Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Jazz 2009: Santa's got a brand new beat

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.09

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

My ever-expanding collection of holiday jazz once again grew by leaps and bounds during the past year, thanks to the growing ease with which regional and foreign releases can be discovered and obtained via the Internet.

As a result, while the major record companies have been surprisingly quiet this year — at least when it comes to new holiday jazz releases — I've no shortage of good music to share. and continue to be excellent sources; the latter even has a specific category for holiday jazz. Amazon, as well, is laden with goodies: some of them hailing from overseas, and more likely available via Amazon's UK or French sites. And, thanks to the growing sophistication of instant Web-based language translators, navigating foreign-language sites isn't nearly as challenging as once was the case.

But why belabor the details? You're here for the music, and this space would be better served fulfilling that desire. So when you're seeking alternatives to eyebrow-raising Christmas pop or oft-heard classics that may have grown a bit tiresome, consider the following.

They'll keep your egg nogged!

I covered Trio West's first seasonal jazz album back in 2007, and was quite impressed by the musicality displayed by this lively combo: producer/arranger/
drummer Tobias Gebb, pianist Eldad Zvulun and bassist Neal Miner.

Well, the unit is back this year with Trio West Plays Holiday Songs Vol. 2 (Yummyhouse Records), and the trio's music is just as lively and engaging; this CD is just plain fun.

Gebb's arrangements are designed as if his group were playing for a lively ballroom dance competition, starting with a tango rendition of "We Three Kings" that's so sultry, we practically can see the long-stemmed rose in Zvulun's teeth.

Gebb apparently loves double-time arrangements, and Zvulun is up to the challenge; "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" are furious sambas, while the group's rendition of "Jingle Bells" positively roars. And while you'd expect a waltz interpretation of "We Three Kings" to be on the gentler side, that ain't the case; this peppy 6/4 waltz would leave any dancers breathless.

"O Tannenbaum" is presented twice: first in a funkified strut with bebop echoes of Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," and later as a more traditionally rhythmic salsa.

Fortunately, the songs aren't all sprints; both "Joy to the World" and "The First Noel" break up the action, allowing folks to enjoy a slow dance or two.

Gebb's percussion work is always creative, and Zvulun keeps his solos simple, with single-note riffs rather than chords. Sadly, although Miner maintains a steady presence, he remains in the background; these 11 tracks are too brief to afford any extended solos.

But hey: There's nothing wrong with short and sweet.

The John Brown Quintet's self-produced Merry Christmas Baby also is a lot of fun: old-style combo jazz that allows each sideman plenty of improv opportunities in arrangements anchored by Brown's solid bass work. This is classic "give and take" jazz: Each song opens with its familiar melody, and then the soloists step in — often in pairs — with instrumental noodlings that eventually bring the tune back to its starting point.

Brown is ably supported by Brian Miller on sax and Ray Codrington on trumpet; two drum/piano duos round out the quintet during two different recording sessions that were close to a year apart.

Drummer Rick Dior establishes a tight beat in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and enjoys a cool exchange with Brown on the latter. "Merry Christmas Baby" gets off to a rolling strut, again thanks to Dior, before yielding to nice sax, trumpet and piano solos.

The instrumentation of "Frosty the Snowman" is particularly fine; I like the way Miller's sax segues to Gabe Evans' piano. Miller also shines in "Christmas Time Is Here," delivered as a wistful sax/piano (Derel Monteith this time) lament.

Codrington also handles the vocals, and that's where some problems surface. Although he's appropriately playful in songs such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Rudolph" and "Merry Christmas, Baby," he audibly strains for the high notes in "The Christmas Song" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." He doesn't shade his voice into a good jazz "instrument" the way (for example) Joe Williams or Louis Armstrong did.

That said, the instrumental musicality is tight, and the sashaying, mid-tempo arrangements are guaranteed to please.

Stephen Fisk's precise and delicate guitar work highlights Calm Abide (Plunge Records PR00622), a pleasantly quiet collection of "Christmas reflections" designed for the holiday season's calmer moments ... or perhaps as a means to achieve some much-needed calm.

This album is a true family affair: Stephen is ably supported by brothers Simon and Tim on double bass and drums/percussion, respectively. That perhaps goes a long way toward explaining this trio's tightness; who better than sibling musicians to truly "think as one"?

The album displays its tone with the first track, a quietly driving arrangement of "The Little Drummer Boy" that showcases Stephen's guitar chops while granting ample exposure to the bass and drum support. The trio's interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Christmas Dream" — a charming little song that debuted in a most unexpected place: the 1974 film thriller The Odessa File — is particularly enchanting, and even whimsical.

Most of the other cuts veer toward a more somber mood, notably a traditional carol titled "Gabriel's Message" and a Stephen Fisk original titled "March of the Magi."

The album's sole jarring note is the final cut, an inexplicably electronic version of "Deck the Halls" that clashes badly with the acoustic tracks that precede it. This last tune is monotonous, unpleasantly amplified and much too long: the complete antithesis of an otherwise pleasurable album. Rotate the final track out, and you'll have the perfect way to conclude a romantic holiday evening.

Trio Cambia's Change of Seasons (OA2 Records OA2 22049) is an intriguing critter for a couple of reasons. First, it's not quite a holiday album; as its title suggests, these eight tracks include holiday tunes, seasonal church hymns and even a few pop standards. Second, frontman Tim Green and his two sidemen — Mark Maegdlin and Jake Vinsel — alternate instruments and therefore deliver several variations on their "trio" sound.

Green trades off between piano and bass; Maegdlin is equally comfortable on drums and piano; and Vinsel bounces from bass to drums.

The result is never less than tasty, as their album-opening approach to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" demonstrates; Green dominates the melody line on piano, with the other two shading the arrangement just so.

Maegdlin takes over on piano for a slightly faster version of "A Child Is Born," with Green offering deft counterpoint on bass while Vinsel keeps the tempo lively. This track undergoes a tempo shift about midway through, and the second half genuinely cooks: definitely the album's peppiest number.

In great contrast, the consecutive "Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow" and a Green original, "Meditation I: Winter Morning," form a contemplative medley. Both are short tracks: Vinsel bows a somber bass on the first, while the second is a quiet, pensive piano solo by Green.

In between these holiday-esque tracks, the trio delivers pleasant covers of "Everything's Alright," from Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Zombies' 1960s hit, "Time for the Seasons."

My only complaint? The album is too short. At roughly 38 minutes, these guys certainly obey the old stage adage: They leave us wanting more.

Bassist Rob Swanson was drawn to jazz after the first time he watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on television; he repaid that debt, years later, by forming a band called the Christmas Cartoon Trio and booking gigs that focused on jazz interpretations of several seasonal animated classics.

The best arrangements have found their way onto a self-produced disc titled Cartoon Christmas Trio that is certain to be embraced by fans of Vince Guaraldi's work for that famed Peanuts TV special. All three of Guaraldi's original compositions from that show are included here, along with fresh arrangements of several traditional Christmas carols Guaraldi and his band covered.

The line-up is augmented by songs that popped up in a few other animated Christmas specials, with some additional holiday tunes tossed in to build an album. The result is mostly enjoyable, allowing for a few hiccups and a tendency for drummer Jackie Browne to indulge in the sort of solos beloved by high school garage bands.

Fortunately, Browne's occasional excesses are overshadowed by Jeff Knoettner's keyboard work — on both acoustic and electric instruments — and Swanson's excellent bass work.

Several of the arrangements are quite clever. "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" emerges as a cute, heavily percussive New Orleans strut in 4/4 time, while "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" opens with some hilariously ominous electronics before settling into a moody, bass-driven delivery.

"Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" is a delightful boogie-woogie strut: a heavy 2-beat that suggests the corpulent Jolly Red Elf's impressive size. But while a salsa-hued "Frosty, the Snowman" begins well, it suffers from the sort of monotonous mid-point drum solo that ruins too many Latin arrangements.

A lengthy rendition of "Sleigh Ride" gives all three musicians plenty of room to breathe, and also boasts another fine bass solo by Swanson.

Most of the tracks are bouncy and quite engaging trio jazz, very much in the vein of the arrangement of "Jingle Bells" that closes the album: a kick-ass piano solo by Knoettner, which builds to a rocketing tempo as Swanson and Browne join the fun and bring the track home.

The Raymond Alexander Trio's self-produced The Reason for the Season is a bit misleading; the "trio," as Alexander good-naturedly explains, is "me, myself and I." In other words, this modest album of Christmas jazz was created on an Apple computer and an M-Audio keyboard.

I've never been sure whether such effort qualifies as "real" music — after all, what's a computer, if not another instrument? — but Alexander certainly deserves credit for some novel arrangements. The album is mostly keyboards, bass and percussion, with occasional flourishes that simulate other instruments (such as the string highlights to "We Three Kings," which should have been resisted).

I like the waltz-time take on "What Child Is This," with its nod to the Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond hit "Take Five," and Alexander also opens the album nicely, with a moody interpretation of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

The tone gets gentler with "O Holy Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the latter highlighted by a flute-esque melody line.

By this point, though, the percussion elements have become somewhat monotonous: a frequent problem with similarly "canned" projects. This is probably more a novelty item than anything else, but I'll say this much: Alexander has enough talent as an arranger and keyboard player, that I'd like to hear him perform with a combo of actual human beings.

I've been an avid Beegie Adair fan since hearing a track from her first holiday jazz album, Jazz Piano Christmas, on the radio back in 1999. Her piano work is smooth as silk, and her trio delivers the finest "tasty jazz" out there these days; she's also quite fond of holiday music, having followed that first release with both Christmas Jazz and Quiet Christmas — the latter a solo album — in 2004.

Which brings us to the newly issued Winter Romance (Green Hill GHD5611). It's a lovely album, but it ain't jazz, as will be obvious to anybody who notes the participation of the Jeff Steinberg Orchestra. I won't go so far as to insist that violins aren't able to swing — indeed, not long ago I favorably reviewed a holiday jazz album by a violin-fronted combo — but a surfeit of strings dulls the jazzy edge of even the most accomplished combo.

That's the case here.

Adair's band occasionally shines through, notably on "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland" and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Guitarist Jack Jezzro gets a few pleasant (albeit quite brief) solos on the latter two, and Denis Solee delivers a nice tenor sax solo on "Mistletoe and Holly."

But the album's overall tempo rarely varies from slow swing or gentle bossa-nova, and the approach — forgive me for this, Beegie — is more suited to Lawrence Welk than a jazz club. The orchestral flourishes simply intrude too much, most notably during the title track.

The moody arrangement of "Snowfall," in fairness, is well-suited to the full orchestra, and harpist Mary Alice Hoepfinger contributes some nice accents.

Winter Romance is pleasant enough for a fancy-dress after-dinner soiree, but disappointing for those of us who love to hear Adair in full-blown jazz fury.

The self-produced Yuletide Jazz, by a quartet dubbed Nucleus — Alex Bootzin, piano; Steve Cassinelli, electric bass; Kevin McAuliffe, drums and percussion; and Ruben Salcido, flute and saxes — is a hoot. The sound veers toward bossa-nova and Gypsy jazz, without being immersed entirely in either genre; the resulting album is highlighted by unexpected arrangements and enthusiastic performances.

The album kicks off with a moody, minor-key interpretation of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas": unexpectedly slow for this routinely up-tempo number. The keyboard and percussion intro segues to a nice solo from Cassinelli; indeed, he gets far more time in the spotlight, as the album progresses, than most bass players.

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "O Christmas Tree" and "Angels from the Realms of Glory" have the most visible Brazilian overtones, with cool samba rhythms and playful sax and piano solos. "Gentlemen" gets an assist on electric violin by Martha Phillips Bootzin, while Carlos Sandoval contributes lively conga accents on "Angels."

These folks are just as good on the slower numbers. The lesser-known "In the Bleak Midwinter" is a gentle, plaintive blend of sax and piano shading; "What Child Is This" is equally soft at first, its piano and cymbals prologue eventually giving way to a nice solo by Cassinelli.

Things conclude with double-time readings of "We Three Kings" and "Joy to the World": both peppy arrangements that display considerable musicality. All good stuff, and definitely a keeper.

Pianist Charlie Lindner's self-produced Jazz for the Holidays is a modest little album that is undemanding but easy on the ears. Lindner and drummer Matthew Ramerman perform on all nine tracks, with alternating support from Jake Glasgow (sax), Jon Greeno (guitar) and Adam Groom (bass). Beau Leopard subs on bass for the final track, a bouncy little Lindner original titled "Soulflakes."

The album has a distinct style, with Lindner and Glasgow trading off as leads. If Glasgow's sax takes the melody, as with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "Winter Wonderland," then Lindner's keyboard adds gentle flourishes as "color." When Lindner takes the lead, as on "Let it Snow," then Greeno's guitar provides the shading.

The arrangements aren't unusual: mostly the standard melody-solos-melody sequencing often used by small combos. "Silent Night," done as a mid-tempo waltz, is unexpectedly dynamic; I like the counterpoint of Lindner's quieter, solo piano conclusion to this venerable carol. Lindner also gets a distinctly David Benoit-esque feel out of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

The album's mixing is its most glaring flaw. Two cuts — "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" — are obvious cut-and-paste jobs, with the "brightness" of one take noticeably different than a second take with which the replacement bit is blended. This is a beginner's miscalculation: It's always better to keep playing the song until a single, polished take pleases everybody.

Wally Minko's Do You Hear What I Hear? (Captain Smiley Records CS-CD-100702) unfolds like a Latin-hued big band jazz mass orchestrated for a Christmas Eve service I'd love to attend. The album roars out of the gate with a lively medley of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and "Ode to Joy": a richly arranged greeting that gives Gary Grant (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Andy Martin (trombone) plenty of room to stretch.

Indeed, that's true for most of these arrangements, which run long. Sax man Tom Evans is this set's champion, with sassy tenor solos in "Little Drummer Boy" and a percussive-heavy reading of "What Child Is This," and a sweet soprano sax accompaniment to vocalist Sharon Hendrix's jubilant handling of "O Holy Night." She really nails that classic hymn's dramatic scope.

Sandy Howell's vocal is simply beautiful on a gentle arrangement of "Silent Night," which begins quietly with just her, some piano shading and cymbal brushes before yielding to another lovely sax solo, this time from Pete Christlieb.

The news isn't all good, alas. The rock-ified arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard on High" gets out of control, turning unpleasantly electronic toward the end.

And I have nothing but contempt for "It's Called Christmas," an insufferably preachy song that maligns seasonal revelers who wish each other "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." That sort of strident lecturing has no place here, and it very nearly ruins an otherwise inventive and engaging album.

Fortunately, Minko brings his session to a pleasant conclusion with a bluesy, mid-tempo reading of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

Mike Laatz's self-produced Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas comes all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, by way of the Web. It's a pleasant listen and an impressive feat, since Laatz — who normally concentrates on tenor sax — also takes all the side parts here, which then were combined in post-production with, he says, "some really good software."

Most important, he insists, all the instruments are real: no electronics.

He did an excellent job with the mixing, because the resulting album sounds very much like a well-integrated quartet, with occasional appearances by additional musicians. The only downside is what one would expect from a single individual, no matter how many instruments are involved: a certain sameness of approach.

Most of these 12 tracks are mid- to gentle-tempo variations on the familiar carols; they're certainly enjoyable — Laatz obviously is talented — but we don't get the spontaneous riffs, solos and bridges that we'd expect when dealing with four or five different musicians who'd constantly seek ways to impress.

"Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" has some almost whimsical guitar touches, while "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" features a neat piano solo. "White Christmas" sounds a bit different, thanks to the interplay of piano and alto (rather than tenor) sax, and "Winter Wonderland" offers faint traces of salsa rhythms and hues.

This is party-friendly Christmas jazz : It goes down smoothly and will set a nice mood when friends and family drop in for a holiday dinner.

The Keith Taylor Trio's O Christmas Tree-O (Startlingly Fresh Records) is a seasonal joy from start to finish: a delectable example of the sort of trio piano jazz I could listen to forever. Taylor is joined on piano by Jim Cavender (bass) and Tom Branch (drums), and tenor saxman Greg Chambers sits in for a few tracks.

The lengthy tracks allow plenty of improv work; this album gives listeners a generous 70 minutes of truly tasty jazz.

Taylor demonstrates his inventive keyboard work with the album-opening "The Second First Noel," which also benefits from the first of Cavender's many slick bass solos. Taylor and Cavender trade licks on several tracks; I'm particularly impressed by their work on the mid-tempo handling of "Once in Royal David's City."

"O Christmas Tree" is an up-tempo finger-snapper, with a truly cookin' bass solo from Cavender. An equally lively rendition of "We Three Kings" proves that these heads of state really know how to groove on a track that boasts numerous tempo changes.

But as much as I enjoy this trio's faster selections, the slower pieces truly shine. "Silent Night" and "I Wonder As I Wander" are soft and mysterious: both lovely readings of these gentle carols. Chambers' sax work highlights an unexpectedly slow and sentimental reading of "Frosty the Snowman," a song usually given a lively up-tempo reading that emerges here as a lament. (Which I guess makes sense; Frosty did melt, after all!)

The album closes with another quiet one: "Some Children See Him," introduced with Taylor's gentle keyboard work, which guides this lovely standard — and the entire album — to a perfect conclusion.

Great job, guys.

Pianist Rob Cook dominates his self-produced Christmas Present, with sidemen Larry Holloway (bass) and Dave Snodgrass (drums) relegated to little more than occasional support. That's not a bad thing: Cook has serious keyboard chops, and these 14 tracks are all over the stylistic map, ranging from vintage rag stylings to the sometimes random noodling of modern "free" jazz.

Several tracks are solos, such as Cook's gentle approach to "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" or his somewhat deconstructed arrangement of "Silver Bells." He channels Scott Joplin for a lively ragtime take on "Up on the Housetop," and echoes George Winston during a New Age-y rendition of "Good Christian Men, Rejoice."

Things turn more lively when Holloway and Snodgrass augment the mix. A boogie-woogie approach to "Frosty the Snowman" is quite whimsical, while the arrangement of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — which alternates between waltz and 5/4 time — is quite clever.

Cook's minor-key handling of "Oh Christmas Tree" blossoms into a lively bopper, and "Jingle Bells" turns similarly wild after a music box-style piano intro.

Cook probably indulges in too many free jazz stylings for the casual listener; this album doesn't fade into the background like many holiday jazz productions. His notes also sometimes arrive "late," as if he's missing the beat: an affectation that can be jarring to those not familiar with this technique.

Cook deserves credit, though, for inventively expanding these oh-so-familiar songs. One gets the impression that he'd not play them the same way twice, and of course that's the very essence of jazz.

I knew within 15 seconds that Christmas with (the) Rochford Jazz Ensemble (Dental Records RJE5) would get heavy rotation in our home, even after the careful listens necessary for this review.

I'll be more blunt: I love this CD.

This trio — a self-professed "dentist, carpenter and ex-cable guy" — really knows how to swing, and the arrangements are both clever and creatively "dense." Most tracks run long, allowing these familiar holiday chestnuts to expand and breathe. Jim Szana does the heavy lifting on piano, and he's ably supported by Lonnie Schumacher (bass guitar) and Clacie Neu (drums and percussion).

Aside from the sheer pleasure of the musicality, it's fun to deduce what some of these songs are; in some cases, the improvisational introductions run for quite some time before the light bulb over your head will flash. The album's opening track is particularly ingenious: a reading of "Joy to the World" that opens with a strong nod to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Águas de Março" (perhaps best known these days for Art Garfunkel's English-language version, years ago).

Neu plays with tempo in a most engaging manner; "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Christmas Time Is Here" emerge in a relaxed 2/2 beat, both delivered as slow sashays. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," often given a somber reading elsewhere, turns into an upbeat, toe-tapping swing dance.

"Mary's Little Boy Child" has a whimsical calypso flavor that befits the song's history as a Harry Belafonte hit, but you'll blink when Szana's piano segues seamlessly, in the middle of the song, into "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" ... and then back again. A minor key medley of " 'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime" and "Angels We Have Heard on High" is equally nimble.

A lengthy counterpoint introduction to "Silent Night" will sound naggingly familiar until the melody finally sneaks in wearing quiet Latin shoes; and the Christian hymn "While By My Sheep" is quietly lovely at first, until it transitions into a smoky, Chicago blues-style strut that showcases Szana's keyboard chops.

The album concludes with a reading of "White Christmas" that is smooth as silk: a solid finale to a truly engaging album.

I'm frequently reminded, while compiling this annual feature, of the degree to which our very American jazz genre has been embraced by musicians in other countries. American-style jazz is particularly enjoyed in Japan and Germany, and last year I was quite enchanted by the Christoph Spendel Christmas Jazz Trio's Silent Night, a German album rather difficult to find on these shores.

I'm equally pleased with the Henderson Trio's Jazzy Christmas (ZYX Music CLA 10072-2), even if I'm trying to figure out how the group — actually a quartet — got its name. Arranger Oliver Leue is credited on piano, and he apparently trades off with Ismail Boulaghmal on keyboards; they're supported by Kristaps Grasis (bass) and Pompehi DZAhoudy (drums and percussion). Nary a "Henderson" to be seen.

Nomenclature aside, this is a lovely and quite polished album on the "quiet jazz" school: perfect for late-night sessions with your favorite sweetie. Most folks won't recognize the bulk of these songs, as they're mostly German carols; one — "Schneeflöckchen, Weissröckchen" — doesn't even seem to have an English translation for its title.

Things get off to a lovely start with the easily recognized "Silent Night," a gentle blend of quiet piano and brushed drums that sets the mood for the album to follow. Many of the tracks — as with "Mary Wanders Through the Thorn" and "Ring, Little Bell" — begin with quiet keyboard/bass introductions before bumping up the tempo a bit, but these guys never approach a hard-driving mode; it's all gentle, tasty jazz.

"Come, O You Shepherds" is presented as a dramatic, slowly building anthem that suggests an important journey; "O You Merry (Christmastide)" is a somber, hymn-like processional. Indeed, many of these arrangements would be perfect for a jazz-inflected church service.

As I learned while reviewing the aforementioned Christoph Spendel album, Germans apparently regard "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" as a holiday theme; it reappears here as the Henderson Trio's final track: a cute, mid-tempo finger-snapper, and a lively conclusion to a delicious album.

Our international excursion continues with the L.A. Jazz Trio's thoroughly enjoyable Piano Trio Christmas (Paddle Wheel KICJ 546), which — despite its apparently American title — is available only in Japan. (The Japanese liner notes are something of a giveaway.)

This is straight-ahead trio jazz, and these three guys — Corey Allen, piano; Kevin Axt, bass; and Dave Tull, drums — must perform a lot, because they're well-rehearsed and quite accomplished.

It's also not the typical case, where the pianist commands the lion's share of attention. All three of these guys get ample opportunities to shine, and the result is much more collaborative than usual.

The album opens and closes with a quiet piano solo — on "A Child Is Born" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," respectively — that cues the arrival of bass and drums, as each track then becomes a delightful ensemble production. Most arrangements are gentle, with the trio rarely moving faster than a mid-tempo approach.

"O Christmas Tree" is a slow, bluesy 2/2 arrangement with a whimsical touch that is highlighted by Axt's bowing of his bass. He has several engaging and more traditional solos (i.e. plucked) on "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town," "Silver Bells" and "Winter Wonderland."

"Jingle Bells" displays a bit of samba influence, and "Silent Night" is a gorgeous, church-like jazz spiritual. "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a lot of fun, with a mild Dixieland-style strut and some slick give-and-take between Allen and Axt.

I expect pianists and bassists to be creative in good trios; the pleasant surprise here is Tull, whose drum work is equally inventive. He's never intrusive, but at the same time you're always aware of his presence.

This one's a keeper.

Pianist Bill Mays fronts the Toronto Chamber Jazz Septet — which also features Terry Clarke, Vern Dorge, Phil Dwyer, John Johnson, P.J. Perry and Neil Swainson — and the group is known for its holiday-themed performance at Toronto's CBC Glenn Guild Studio.

The December 2001 concert was recorded and broadcast by Canada's CBC Radio 2; that broadcast, in turn, is available at Mays' Web site ( as the double-disc Nutcracker Suite Holiday CD.

The music is great, with the live performance's two halves split between the two CDs. This largish band delivers a lot of sound, given its size; it frequently sounds like more than seven musicians. Mays opens each segment with a piano solo — a sweet rendition of Bill Evans' "My Bells" for the first half; a slice of Ravel's "Miroirs," re-titled "Ravel's Bells," for the second half — and also delivers a solo encore of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" as "a short little holiday wish."

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a trio performance with Mays, Clarke (drums) and Swainson (bass); the rest of the tracks involve the entire band.

Mays and his mates give Brazilian, samba-style readings to "The Christmas Song" and a jazz arrangement of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," and the mood turns decidedly whimsical with a lively rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Stuffy Turkey," which features great solos by Perry and Swainson.

"My Favorite Things" is woven with elements of "Carol of the Bells"; the result truly cooks, and features a swinging bass solo by Swainson. Mays' own "Snow Job" — which is, as he explains, based on the changes to "Winter Wonderland" — is a lively bopper.

The double-album's centerpiece is a swinging 27-minute arrangement of six movements from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." It opens and closes smashingly; while things get a little weird in the middle, you likely won't mind.

On the other hand, listeners are likely to be bothered by this album's truly amateurish packaging, presentation and production. The discs aren't labeled, aside from the band's name and "CD #1"/"CD #2," and the single sheet of construction paper that serves as a cover/jacket lists the track titles, but fails to give running times.

The transitions from one track to the next can be clumsy; the first track "concludes" with the sound of the band tuning up, and the second disc's first "track" is a 10-second hiccup left over from the end of the first disc. The worst sin, however, is the 10-second gap of nothingness that lands about 16 minutes into the otherwise splendiferous "Nutcracker Suite" ... absolute and total sacrilege.

Bottom line: As fine as the music is, the production values completely ruin the listening experience.

The Buselli/Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's Carol of the Bells (Owl Studios OWL00101) is a tasty blend of instrumentals and smoky-bass vocals; the are latter supplied by Everett Greene, who reminds me fondly of Joe Williams. The 17-piece outfit doesn't deliver the sort of screaming big band "wall of sound" that you'd expect from, say, Rob McConnell or Stan Kenton; the musicians here concentrate more on smoothly arranged shading, and the tempos hover from leisurely to middle-range, with no true rip-snorters.

That said, the album kicks off with a big band blast for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," with Mark Buselli's lovely trumpet solo alternating with Greene's gently rumbling vocal. "Let it Snow" opens quietly and then builds into a mid-tempo swinger, with Greene giving this ballad an appealing amount of meditative poignance.

Buselli's trumpet also highlights a peaceful arrangement of "Joy to the World," delivered with the reverence of a church hymn.

Of the instrumentals, "O Tannenbaum" opens with Luke Gillespie's almost whimsical piano prologue, and then the venerable carol builds into a bluesy, mid-tempo swinger as the full orchestra kicks in. "Jingle Bells," another solid swinger, will be recognized for its homage to Duke Ellington's classic 1962 arrangement of this popular holiday tune (which can be found on the anthology album Jingle Bell Jazz).

"Carol of the Bells" is Wynton Marsalis-esque: re-cast as a slowly building minor key dirge that moves in intriguing directions. The arrangement of "Christmas Time Is Here" is an intriguing permutation; this jazz orchestra adds much more shading than usual, transforming the familiar Charlie Brown Christmas staple into a captivating variation on its own theme.

The album concludes with another vocal by Greene, quite appropriately on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?": a slow, wistfully melancholy capper to a truly lovely set of 12 songs.

One minor grumble: The interior liner notes sequence the songs improperly, although the listing is correct on the back of the CD.

David Gazarov gets a lot of sound out of his piano on his trio's Jazz Christmas (Skip Records SKP 9042-2), and I also love his arrangements; this German import is a lively breath of fresh air in the holiday jazz field.

Gazarov and his sidemen — Paulo Cardoso, bass; and Mario Gonzi, drums — take their time with most of these 10 tracks, transforming simple carols into elaborate little symphonies. Sometimes a familiar melody remains discernible through an entire track; at other times, the seasonal song pretty much vanishes after the first few bars. "The Wassail Song," for example, turns into a delectable little jazz sonata.

Gazarov enjoys playing with syncopation. "Silent Night" is delivered in standard time (4/4) rather than its usual waltz mode, which gives the arrangement something of a "rolling" quality. Cardoso has a great bass solo here, as well as in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

Gazarov owns this album, though; his keyboard work is always inventive. He opens "O Tannenbaum" with a slow solo intro, then gradually picks up speed and segues into a lovely improv interlude while maintaining the song's familiar chord changes.

The trio is graceful at all tempos. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a blend of "Snow Falls Soft in the Night" and "A Child Is Born" are soft, slow and simply gorgeous; alternatively, these guys truly cook on faster-paced arrangements of "White Christmas" and "Come, O You Shepherds."

An extremely clever arrangement of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" brings the album to a whimsical — and slightly abrupt — close: definitely a case of leaving us wanting more. And that's after 50 minutes of solid piano trio jazz!

I'm always wary of an album that screws up the tracking sequence on its liner notes; this seems a likely indication of sloppy work elsewhere. And, indeed, Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (DBCD003) isn't quite ready for prime time. This sextet, led by trumpeter Eddie Allen, too frequently sounds like an under-rehearsed garage band.

Part of the problem is the production work, which leaves the horns — two trumpets, a French horn and a trombone — sounding too "bright." But the musicians themselves are uneven as well; sometimes the horns are "watery" and not quite on key with each other, and Carl Allen's drum work tends to be uninspired and listless.

Individually, these guys have impressive credits, but it doesn't sound like they perform together very often. They're not tight as a combo, and some of Eddie Allen's arrangements are downright dreary: definitely not the desired mood for Christmas carols.

Fortunately, a few tracks rise above the others. "Deck the Halls" has some sparkle, and "Good King Wenceslas" is a solid, mid-tempo swinger. It's also one of Eddie Allen's better arrangements, as is "Jingle Bells," which emerges as a New Orleans-style strut.

The percussion work is reasonably inventive in "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman," and it shows actual signs of life in "The Little Drummer Boy."

But these occasional bursts of mild charm can't compensate for the mostly pedestrian approach to the album as a whole. The tracks are short, as well, which leaves little time for improv work between the familiar melodies. But maybe that's just as well, since it doesn't sound like these guys could be bothered to contribute extended solos.

Pianist Bill Augustine and bassist Malcolm Cecil released their first holiday collection, A Merry Jazz Christmas, back in 1998; it has been spiffed-up a bit and re-issued this year — with four additional tracks — as A Jazzy Christmas.

But the subject at hand is A Jazzy Christmas #2 (GNP Crescendo Records GNP 1802), an equally engaging follow-up that debuted just after the first of this year. (One wonders what production snafu caused them to just miss last Christmas.)

The instrumentation is the same, and Augustine and Cecil have only gotten more polished. Cecil is a wizard on the bass, able to deliver the equivalent of a solid percussion section or — as an arrangement demands — move to the foreground and deftly handle the melody line. The entire album sounds as if these two guys got together for an impromptu jam session and recorded the results; the music has the highly enjoyable, free-flowing give-and-take that characterizes jazz musicians who've performed together so long that they think as one.

These guys also honor their jazz roots; you'll hear familiar echoes of everything from "Take Five" to "Route 66." Indeed, Cecil lays down a bass line straight out of "Killer Joe" on the album's opening track, a clever arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard on High." A boogie-woogie handling of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," is even more fun, and "We Three Kings" emerges in 5/4 time, making us wonder who the two additional kings might have been.

Augustine's piano riffs go all over the place in a lively cover of "Jingle Bells," and he also does nice work on a waltz arrangement of "Silver Bells." Cecil's skills on melody are most evident in "Winter Wonderland" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and the two blend their talents quite well on a straight-ahead jazz rendition of "Deck the Halls."

This album is a great listen, and I obviously need to get the updated version of its predecessor, in order to secure those extra tracks.

The U.S. Air Force Band's Do You Hear What I Hear? ( isn't entirely a jazz album, although in fairness it doesn't claim to be. Nor is this recording made by the entire full-blown band; it's a more intimate affair by the Diplomats, a three-piece "protocol ensemble" formed to provide top-quality dinner and background music for occasions that involved U.S. senior leaders and visiting dignitaries.

No doubt some of these events have taken place in December, and hence this album: a blend of mostly jazz instrumentals and vocals, with a few pop-style tracks to vary the mix.

The jazz arrangements, however, are worth the price of admission. Frank Pappajohn (bass and leader), Jonathan McPherson (piano) and Dennis Hoffmann (drums) deliver a lively sound for such a small combo, and the album's high point is a way-cool 5/4 arrangement of "Do You Hear What I Hear": one of the best jazz trio calling-cards I've heard in awhile.

They also deliver smooth jazz waltz interpretations of "Caroling, Caroling" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," both of which start softly and gradually accelerate into livelier tempos.

Bobbie McCleary contributes vocals to five tracks, the best of which are a slick, double-time handling of "The White World of Winter" and a deliciously sassy arrangement of "Santa Baby." The latter's always a gamble, since the song is so firmly associated with — depending on one's age — Eartha Kitt or Maria Muldaur. McClearly, it must be said, delivers the goods.

On the other hand, she positively destroys a medley that unwisely blends "Jingle Bells" and "Felice Navidad"; McClearly repeats "I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas" 21 times in less than 90 seconds — I counted — and I wanted to throttle her halfway through the song.

And surely all concerned could have found something better with which to conclude the album, instead of "Giving," a cloying song from 1985's best-forgotten Santa Claus: The Movie.

The trio's instrumental arrangements of "Joy to the World" or "Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming" — the former an up-tempo finger-snapper, the latter a somber lament that builds to a nice crescendo — would have been far superior choices.

Royce Campbell is no stranger to this genre, and A Jazz Guitar Christmas II (Moon Cycle Records JVN1985) actually is his third holiday-themed album, after A Jazz Guitar Christmas (2004) and A Solo Guitar Christmas (2007).

Indeed, one might reasonable deduce that Royce rather enjoys the season.

He certainly makes enjoyable music, and this CD is no exception. Ably assisted by Bob Bowen (bass) and Ron Free (drums), Campbell smoothly delivers 11 thoroughly pleasant tracks. The arrangements aren't novel, and the tempos tend toward quiet to mid-range, but you're unlikely to mind when the musicality is this polished.

Campbell's approach is standard in several tracks, as with "Deck the Halls," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman": He opens with a guitar rendition of the familiar melody, then wanders enjoyably afield during a solo. Bowen then takes the baton with a bass solo, and Campbell brings it all home with a reprise of the basic melody.

For the most part, Free establishes a quiet beat with brushes rather than sticks, but he does flare to life during brief solos in "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (a sassy little strut) and "Away in a Manger."

The more dynamic arrangements include a bossa-nova reading of "Silent Night," which is unusual for that generally somber song; a lively bop interpretation of "Good King Wenceslas"; and an extremely clever approach to "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" ... in waltz time!

"Away in a Manger" is the most ambitious track, clocking in at more than six minutes. Bowen kicks it off with a groovy walking bass, and then everybody gets solos during the song's extended improv middle section. Nice stuff.

The trio concludes with a lively reading of "Jingle Bells," which highlights some slick give-and-take between Campbell and Bowen. They bring a nifty album to an equally polished close.

Which, in turn, brings this annual round-up to a similar close.

Time to get started on the next one...

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