Monday, December 6, 2010

Holiday Jazz 2010: A quiet year for seasonal swing

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.10

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

Santa seems to have misplaced some of his swing.

Some years are great for holiday jazz; others … aren’t. New releases are unusually slim this year; were it not for a selection of slightly older albums that only came to my attention during the past 12 months, I’d have precious little to discuss. 2010 offers no new CDs from name-brand jazz superstars, and  perhaps more surprising  also no new compilations from labels that have delivered the goods in previous years: Concord, Origin and several others.

(Sadly, Christmas from the Blue Note came to my attention too late for this article; it’ll be discussed at this time next year.)

I’d hate to think this results from a diminished interest in seasonal swing, but one year does not a trend make. I won’t panic unless 2011 is similarly bereft of jazzy ho-ho-ho.

But the news isn’t all bad. Music doesn’t require a 2010 copyright in order to be “new”; if you’ve not encountered something before, it’s still fresh. And you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the following list. If it’s not as long as my usual annual round-up, well, that simply means your bank account won’t be as threatened.

So, I see Santa on sax, Rudolph on percussion, and three elves standing atop one another to work that bass: Grab some egg nog and prepare to snap those fingers and tap those toes.


Although not on the public’s radar as much as, say, Mannheim Steamroller, the a cappella group Take 6 is just as serious about the holidays: the newly released The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is the ensemble’s third seasonal release, following 1991’s He Is Christmas and 1999’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas. It can be hard to pigeonhole the group, since their style blends elements of gospel, R&B, vintage doo-wop and jazz … but when a bunch of guys sounds this good, they deserve to be praised.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a shortish album, its 10 tracks clocking in at just shy of 35 minutes, but the contents are choice. You’ll marvel at the way the voices “cover” the background percussion instruments one would expect from an average rendition of these tunes; this is particularly noteworthy on “White Christmas” and a soulful reading of “Jingle Bells,” along with the enchanting “Sugarplum Dance,” a doo-wop variation on Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” (no vocal line on this one, of course).

The rowdier selections are a lot of fun, particularly “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which opens with an argument between Claude McKnight III and Alvin Chea  over who should sing the bass melody line  and continues with all sorts of snarky side comments throughout the song.

But these guys have their sweeter side, as well: Their vocal chops are just as enchanting on the gentler arrangements, as with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “I Saw Three Ships.”

You won’t want to miss this album … and while you’re at it, pick up the other two, as well.

This seems to be the year for vocal ensembles; Take 6’s third holiday release is joined by the first from the German-based Berlin Voices, a vocal quartet that shines in About Christmas. This ensemble  Esther Kaiser, Sarah Kaiser, Marc Secara and Kristof Benn  delivers a little of this, a little of that: everything from sacred German carols (sung in German, of course) to the first cover I’ve heard of Neil Diamond’s “You Make It Feel Like Christmas.”

Calling this album “jazz” is something of a stretch, however; although three tracks swing nicely, the rest stray into solemn church hymns and pop.

The jazz tracks are a kick, though, starting with the up-tempo “Joy to the World” that opens the album. Aside from the quartet’s lively harmonies, the track includes rhythmic solos from pianist Hendrik Soll and alto saxman Regis Molina Reynaldo. “It’s Christmas All Over the World” also moves, thanks to an assist from tenor sax soloist Darmon Meader.

The percussive backing on “I Wonder As I Wander” has a mild echo of “Take 5,” and offers a smooth bass clarinet solo by Lutz Hafner.

The rest of the album sounds more like what one would expect from a church service, most particularly the German-language carols: “Silent Night” and three others that probably won’t be recognized outside their native country.

The group’s harmonizing is particularly lovely on a medley of “The First Noel” and “A Child Is Born,” and the handling of the “Coventry Carol” is equally lush.

Calling this a jazz album seems more of a marketing decision, however, than an accurate description of the music.

Director Saunders Jones and the Etowah Jazz Society clearly wanted to re-create a WWII-era December concert at a USO dance hall, and they’ve succeeded splendidly with the ensemble’s self-released What Jazz Is This.

This spirited gathering of “folks with day jobs” may not display the seasoned chops of professional musicians, but they compensate with plenty of enthusiasm; they also get a lot of sound out of their 20-piece big band, which includes four trumpets, four trombones and seven saxes, along with guitars, the usual rhythm section and two vocalists (who do their best to add the harmonic depth of famed gal groups like the Andrews Sisters).

Indeed, the unison playing is quite polished, notably the horns on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silent Night.”

The album gets off to a lively start, with a rousing mid-tempo cover of “Jingle Bells”; it’s matched, a little later, by a particularly jolly version of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” Vocalists Sarah Harbin and Marjie Meder get melodic horn backing in “Christmas Time Is Here,” while Jim Pohl and Ron Reynolds contribute sweet guitar licks in “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”

My only issues with this album are on the production end. Tony Maddox’s keyboard work is fine, but the piano itself sounds watery and warbly, and doesn’t mix well with the other instruments. I also would have preferred a few more up-tempo arrangements; the album closes with a string of slow numbers  concluding with a hymn-like reading of “The First Noel”  that become a bit monotonous.

I suspect this ensemble is more energetic when experienced live, and they can visit our town any time.

Fans of Vince Guaraldi’s music for A Charlie Brown Christmas will recognize the style and set list of the Lenny Marcus Trio’s Comfort and Joy, which evokes very fond memories of that long-ago 1965 album. That said, Marcus makes this music his own; his inventive arrangements include echoes of Guaraldi’s efforts, but then spin into pleasant new directions.

Marcus and his mates get things off to a lively start with a bouncy, attention-grabbing version of Guaraldi’s “Christmas Is Coming,” and Marcus shows his piano chops with an entirely different bridge in this up-tempo finger-snapper.

Bassist Scott Trayer shines during “O Tannenbaum” and “Little Drum,” the latter a deft re-working of Guaraldi’s take on “The Little Drummer Boy.” Marcus likes to mix things up; both “Little Drum” and “Christmas Time Is Here” open as slow and simple carols, before kicking into gear with midpoint tempo and style changes.

Marcus’ arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” digs into the hymn’s wintry mood, and he concludes a charming version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” blended with a few bars of “Jingle Bells.”

Marcus mixes the eight combo numbers with three piano solos: a boogie-woogie reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and two Beethoven classics, “Fur Elise” and the Sonata Pathetique. The latter is a bit self-indulgent on a holiday jazz album, but it certainly brings things to a solemn conclusion.

Pianist Eric Byrd takes the Guaraldi homage a bit more seriously, and in fact has turned it into a cottage industry. His trio worked a few selections from A Charlie Brown Christmas into a holiday concert back in 2000, and that led to an annual themed show that has become enormously popular ... particularly in Westminster, Md., where the whole thing began. (Just try to get tickets!)

The show’s success, in turn, led to the 2009 release of Byrd’s self-produced album, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It isn’t a slavish reproduction, as was the case with Cyrus Chestnut’s 2000 handling of Guaraldi’s entire 1965 album, and that’s to Byrd’s credit; he and his bandmates honor Guaraldi’s arrangements and original themes while still leaving themselves plenty of room to breathe.

The result is both familiar and different, and a great deal of fun.

Byrd opens his album with a solo piano introduction to “O Tannenbaum,” just as Guaraldi did, but then kicks into gear with a fresh arrangement that grant solos to himself, acoustic bassist Bhagwan Khalsa and drummer Alphonso Young Jr.

That model is followed throughout, and I’m particularly impressed by Byrd’s handling of “My Little Drum” and “Greensleeves,” both of which boast plenty of solid improv work.

Many Christmas songs have simple, often redundant melodies; after all, they were designed to be sung. The trick, when presenting an instrumental arrangement, is to hold the listener’s attention through inventive improv chops. Byrd and his trio do this quite well. Even Guaraldi’s original compositions  “Linus and Lucy,” “Christmas Is Coming” and “Skating”  retain just enough familiar melody line before launching into completely original bridges.

The iconic “Christmas Time Is Here” is presented twice: both as a gentle instrumental  Khalsa’s bowed bass adding a nice touch  and as a vocal, with the singing handled by Byrd’s 6-year-old son, Jason. I’m normally not a fan of little children making guest vocals on jazz albums, but Jason melted my curmudgeonly heart; he has such a sweet little voice that his performance is impossible to resist.

Too bad I live on the West Coast; I’d love to catch these guys live.

Speaking of slavish reproductions, the Boston Brass and Brass All-Stars Big Band have done just that, with a cover of an entire album: vintage big band leader Stan Kenton’s classic 1961 release, A Merry Christmas.

The Boston Brass’ The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols, clearly working from the charts Kenton’s band used, reproduces all 11 of that album’s songs, albeit in a different order. The basic Boston Brass quintet  Jose Sibaja, trumpet; Jeff Conner, trumpet; Chris Castellanos, horn; Lance LaDuke, euphonium and trombone; and Andrew Hitz, tuba  is augmented by another nine performers, to make up a 14-piece unit with four trumpets, three French horns, three trombones, one tuba and a rhythm section of piano, drums and percussion.

The band delivers an impressive wall of sound that duplicates Kenton’s larger unit (24 personnel) with at times uncanny precision. And yet, although the arrangements are identical, the instrumentation varies here and there; Kenton’s album showcases the piano more  no surprise there, since Kenton played it  while this one more frequently uses vibes for the same melody lines and shading.

The other noticeable difference involves pacing. Although Boston Brass conductor Sam Pilafian almost matches the Kenton unit’s full-blown big band intensity, it’s still “almost.” Track for track, Kenton’s original album is just a hair peppier, just a shade more vibrant.

Which begs the question: Since Kenton’s A Merry Christmas remains readily available, why bother with a reproduction, by a different group, which isn’t quite as high-spirited?

Why, indeed. Now that the novelty has worn off, I remain more fond of the two times the Boston Brass group goes “off book,” with songs that aren’t on Kenton’s album: a funky “Motown Jingle Bells” and a percussive reading of “Greensleeves.” Both tracks really cook, and the Boston Brass guys get more room to stretch, since these cuts are longer than anything else; most of the Kenton charts are quite brief.

Cover bands make more sense as a live act, not as an album, and indeed the Boston Brass tours a highly popular Christmas show every year. Too bad they don’t come to our neck of the woods.

On a nattering note, the CD’s so-called liner notes are a complete bust, listing nothing but song titles. I had to visit the group’s Web site to ID the musicians.

Pianist John Erickson’s A Feeling of Christmas is charming. Erickson’s combo delivers quiet, thoughtful jazz in the original Windham Hill mode (before that company’s name became synonymous with puerile smooth jazz).

Most of these tracks are slow and meditative, with Erickson frequently trading licks with bassist Patrick Williams. Both have nice solos on a rarely heard carol titled “Gabriel’s Message,” and they also blend well on “The Coventry Carol.” A lyrical reading of “What Child Is This” is backed nicely by Mike Austin’s work on bodhran  he also shines in “Angels We Have Heard on High”  while drummer/percussionist Tim Mulvenna maintains the beat on the remaining combo tracks.

“Carol of the Bells” is blended cleverly with “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and Erickson’s arrangement of “Silent Night” is moody, ethereal and minimalist: just enough notes to convey the melody, with a concluding quote from “Joy to the World.”

Only one track approaches a comparatively livelier mid-tempo: a spritely reading of “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” that can’t help raising a smile.

Erickson blends the eight combo numbers with four piano solos, my favorites being “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

This is wonderful late-night jazz: perfect for curling up to at the shank end of a long day.

The operative word for Nate Birkey’s self-produced Christmas is mellow ... as in very, very mellow. One doesn’t normally think of holiday music as romantic and snuggly, but Birkey delivers just that mood. His honey-coated vocals are just as soothing as his horn work, whether on trumpet or flugelhorn.

Birkey’s also a generous leader, granting ample exposure to his sidemen, most notably pianist Jim Ridl.

The album opens with a wistful reading of “Silent Night” that sets the mood for the music to come; Ridl contributes a lovely keyboard solo, and Birkey complements his plaintive horn with a brief vocal midway through the track.

Most of the arrangements are slow to mid-tempo: light and occasionally whimsical, as with “O Tannenbaum.” But these guys can cook as well; a sassy reading of “We Three Kings” kicks off with drummer Marko Marcinko’s New Orleans-style strut, and I defy any listener not to break into a dance.

A double-time reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is equally lively, showcasing both Ridl’s keyboard chops and a nice solo from guitarist Vic Juris. Things wind up with the acknowledgement of another holiday: “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” a sprightly, mid-tempo arrangement with a nice horn lead and solid work on piano and bass.

The album closes with “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and it’s the only time Birkey’s voice strains a bit. Given my druthers, I’d have preferred a few more instrumentals and not as many vocals, but it’s hard to argue with the end result when it’s this lovely.

Artistic decisions can seem baffling, and that’s definitely the case with Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. I can’t imagine why Wilson (drums and percussion) and Paul Sikivie (bass) put up with bandmate Jeff Lederer (sax, clarinet, piccolo), who pretty much destroys the listening experience.

Self-indulgent sax players who blaaappp their way through arrangements become irritating very quickly, and that’s definitely the case here. When Lederer holds back, the results can be pleasant; the trio delivers leisurely and charming covers of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and their whimsical readings of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Mele Kalikimaki” are a lot of fun.

But Lederer spoils the party on most of the remaining tracks. “The Chipmunk Song” begins promisingly, but then Lederer’s sax turns weird and honks like an irritated goose. “Christmas Time Is Here” is marred by drum-and-sax nonsense, and Lederer similarly runs amok with a soprano sax during “The Little Drummer Boy.”

And you simply don’t want to experience the hatchet jobs on “The Hallelujah Chorus” and a medley of “Angels/Angels We Have Heard on High”; both are absolutely ghastly. Lederer becomes even more obnoxious on the latter, with some tinkly nonsense on a toy piano.

You’d never want to play this album in mixed company; people would cover their ears and run from the room every time Lederer cuts loose.

The intriguingly named Equanimous Jones Quartet is a tight little unit, and Calm Down, It’s Christmas knows how to get down and funky; this is a fun listen.

The album opens with a clever, percussive reading of “Deck the Halls” that might have been arranged by the little drummer boy. Tommy Myers’ tenor sax dominates a lovely instrumental reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the song gets a second outing with a languid, sweet vocal by percussionist Keith Swan.

A bluesy, sultry arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming’ to Town” is a great showcase for the entire band, and gets down and funky for 10 solid minutes.
On the other hand, a few stylistic choices are less satisfying. A faux-orchestral arrangement of “O Holy Night” is bombastic, overwrought and wholly out of place on this album. I also don’t think much of a countrified version of “Winter Wonderland,” complete with twangy electric guitar and an overly “sweetened” keyboard (no doubt intended to sound honky-tonk, but actually a bit sour and tinny).

Swan also needs to watch his drum work; he occasionally sounds “late.”

Happily, things draw to a great conclusion with an up-tempo, finger-snapping reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” in straight-ahead, 4/4 jazz style. Myers’ alto sax gets downright playful with Gregory Cook’s acoustic guitar.

On a trivial note, one wonders why this group calls itself a quartet, since half of these tracks involve five players...

Wynton Marsalis’ Christmas Jazz Jam escaped my attention last year, because its release was exclusive to Target stores (an abominable marketing practice that can be discontinued any time, thank you).

I was cautious, having been disappointed by Marsalis’ previous holiday album, 1989’s Crescent City Christmas Card. Although capable of breathtakingly beautiful jazz, Marsalis can be quite outré at times, and his earlier Christmas release is pretty weird at times.

Christmas Jazz Jam is somewhat more approachable, but only for Dixieland fans who enjoy strutting arrangements, amiable vocals, honky-tonk piano and plenty of banjo and tuba work. None of these tracks can be considered straight-ahead jazz, making this album more suitable for a lively holiday party, and less for casual background listening.

But if you do like Dixieland, you have plenty to enjoy; most of these tracks benefit from extended arrangements  more than seven minutes!  that allow ample room for all the musicians to shine. And that they do; lively covers of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” are great showcases for the entire ensemble.

Don Vappie’s frantic banjo gets plenty of exercise on a breathtaking, double-time arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” while bassist Reginald Veal contributes a nice  if too brief  solo on “Jingle Bells.”

Marsalis indulges his fondness for dissonance in “Good King Wenceslas” and a particularly strange arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” neither of which is the album’s finest hour.

Fortunately, he concludes on a gentler, more pleasant note, first with a lovely quartet arrangement  trumpet, bass, drums and piano  of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and finally with a simply gorgeous reading of “Greensleeves” that’s just trumpet and piano: proof positive that Marsalis hasn’t forgotten his classical training.

Homegrown albums can be a pleasant surprise, and that’s certainly the case with Little Town: Carols for Christmas. For a combo that only began “meeting at church for late-night trio sessions in 2007,” these guys  Grant Osborne, piano; Peter Innocenti, bass; and Jeff Crouse, drums  are a pleasant, well-balanced unit.

Their general approach is light and airy: gentle trio jazz designed to complement a quiet social gathering. That’s not to say Osborne and his buddies can’t “get down” when the impulse strikes; the album’s highlight is a saucy arrangement of “Silver Bells” that’s bound to have you seeking a dance partner. Their version of “Auld Lang Syne” is equally lively: a New Orleans strut that evokes images of pick-up bands sashaying down the streets of the Big Easy.

It’s nice to hear a few seldom-covered carols, notably “The Wassail Song” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” both delivered as mid-tempo finger-snappers. And the heavily percussive arrangement of “White Christmas” is particularly catchy: mostly bass and drums, with only light keyboard work on the melody line ... almost like an improv exercise, and a quite successful one.

The remaining tracks are quiet and contemplative: a whimsical reading of “The Chipmunk Song”; a charming cover of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with the percussion sounding like a gently ticking clock; and a particularly lovely arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here,” with nice brushwork by Crouse and piano stylings that sound like gentle rainfall.

The album includes two vocals: a charming rendition of “Little Town,” best known for Amy Grant’s recording; and a 1931 chestnut called “Home (When Shadows Fall),” perhaps remembered  by “listeners of a certain age”  for Louis Armstrong’s version, decades ago.

The latter and the Pat Metheney song that concludes the album  “Always and Forever”  stray a bit from the Christmas jazz theme, but that’s hardly an issue when the music is this appealing.

On Guitar Christmas, Jimmy Ponder leads a quintet that includes Don Braden (tenor sax), John Hicks (piano), Dwayne Dolphine (bass) and Cecil Brooks III (drums). The approach is traditional combo jazz, which means Ponder’s guitar generally takes the melody line as each song begins, and he then hands off to one or more sidemen for their extended solos.

The band follows this model on most tracks, from the album’s opening “Jingle Bells” to a deliciously bluesy reading of “Merry Christmas Baby.” Stand-outs include a strong, heavily percussive reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features bass and drums; and a toe-tapping cover of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” during which Ponder steps aside and allows the sax and piano to shine.

My only complaint is the lengthy drum solo in “We Three Kings.” As I’ve mentioned many times before, only drummers believe their extended solos are interesting; rest assured, this one isn’t.

Ponder closes the album with two solo guitar performances: a gently romantic original titled “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and a lovely reading of “The Christmas Song.” Neither of these two final tracks can be considered jazz, but they’re no less charming.

Andy Suzuki’s Time Pools band delivers plenty of swing on Cool Yule, a nifty collection of holiday standards rendered in (mostly) mid-size jazz band style. Suzuki handles all reeds and woodwinds, and the arrangements are his; he’s supported by six sidemen and  on a few tracks  members of the Seattle String Ensemble.

I could have lived without the latter; they merely dilute the jazz elements in the two tracks that include strings.

Otherwise, though, the listening experience is choice. I’ve always been partial to vibes, and therefore greatly enjoy vibraphonist Tom Collier’s contributions to “O Holy Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “What Child Is This.” Suzuki’s arrangements also are engaging; they often work against expectation, turning (for example) “O Holy Night” and “The Holly and the Ivy” into mid-tempo toe-tappers, rather than the solemn works we’d expect.

Pianist Nick Manson and bassist Douglas Barnett are well in evidence throughout, and particularly on the lively reading of “Deck the Halls.” “Joy to the World” also cooks, with a near big band sound that includes sparkling horn shading from Brad Allison (trumpet) and Gary Shutes (trombone).

Suzuki tends to be front and center, and while he spends most of his time on sax, I’m most taken by his gentler flute work on “O Christmas Tree” and “What Child Is This.” Two tracks are solely duets with piano: “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Christmas Tree.”

This album benefits from plenty of variety, both in terms of arrangements and instrumentation: definitely one of the year’s winners.

I’m a bit suspicious that Big Band Christmas Volume 2 may have been cooked up in a computer lab; no individual musicians are named, and the only credit goes to producers Bob Wright and Paul Whitehead. Additionally, the recording has a sterile, “tinny” sound completely lacking in ambient room noise; the piano, in particular, sounds artificial and oddly “off.”

The album also doesn’t get off to a very promising start; the first four tracks are bland, standard-issue big-band stylings ... nothing particularly dynamic.
But things turn around with track 5, a great barrelhouse arrangement of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” that boasts a terrific screaming sax solo. Actual or artificial, it’s still fun.

The rest of the cuts are equally engaging. Highlights include a jitterbug-ish reading of “Fum Fum Fum”; unexpectedly up-tempo versions of “The First Noel” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (both of which generally are played more solemnly); and a cute, fast-paced cover of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” which opens with a droll baritone sax on the melody line.

The album does conclude better than it begins, but its likely creation as Frankenmusik is hard to escape; that sickly piano intrudes badly with a solo during the opening of “Silent Night,” and the aforementioned antiseptic tone never is far away, although louder, multi-instrument passages sound better than most of the solos.

Far better albums await; this one’s hard to recommend, even with its engaging arrangements.

Nice things sometimes come in modest packages, and that’s definitely true of the Rich Severson Jazz Quartet’s Blue Christmas. This home-grown CD couldn’t be more simple, with its mini jewel case and thin paper insert. But the music is choice, and that’s really all that matters.

Severson plays a tasty guitar, and he’s backed by keyboardist Darrell Devaurs, bassist Roy Carlson and drummer Gary Newmark. They’re a tight unit, and the result is what my father loves to call “tasty jazz”: solid musical chops highlighted by arrangements that reflect some harmonic dexterity, without getting too weird.

I like Severson’s arrangements of “What Child Is This” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” both delivered as peppy, mid-tempo waltzes. The whimsical cover of “Do You Hear What I Hear” grants Devaurs a nice piano solo, and the keyboards get ample exposure on the slow, driving two-beat reading of “Blue Christmas.”

Severson and Carlson trade licks on an up-tempo, rock ’n’ roll arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” while “Angels We Have Heard on High” emerges as a pleasant, mid-tempo Latin ballad.

The entire album is nice, and Severson is a generous leader; he grants ample exposure to all three of his sidemen. This one deserves to remain on permanent rotation.

I was drawn to pianist Dawn Clement’s Christmas with Dawn by her trio’s swingin’ mash-up of “Silver Bells” and “If I Were a Bell.” Clement begins this medley with a quiet solo piano, but then things truly cook as Geoff Harper (bass) and Byron Vannoy (drums) join the fun.

The trio also delivers a poignant reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” and is joined by Tobi Stone (tenor sax) for a lively arrangement of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Elsewhere, the album suffers from an identity crisis, possibly because Clement recorded these tracks during four studio sessions over a four-year period. Some are quiet, piano solo treatments of church hymns (“Savior of the Nations, Come,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) and instrumental classics (“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies”); others are solo piano covers of Christmas pop standards (“An Old-Fashioned Christmas,” “Snowfall,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), augmented by Clement’s vocals.

Without intending to sound unkind, her breathy, little-girl voice takes some getting used to. She sounds more comfortable on some numbers, possibly those laid down more recently  it’s impossible to know which were recorded when  and her vocal stylings also blend better when the rest of the band participates, as on “What Child Is This?” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Me,” the latter including a nice solo from Stone.

On balance, this album is uneven  and often not jazz  but the combo tracks are worth the price of admission, particularly the aforementioned “Silver Bells”/“If I Were a Bell.” That one’s a finger-snapping keeper.

Dixieland has a very specific sound; the same is true of contemporary ensembles that emulate the classic, string-based “Hot Club de France” sound made famous in the 1930s and ’40s by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Although regarded by some genre purists as too “pretty” to be jazz, there’s no denying the jazz elements present in such music.

The Hot Club of San Francisco helps keep the tradition alive in the 21st century, and the group’s Hot Club Cool Yule is an engaging mixed bag. Some of the tracks lean too heavily toward classical and folk motifs, but the sense of whimsy never is far away; the liveliest cuts can’t help raising a smile.

Much of this album makes me think of Ben Charest’s marvelous score to the 2003 film The Triplets of Belleville, and the live performance of the Academy Award-nominated “Belleville Rendez-Vous” at that year’s Oscar ceremony.

“Don Rodolfo” is a hilarious re-working of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” while “Djingle Bells” twists this seasonal chestnut into a melancholy minor key. A traditional waltz-style cover of “Carol of the Bells” is mashed into Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating,” to clever effect, while “Sugar Rum Cherry” uses Clint Baker’s provocatively dirty trumpet to add an entirely new mood to a familiar theme from “The Nutcracker.”

“I Wonder As I Wander,” on the other hand, sounds like a track that wandered in from a classical string quartet, and a soft interpretation of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” also sounds too orchestral to be regarded as jazz.

The occasional vocals don’t help; they sound like afterthoughts, and the instrumentation really doesn’t need them.

Everything builds to a raucous finish with a lengthy reading of “Auld Lang Syne,” which would bring the house down during a live performance. And don’t be too quick to stop the CD after the final horn blaaat, because you’ll miss the Easter egg: a quick run-through of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” that only surfaces after a full minute of silence!


All of which brings us to the conclusion of Holiday Jazz: The 2010 Edition. Now, sufficiently armed with some engaging recommendations, you can bring plenty of swing to your seasonal gathering.

As for me, it’s time to start on next year’s installment.

 Veteran film critic Derrick Bang really does play Christmas music at least six months of each year. Check out his film reviews at

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