleming’s mildly overwrought handling of “What Child Is This?” To be sure, Fleming is an impressive guest star, but her work here belongs on an opera stage, not in a jazz club.

Over the years, each of McPartland’s holiday CDs has strayed further away from her jazz roots; this one nearly abandons the form altogether. The album may be lovely and the musicianship first-rate, but — as the saying goes — it don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.

Bearing that thought in mind, the avid jazz fan might be tempted to avoid any release with the word “mellow” in its title, but in this case that’d be a mistake; A Mellow Jazz Christmas (Kind of Blue KOB 10013) is a marvelous collection apt to remain on top of your to-be-played pile. It certainly earned that spot in our home.

The anthology is composed of one or two selections by eight different trios, quartets or quintets; the result is pure listening pleasure. A few of the tracks have been released previously, notably on Fine Tune LLC’s 2000 release, Jazzy Christmas, but that CD wasn’t distributed terribly well; you’ll therefore likely be hearing all these tracks for the first time.

I couldn’t be more pleased, because one of the carry-overs is legendary pianist Paul Smith’s rat-a-tat version of “Jingle Bells,” which closes this album on a delightful (if frantic) note. Before getting there, though, you’ll also hear George Cables and his trio doing an achingly soulful version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” thus far the only holiday selection I’ve ever heard from this West Coast-based pianist.

Pianist Bill Charlap contributes a sparkling solo midway through the Phil Woods Quintet’s “Sleigh Ride for One,” and guitarist Federico Ramos dominates the Bob Conti Quartet, with lovely work on both “Little Drummer Boy” and a samba-shuffle cover of “Let It Snow.”

You’ll detect echoes of “Killer Joe” in the Pete Christlieb/Slyde Hyde Quintet’s arrangement of “White Christmas,” and this same group’s reading of “The Christmas Song” is just as gorgeous as Cables’ work.
And things get off to a lively start with bassist Stanley Clarke and his trio, and their covers of “Christmas Time Is Here” and “We Three Kings,” both of which showcase pianist Patrice Rushen.

My only complaint is the Eddie Henderson Project’s rather weird version of “Silent Night,” an ethereal, New Age-y bit of noise that should have accompanied Carl Sagan when he discussed his “billions and billions” of planets, stars and galaxies. That track aside, all the rest are keepers.

Moving on to my more recent finds, and getting back to pianos, Steve Hulse’s Jazzed for the Holidays II (Steve Hulse Music SHM1007) is a lovely little album, although the title is slightly misleading. This is very, very, very gentle jazz at best, and then only about half the time. Hulse’s sound would be right at home with the Windham Hill gang; he has a well-trained touch on piano, and this is one of the nicest album’s I’ve heard for late-night snuggling in front of the fireplace, with your favorite holiday elf.

These aren’t exclusively Christmas songs, as the CD’s title indicates; the album’s most ambitious track is an 11-minute-and-change rendition of “Mi Y’Malel,” a Hanukkah folk song that delivers considerable emotion.

Hulse also does a clever reading of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” always a risky undertaking for a solo artist, because the song can get redundant without its lyrics. But Hulse keeps it lively with tempo and key changes, and the judicious application of some bass work (which he also supplies, through the miracle of post-production magic).

The closest he gets to toe-tapping jazz is the album’s opening track, a reasonably lively reading of “Winter Wonderland” that boasts some nifty improv and, once again, soft support on bass. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is another quiet swinger, as is the final track, a cheerful reading of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” which Vince Gill has made famous.

None of the other tracks can be called jazz, but that’s OK; Hulse is an engaging instrumentalist, and he produced the album to best showcase his style.

He also tells me that yes, he did release Jazzed for the Holidays I, but it’s gone now, and apparently that’s a long and interesting story. In case you wondered.

For the most part, the Outtengrand Orchestra’s A Dangerously Groovy Christmas (Outtengrand Music) is a lot of fun. The album starts off like gangbusters, with a lively, salsa-hued take on “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” that gives pianist Rob Rinderer a truly whalin’ solo.

The next several tracks are equally appealing: a great arrangement of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” which manages to sound both somber and celebratory; a moody, appropriately reverential interpretation of “O Holy Night”; and a nicely contemplative version of “I Wonder As I Wander” which includes a few echoes of “The James Bond Theme” in David Owens’ heavy (but engaging) percussion work.

Owens and Rinderer get able support from Keith Felch (woodwinds), Norm Stockton (basses) and Brian Swerdfeger (guitars).

Unfortunately, Rinderer — who also produced the album — gets a little carried away with some of the subsequent tracks. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is much too electronic and busy; it’s frankly an annoying listen. Similarly, a medley of “The Wassail Song” and “Gesu Bambino” suffers from what sounds like a canned rhythm line, not to mention an overwrought attack.

These guys are much better than the manufactured fusion junk that inhabits certain easy-listening jazz stations, and they should resist the temptation to navigate those waters.

Fortunately, they return to straight-ahead jazz with a nice reading of “Do You Hear What I Hear” and a positively gorgeous interpretation of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which really evokes the time and place of that story song with a quiet introduction, before kicking into up-tempo gear with another of Rinderer’s keyboard solos.

The CD concludes with a soft and pretty reading of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which opens with gentle give-and-take between Swerdfeger and Rinderer, before moving to a delightful, curtain-closing, get-down-and-funky reading of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”

So I have this message, gentlemen: Don’t succumb to that newcomer’s tendency to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into your arrangements. As with all else in life, less is more.

The Indianapolis Jazz Orchestra kicks some serious booty with its well-titled Sampler: Assorted Christmas Songs. Although more than an EP, this short album clocks in at just half an hour or so, with seven tracks.

The ensemble work is tight, the arrangements lively, and the solos just as sharp as the full-throated fury of the entire orchestra. Things begin with a finger-snapping rendition of “We Three Kings,” which features a solid tenor sax solo from Josh Weirich. Bob Stright delivers a marvelous vibes solo in an equally up-tempo “Greensleeves,” and a quieter reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” boasts another fine tenor sax solo, this time from Scott Hobson.

The album concludes with a roaring rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a very spunky arrangement from Dave Wilken. This one really cooks, and, just when you think it can’t get any better, a key change signals the even faster finale, with soloists Vince Laine (trombone) and Pat O’Neal (alto sax) maintaining the pace.


I have never, ever understood why instrumentalists this talented will allow their efforts to be undercut by sub-par vocalists. Lydia McAdams seriously injures an otherwise sweet rendition of “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve”; her voice is too breathy and uncomfortably high-pitched, and she noticeably crawls up to a few of the higher notes.

Rick Vale is no better, with his inappropriately cheerful vocal on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”; if a singer can’t come close to the great Thurl Ravenscroft’s original take on this song, then the attempt shouldn’t even be made.

Jalean Addington is a bit better, with her mildly sassy take on “Santa Baby,” but frankly Ryan Fraley and Gary Graziano get more droll sexual heat out of their (respectively) trombone and trumpet solos.

Musical director Jeff Anderson needs to re-think his approach; his jumpin’ big band is much too good to be saddled by weak vocalists. That said, this “Sampler” definitely is worth its purchase price, just to get the four instrumentals.

Keyboard fans will find plenty to like in Metropolitan Records’ A Jazz Christmas: That Special Time of Year (MR 1125). Eighteen musicians rotate in and out of different piano trios and piano/sax quartets, and the results — for the most part — are quite tasty.

The album opens with an upbeat reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song generally arranged as the lament it was, when debuted in the film Meet Me in St. Louis. But pianist Gary Fisher and soprano saxman Vincent Herring definitely put the “merry” in their arrangement, which features nice interplay between the two.

Billy Childs’ lively piano dominates “The Christmas Waltz,” and pianist Linda Presgrave contributes solid keyboard chops during her solos in “Jingle Bells.” Presgrave returns for the album’s one original composition, her own “That Special Time of Year,” a lovely little melody that evokes the season’s wintry serenity.

Stan Chovnick’s soprano sax wanders a bit afield during “Silent Night,” but the arrangement does include a lovely solo from bassist Wei-Sheng Lin.

Herring returns for “O Christmas Tree,” but in this case his soprano sax gets a bit too shrill (always a danger with this instrument). Even so, he remains restrained when compared to Billy Harper’s squawky, overwrought tenor sax work on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’; it’s the sort of reading that annoys casual listeners inclined to complain that jazz can get aggressively unmelodic.

Vocalist Debra Holly appears on two tracks, “The Christmas Song” and “Frosty the Snowman.” The first isn’t bad, although the arrangement is somewhat bland; the second, alas, is destroyed by somebody’s misguided decision to overly cutesefy a song that already veers toward sugar-shock. This type of approach may work during a live performance, where patrons can smile and nudge each other, but on an album it always sounds embarrassing.

Fortunately, the CD is dominated by its solid trio and quartet work; rotate out a few tracks, and you’ll enjoy the rest.

The divide between “legitimate” and “smooth” jazz can be razor-thin, with one’s tolerance for the latter probably as difficult to define as an individual taste for comedy. The Black Note Quartet’s A Jazzy Little Christmas (XXI-21 Records XXI-CD 2-1516) straddles the line better than most: It’s a tasty album, certain to be enjoyed by the “supper jazz” crowd, but probably not inventive or dynamic enough to satisfy a jazz purist.

Saxman and group leader Eric Khayat wrote the arrangements for these 13 tracks; they make pleasant listening, but you’ll be hard-pressed (as I am here) to find anything specific to highlight. The cuts tend to run short; the solos are pleasant but not terribly inventive; the album as a whole doesn’t display much variety. Only “Sleigh Ride” approaches up-tempo; all the other tracks are profoundly mellow.

These guys would be perfect in a bar, as a backdrop to a lively conversation with good friends. I’d tip the musicians on the way out, but probably couldn’t remember what they had played for the previous hour.

Khayat’s creativity doesn’t stretch much further than switching from tenor to soprano sax for the more liturgical carols: “Angels We Have Heard on High” (rather oddly given its French title, “Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes”), “The First Noel” and “Ave Maria.” Pianist Sandro Barletta is given plenty of room to stretch a bit, with frequent solos and lengthy openings for “Let It Snow” and “Greensleeves.” But doublebass player Mathieu Gagné and drummer Yvon Plouffe barely register; they fulfill their job descriptions, and that’s about all I can say.

Khayat puts a bit of life into “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” with some sax riffs that match the song’s whimsical nature. But I can’t detect any passion in the other tracks. Ultimately, the album feels like a studio assignment, as if the musicians are just going through the motions. The result certainly isn’t bad — indeed, I’ve listened to this CD more often than some — but I wish Khayat and his mates had tried a little harder.

Although also occupying the “jazz lounge” genre, the Eddie Higgins Trio puts a bit more sparkle into Christmas Songs (Sunnyside/Venus SSC 1143). This is an extremely pleasant album, ideal for those occasions when you want some tasty jazz that doesn’t intrude too much.

Pianist Higgins and bassist Jay Leonhart trade off their solos; Leonhart delivers some lively riffs in “White Christmas,” the up-tempo “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the latter with a bow. Drummer Joe Ascione lays down a solid beat throughout: always appropriate for each cut’s demands, without being needlessly ostentacious. I wish more drummers showed his restraint.

Most of the arrangements are about what you’d expect, but a few are surprises; “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is given a livelier reading than usual, while “Deck the Halls” is ramped down to a soft mid-tempo.

The back-to-back covers of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are gorgeous; Higgins opens the former with a particularly gentle piano solo.

The album finishes with a snap, with a holiday-style medley that morphs into a lively reading of “Sleigh Ride” (amusingly mis-titled as “Sleight Ride” on the back cover and in the liner notes). As with the Black Note Quartet album, Higgins’ work probably isn’t imaginative enough for more ambitious jazz fans, but it seems just right for the season.

Boney James, on the other hand, is a bit harder to catalogue; although quite talented and for the most part serious about his music, he occasionally is tempted by the dark side of the force.

He first explored the seasonal waters with 1996’s Boney’s Funky Christmas, an album that I enjoyed quite a lot ... with the exception of a few tracks, which I disliked just as strongly. The same is true of his new release, Christmas Present (Concord CCD-30329), which has eight quite pleasant arrangements.

Unfortunately, the album has 10 tracks.

For the most part, James’ delivery is sweet and pleasantly mellow; he divides his time between soprano and alto sax, with an occasional flutter on keyboards. The soprano sax cuts stray into Kenny G territory, but that’s not a bad thing for fans of such work; James’ handling of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” are particularly lovely.

Jazz purists are more apt to appreciate Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating,” which opens the album and gives pianist Phil Davis a good workout, as he follows James’ energetic lead on this lively waltz. “Santa Baby” is given a smoldering, playfully sexy spin; Chanté Moore’s sultry vocal is just perfect.

James’ revival-style handling of “Silent Night,” graced with a summon-the-flock vocal by Anthony Hamilton, is another highlight. The album concludes with a lovely reading of “Auld Lang Syne,” with nice counterpoint between James and guitarist Dean Parks.

Two other interior tracks, sadly, remind us true jazz fans why we loathe the “smooth” trend. “Merry Christmas Baby” is simply ghastly: an over-produced mess that emphasizes redundant vocal shading and the hideously monotonous, machine-like percussion work that characterizes the worst of elevator jazz. And although James begins “O Tannenbaum” quite nicely, the song quickly devolves into a cacophony of electronic junk and a tiresome percussion line that sounds like clapping hands ... over and over and over again.

It’s the sort of tedious repetition that also characterized the worst of disco.

I can’t figure it out: James has a lovely sound, and for the most part his instincts are solid. (He also produced the album.) But I guess that’s why good CD players allow the option of skipping specific tracks. My advice: Enjoy the definite pleasures of 80 percent of this album, and deep-six the other 20 percent.

Albums without credits drive me crazy, and fortunately I don’t come across them very often. And I’ve rarely seen a more egregious offender than Rivercrest Music’s Christmas Cocktail Party (RCD2073). “Compilation producer” Tod Ellsworth is the only individual mentioned by name on the exterior label; while the interior also credits the graphic designer and production personnel, there’s virtually no indication of the musicians involved!

Frankly, I’m surprised anybody bothered to identify the songs.

Alarm bells also might ring if you spot the small notice on the rear of the jewel case: “This CD contains previously released tracks.”

Well, no kidding. In point of fact, all tracks are drawn from albums by jazz pianist Beegie Adair and smooth jazz fixtures Chris McDonald, Denis Solee and David Huntsinger. Mind you, I only know that because I have the four earlier CDs in question, and am familiar with the music; nailing down the details any other way would have been a challenge.

As these words are written, even Rivercrest’s Web site fails to provide any meaningful information.

That said, it’s a pleasant enough collection and a good introduction to the music of these four individuals. McDonald works with a big band, and Adair with a trio; they’re closer to traditional jazz. Huntsinger and Solee too often slide into the plastic fakery of E-Z listening, so in my view you’d be better off steering clear of their work.

But if you do purchase this collection and play it for guests, you could get stuck if somebody asks who’s playing on a particular track. As a jazz public service, then, the 10 tracks feature — in sequence — Adair, Adair, Solee, Solee, Adair, Huntsinger, McDonald, McDonald, Solee and Huntsinger.

Never let it be said that I don’t go the extra mile for you, gentle readers.

Montréal-based pianist Lorraine Desmarais delivers some great jazz chops on the appropriately titled Jazz pour Noël (Analekta Music, AN2-9862), a very tasty treat from our northern neighbor. Although most often working with her standard trio partners — drummer Camil Bélisle and bassist Frédéric Alarie — Desmarais augments the mix here with plenty of Brazailian-hued sax from Jean-Pierre Zanella.

Indeed, the result is pretty sneaky. At first listen, you’d swear that Zanella deserves “authorship” credit on this album, since his sax generally takes the melody line. But Desmarais’ piano accompaniment is sly and subtle: at first quietly supporting the sax, but then invariably erupting into lively and playful solos.

Desmarais’ arrangements are equally clever. She opens the album with a gentle reading of “Ave Maria,” a track that usually closes a Christmas-themed album; the arrangement gives ample opportunity for Desmarais’ keyboard skills to shine. “Little Drummer Boy” is more playful, and includes a smooth bass solo from Alarie; the very inventive interpretation of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is a slow, smooth swinger.

Desmarais finally cuts loose on an aggressive reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which strays further from the familiar melody while granting extended solos to all; believe me, this one really cooks.

The mood turns mellow with a gentle, wistful reading of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” again an unexpected arrangement of a song usually given a faster attack. “Petit Papa Noël” is even more lovely ... a truly beautiful reading of this less-familiar carol.

The album concludes with Desmarais’ ferocious piano solo on “Sleigh Ride,” a powerhouse performance that exploits the song’s rag origins and leaves you wanting to applaud.

This one belongs at the top of the pile; it’s a keeper.

I picked up Royce Campbell’s A Solo Guitar Christmas (Moon Cycle Records, CG1932) on the strength of his 2004 release, A Jazz Guitar Christmas, which very quickly became a favorite that year. (His 1995 Tribute to Henry Mancini also gets a lot of play in our house.)

While I was mildly disappointed to discover that A Solo Guitar Christmas lacks even a hint of jazz, Campbell’s guitar work and overall musicality are so strong that it scarcely matters. Technically, the album is outside this column’s scope, but that’s the beauty of calling the shots; I can bend the rules as the occasion demands, and Campbell’s new holiday CD is simply too gorgeous to ignore.

The overall mood and approach are quiet, at times even somber; even traditionally up-tempo numbers such as “Joy to the World” — with which Campbell opens the album — are played atypically slow. Aside from allowing the listener a better opportunity to appreciate his guitar work, the gentler pacing encourages us to enjoy the songs themselves in an entirely different manner.

His handling of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is particularly lovely; his reading of “Good King Wenceslas” is sublime and somehow slightly plaintive, as if ol’ Wenceslas were having a minor-key day.
Campbell picks up the pace slightly with “Deck the Halls” and “Jingle Bells”; the latter is a particularly cute arrangement that includes a nice bit of improv.

Keep this one within easy reach, for when you want to impress that special someone during some quiet time. This is the sort of album that’ll win you respect simply for owning it.

By day, Joe Cox works as a freelance arranger for the Hal Leonard Corporation, transcribing songs and producing piano and guitar accompaniments so that musicians around the world can buy the sheet music and play that song.

By night, Cox is a deliciously inventive musician, and his self-released Jazz Christmas is a tasty album that benefits from his clever arrangements and unexpected time signatures. Indeed, this collection could be subtitled Adventures in Time, because Cox gets a delightfully novel sound out of some seasonal chestnuts.

The album opens with a lively waltz version of “Jingle Bells” in 3/4 time, but that’s just a warm-up; further into the CD, Cox unleashes a furious reading of “Angels We Have Heart on High” ... in 7/8 time!

My favorite track, though, is his boogie-woogie-flavored take on “Good King Wenceslas,” about as striking a version of that song as I’ve ever heard. Cox’s “We Three Kings,” re-invented as a fiesty tango, is almost as much fun.

But the album isn’t all novelty and haste; Cox also delivers some solid, old-fashioned trio jazz on several tracks, most notably medleys of “Deck the Halls” and “O Christmas Tree,” and “Bring a Torch” and “I Saw Three Ships.”

Perhaps most impressive is the album’s tasty, supper club piano trio sound ... which is pretty interesting, since only the drums are live; Cox “fabricated” the bass and piano, which are “virtual” and sampled into his computer. Mind you, I’m generally no fan of virtual approximations of a traditional piano trio, since the results usually sound dreadful. But Cox clearly knows his stuff, and I defy a casual listener to believe this is anything but three musicians on piano, bass and drums. Welcome to the 21st century, indeed!

I’ve learned to be wary of musicians who try to oversell themselves, and therefore greeted Steve Levine’s self-released Celebrate the Warmth of Christmas with a bit of concern, since the liner notes herald him as an “extraordinary Las Vegas guitarist and songwriter.” I can’t comment on his songwriting skills, since this CD is nothing but seasonal covers, but I will admit that his guitar work is smooth and pleasant.

“Extraordinary” seems a push, though.

The album also is billed as having “just a touch of jazz,” and that’s accurate enough. A few of these arrangements have enough bounce and pleasant swing to provide good background at a jazz club brunch; the best are “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” both done at a medium tempo and with solid solo work. “We Three Kings” grooves along at a slower, equally pleasant tempo.

The rest of the album, however, veers toward a hybrid of Western twang and Windham Hill’s signature sound ... not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not jazz. And Levine can get carried away with the production elements; a string-laden version of “Silent Night” is much too soggily sentimental. Similarly, the otherwise enjoyable reading of “Angels We Have Heard on High” — misleadingly titled “Gloria” — is ruined by the eventual intrusion of strings.

Levine and his sidemen would be pleasant enough in a live setting, where patrons aren’t necessarily present solely for the music. But a recorded album is a different matter, and this one’s a bit too bland to leave much of an impression.

Trio West’s Plays Holiday Songs must’ve been made with me in mind; this delicious trio-jazz blend of Ramsey Lewis and Vince Guaraldi is a joy from start to finish. Drummer/
arranger Tobias Gebb is a generous leader, giving ample exposure to Eldad Zvulun (piano) and Neal Miner (bass), and the result is one of the year’s tastiest discoveries.

The trio gets off to a great opener with “O Christmas Tree,” delivered at a roaring, finger-snapping tempo that demands the listener’s attention. The guys then dial it back for a slower reading of “Silent Night,” which gives Miner plenty of time to shine; his lovely bass work is equally well displayed on “Winter Wonderland” and “The Christmas Song.”

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is re-cast as a lively tango, in a droll arrangement that builds to a climax likely to send you looking for a dance floor. Gebb sets a military cadence for “Little Drummer Boy,” which suggests the song’s inherent solemnity before Zvulun goes wild on his keyboard (well, as wild as this album gets, anyway).

The trio delivers a slow, wistful and even sexy reading of “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve,” which is highlighted by a nice interplay between piano and bass.

And the CD is brought to a ferocious close with a double-time arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and it really rips. (I choose to ignore the gratuitous alternate arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy” that follows this track.)

My only complaint involves the CD’s production values: It’s rather too home-grown, with poor packaging and terrible liner notes that don’t even properly identify the musicians. (I had to visit the band’s Web site.) Perhaps worse, the CD doesn’t play reliably on older machines, so be advised that you may have some listening issues.

Still, I’d be willing — if necessary — to buy a new player, just to hear this album under the best possible conditions.

The Brad Ellis Trio’s homegrown Christmas in Rye Brook is a short little album, clocking in at nine tracks and less than half an hour. Even so, it’s a pleasant listen: The improv may be minimal, but the piano/bass/drums trio work is quite tasty (with a guitar assist on two tracks).

The album opens with a playfully upbeat rendition of “Jingle Bells,” which features some energetic bass work by Richard Zurkowski; the cut may be brief, but it really gets the listener’s attention. Ellis then dials the tempo down for “The Christmas Song,” demonstrating some lovely keyboard work during a quiet prologue before the song settles into a pleasant, medium-tempo groove.

Most of the album continues in that vein: “White Christmas,” “We Three Kings” and “O Christmas Tree” are similarly medium-tempo swingers. The arrangements are routine, but every so often Ellis slides into a mildly inventive solo.

The mood changes on two tracks. “Silent Night” is delivered as a pure church spiritual, with an organ providing a suitably liturgical atmosphere. The album’s best cut, however, is a raucous, boogie-woogie interpretation of “Winter Wonderland”; the guys really cook on this one.

This seems to be the year for jazz trios, and Christmas in Rye Brook will program quite nicely with the rest of the pack.

I’m frankly surprised that Tom Grant sent along a copy of his new holiday album, after the way I shredded a previous release ... but make that “surprised” in a happy sense.

One of the earlier album’s few bright spots was Grant’s vocal duet with Rebecca Kilgore on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I gather they must’ve enjoyed the experience, because this year’s Winter Warm (nu-Wrinkle Records NWR 55506) is a delightful collaboration between the Portland-based pianist and the melodic vocalist who brings a sparkling quality to every song.

The album gets off to a pleasant start with a lyrical cover of “The Christmas Waltz,” which includes a tasty instrumental interlude between Grant and guest bassist Dave Captein; Kilgore’s vocal is so radiant that you’d swear you can hear her smile. Grant and Captein also trade riffs on “Sleigh Ride” and a gently jazzy reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” while the pianist demostrates his keyboard versatility during a lively interlude on “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

But the album is anchored throughout by Kilgore, who can turn softly melancholy when the mood suits (as on “A Song for Christmas”), or crank up the playful sensuality (a particularly charming “Snowbound”). Grant adds his own vocals to three tracks, and I’m happy to report that — unlike many jazz instrumentalists — he actually knows how to sing.

Much as I was drawn to a wistful rendition of “Christmas Time Is Here,” my favorite cut is the one that gives the album its title: a moderately obscure Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune that really puts the “cozy” in Christmas.

I’ve saved one of the best for last, although not intentionally; Origin Records’ The Cool Season (Origin 82494) arrived literally as this column was being prepped for layout. It’s a tasty collection from an extremely tight quartet — Thomas Marriott, trumpet and flugelhorn; Bill Anschell, piano; Jeff Johnson, bass; and John Bishop, drums — that thinks and plays as one.

These are fairly lengthy tracks that for the most part are handled in traditional fashion: an opening hint of the familiar melody line, followed by improvisational solos or duets, concluding with a final verse from the melody. It’s all lovely and extremely tasty.

The quartet gained my attention immediately, with an album-opening cover of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” that emphasizes this new standard’s wistful, innocent qualities. Marriott delivers a lovely melody line, and then trades riffs with Anschell’s keyboard counterpoint.

The mood turns tropical with a delightfully mysterious reading of “The Christmas Song,” with Bishop laying down an exotic beat that’d be right at home in a tiki bar. Anschell enhances the atmosphere with some free-form piano work: a bit unusual, but not unpleasantly so.

Johnson lays down the beat and shows his stuff as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” opens, and goes to town when the mid-tempo intro turns into a nifty toe-tapper. He also contributes the album’s two original compositions: “Winter Solace,” a snuggly composition that gives Marriott the lead; and “Skating,” a more traditional quartet number that focuses on Johnson’s bass.

(Unfortunately, “Skating” remains a title best associated with another familiar Guaraldi composition; I blinked upon hearing Johnson’s track the first time, having seen only the title and not initially noted its author.)

Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” gets a playfully droll reading, thanks to Marriott’s muted trumpet work; he then turns the atmosphere mysterious for a particularly ethereal reading of the traditional “Sing We Now of Christmas.” You’ll easily sense the song’s cathedral-like origins.

The album concludes softly, with a simply beautiful version of “Blackberry Winter,” a track with which I was unfamiliar. It’s the perfect reflection of the album’s title, and also a nice way to bring this column to a close: plenty wintry, and plenty cool.

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