Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holiday Jazz 2008: Dig that crazy Santa Claus!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.08

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

It really is my favorite time of the year.

Say what you will about holiday madness — the glitz, the hype, the hysterical shoppers (some a little too hysterical, at times), several dozen competing productions of The Nutcracker — but there’s no denying the appeal of holiday music.

Particularly holiday jazz.

No seasonal trauma is too great that it can’t be alleviated by a warm fire, a warmer companion and a soulful interpretation of “Silent Night” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the likes of Oscar Peterson or Dave Brubeck.

Those gentleman represent the talents of Christmas Past: Their holiday CDs are established treasures.
I’m concerned here with the talents of Christmas Present, and the pickings are quite impressive.


Actually, very impressive. During the past decade, this annual round-up has grown into the column that devoured Cleveland. This year, it’s taking out the entire eastern seaboard.

The Web continues to make my annual search a true treasure hunt, since imagination is required to track down offerings from micro-labels. Mind you, “homemade” isn’t necessarily a pejorative: Plenty of top-quality musicians have abandoned the major record labels to strike out on their own. CD technology has turned living rooms into high-tech recording studios, and Web sites provide the best in free advertising.
The Web’s streaming radio networks can be quite useful, and two of the largest — and — play the sounds of the season 24/7.

As-yet undiscovered artists also post their efforts, often as downloadable MP3 files, at Web “collectives” such as CD Baby (, which always has hundreds of holiday-themed albums, several mentioned below.

But be careful: Some of the “artists” you’ll find at CD Baby and its clones deserve to remain undiscovered.

You’ll also want to check out, which has a section specifically devoted to holiday jazz.


Two popular jazz vocalists released new holiday albums this year, representing what could be called the genre’s old and new guard. Tony Bennett’s A Swingin’ Christmas (Columbia 88697 34321 2) is his second seasonal effort, after 1968’s Snowfall; Harry Connick Jr.’s What a Night (Columbia 88697 37020 2) is his third (!), after 1993’s When My Heart Finds Christmas and 2003’s Harry for the Holidays.

Of the two, Bennett’s album is more likely to satisfy jazz purists, thanks to the lively participation of the Count Basie Big Band and the spirited quartet of Monty Alexander (piano), Paul Langosch (bass), Harold Jones (drums) and Gray Sargent (guitar). Bennett gets off to a roaring start, with up-tempo arrangements of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silver Bells,” both of which feature inventive keyboard solos by Alexander.

Bennett and the band also have a lot of fun with “My Favorite Things,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the latter boasting a wailin’ tenor sax solo from Andy Snitzer.

The mood turns inexplicably mushy during “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which is heavily orchestrated, complete with strings; it can’t be called jazz, and really doesn’t belong on this album. By contrast, Bennett’s lovely phrasing on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is perfectly complemented by the smaller combo.

Bennett is joined by his daughter, Antonia, on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” She’s not bad, in a gently sultry way, although the song doesn’t make any heavy demands of her vocal range.

The album concludes with a particularly dramatic reading of “O Christmas Tree,” with Bennett accompanied only by Musiker on piano; Bennett almost speaks the lyrics, and he seems to be bidding farewell to a particularly lush tree, rather than celebrating its praises. It’s an unusual finish, given the CD’s primarily upbeat tone.