By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.11
[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for roughly 16 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]
Although he contributed a few solo piano tracks to earlier anthology holiday albums for National Public Radio, Ellis Marsalis — surprisingly — hasn’t released his own Christmas disc until now. As the saying goes, this one was worth the wait.
The CD’s 20 tracks find Marsalis in four different modes: as soloist, leading a piano trio, leading a piano quartet with vibes accompaniment, and accompanying a vocalist. The combo arrangements are highlighted by driving keyboard work and lively percussion elements, starting with a funky, New Orleans-stompified cover of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” emerges as a slow samba, with a quiet bongo backdrop and some lovely work by Roman Skakun on vibes. Bassist Peter Harris stands out in a toe-tapping arrangement of “Sleigh Ride,” while Jason Marsalis delivers an equally delicious vibes lead, with Ellis’ piano comping behind him, on a solemn reading of “O Holy Night.”
Ellis’ solo piano treatments include an exquisite handling of “O Tannenbaum” and a charming run at “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The two vocals are this album’s only drawback. Cynthia Liggins Thomas and Johnaye Kendrick — on “A Child Is Born” and an Ellis Marsalis original titled “Christmas Joy,” respectively — simply try too hard. Their overwrought deliveries do no favors to the instrumentalists.
The album’s final track includes an Easter egg, so don’t remove the disc too quickly; after a lengthy pause, Marsalis delivers a third piano solo, this one of “The Little Drummer Boy.” That makes three versions of that carol on this disc: probably one too many in anybody else’s hands, but simply more jazz magic from Marsalis.
Definitely one of the season’s must-haves.
I credit Lohninger, guitarist Axel Fischbacher and pianist Walter Fischbacher for respecting their jazz roots; a swinging arrangement of “The Christmas Song” opens with a quote from John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” while the Swedish carol “Gläns Över Sjö Och Strand (Star of Bethlehem)” evokes Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”
Lohninger also delivers an impressive smorgasbord of cultural styles, having selected carols from Austria, Germany, Denmark, Japan, France, Sweden, Mexico, Italy, Brazil and the United States ... with each presented in its native language. That feat is worth a tip of the hat all by itself.
Unfortunately, the disparate arrangements and approaches make for an extremely uneven listening experience, often exacerbated by Axel Fischbacher’s loud and obnoxious electric guitar work. By the time we reach “Vom Himmel Hoch O Englein Kommt (From Heaven High O Angels Come),” we’re in the realm of ambient sounds that are too random even to be termed “free jazz.”
And that’s the trouble: Too much of this album simply isn’t jazz. The final track, “Stille Nacht (Silent Night),” is pure rock ’n’ roll; several earlier arrangements also lean heavily in that direction. (Ulf Stricker is a rock drummer, not a jazz drummer.) I respect Lohninger’s knowledge of world music and her mastery of so many languages, but as a listening experience, this album draws too many disenchanted frowns.
(He isn’t. Thanks to a helpful writer, who supplied one of the comments below, I now can credit Joan Díaz on piano, Rai Ferrer on double bass, and Ramón Ángel Rey, on drums. And a great job by all!)
This mystery notwithstanding, the music itself is choice: a mostly mellow collection of familiar carols, blended with a trio of Spanish entries. Of the latter, “Los Peces en el Rio (The Fishes in the River)” is presented in a Gypsy Kings-style “jazz hot” format; “Campana sobre campana (Bells Over Bethlehem)” is a vibrant barrelhouse roll; and “Arre borriquito (Giddyup, Little Donkey)” is a sweet piano solo.
Traditional carols such as “Silent Night,” “Let It Snow,” “Petit Papa Noel” and “O Christmas Tree” are presented in slow, mellow arrangements that favor the keyboard; the trio — piano, bass and drums — also presents a particularly lovely reading of “Christmas Time Is Here.” They burst into up-tempo life only once, with a swinging cover of “Jingle Bells” that’s fun-fun-fun.
The album concludes with another piano solo: an atypically quiet handling of “Feliz Navidad” that brings this accomplished set of tunes to a perfect finish. I only wish I could credit the musicians by name.
These guys are great. The arrangements are lengthy, designed to allow generous solos; Menci and Marzola get plenty of space on tracks such as “Let It Snow,” “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” And I’m particularly charmed by the slow and saucy “Santa Baby,” with Irby and Turre suggesting the droll vocal line on flute and trombone, respectively.
I prefer the cuts with Irby on lead; his approach is more harmonic and faithful to the melody, whereas Turre is a “squawker” and more inclined to soar off into the extemporaneous stratosphere. Most of the tracks are mid- to up-tempo finger-snappers, with the double-time “O Christmas Tree” another highlight. That said, I’m equally drawn to Irby’s lovely, dreamy sax work on a slow, soothing cover of “The Christmas Song.”
The album’s sole drawback is the final track: an overwrought arrangement of “We Three Kings” with an overbearing vocal to match (the CD’s only vocal cut). Rotate this one out, and the rest is solid, highly enjoyable holiday jazz.
The slow, exquisitely solemn title track is typical of the album, which continues in a similarly gentle vein for “Silent Night,” “The Christmas Song,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “In Dulci Jublio (In Sweet Rejoicing)” and a particularly haunting arrangement of “A Child Is Born.”
Gailing shines in two of the faster tracks: a finger-snapping rendition of “Let It Snow” and a feisty reading of “Winter Wonderland,” which features a bowed bass solo. Dekker lays down a strong beat for an unusually percussive arrangement of “Mary’s Boychild,” and he gives “Jingle Bells” a peppy two-beat.
The album concludes with a Sasse original: a sultry blues number dubbed “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” which grants another smooth bass solo to Gailing.
This is another must-have recording, well worth the slight premium it commands as an import.
The jazz hot style is characterized by heavy two-beats laid down by (in this case) two guitars and a bass: no drums. The resulting hard-strumming groove is hard to ignore, although the instrumentation — particularly when Ken Peplowski kicks in on clarinet — can take some getting used to.
Peplowski dominates the fast-paced, album-opening “Sleigh Ride,” which also boasts some slick work on violin by Howie Bujese. Peplowski returns for the slower, more deliberate “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and a saucy, mid-tempo handling of “Winter Wonderland.”
“We Three Kings” emerges as a slow waltz; the generally solemn “O Come Emmanuel” is given an atypically cute arrangement. The combo also transforms “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” into something of a mini-sonata, complete with a droll intro.
Daudel gives a slow, sexy reading of “The Christmas Song,” then contributes a bit of scat to her vocal lines in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Her third and final number, “Christmas Time Is Here,” is particularly soulful.
Although probably not designed for casual listening, this album will be great for livelier parties seeking a vibrant holiday beat.
Mechem’s album isn’t quite a true cover; she skips a few of Guaraldi’s shorter tracks — notably the children’s vocal on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” — and supplements with one additional Peanuts theme and three more holiday standards. The result works best when Mechem resists the impulse to slavishly copy Guaraldi’s original charts; at times — as with her handling of “O Tannenbaum” and “Skating” — her keyboard flourishes are too close to Guaraldi’s work, down to some of his single-note affectations.
In most cases, though, Mechem’s own personality and style emerge, particularly in the improv-laden bridges for “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Is Coming.” And although she once again follows Guaraldi’s piano lead at the beginning of “My Little Drum,” her quartet — bassist Roger Spencer (Mechem’s husband), guitarist Andy Reiss and drummer Chris Brown — lays down a pleasant, samba-hued percussive backdrop that gives the song a fresh atmosphere.
The “extras” include a lovely, lyrical cover of “Snowfall”; a gentle arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” with percussive sleigh bells elements; and a playful handling of “The Christmas Waltz,” which opens with a piano solo and then blossoms into a swinging toe-tapper that boasts solid work by the entire quartet.
Mechem previously recorded half a dozen of these tunes on her 2005 holiday album, Brazilian Christmas, but the instrumentation and arrangements are new here: more of a traditional jazz combo approach, with (thankfully!) no strings. Very pleasant listening.
More tellingly, though, the primary ensemble — the NYU All-Star Big Band — isn’t quite ready for prime time. As often is the case with university jazz bands, the soloists range from very good to excellent, but the ensemble work ... needs work. The unison trumpets and reeds are weak and warbly.
Finally, a few of the vocalists leave something to be desired. The most disappointing is veteran jazz singer Jimmy Scott, who simply hasn’t got the vocal chops any more. His efforts on a slow, harmonica-laced arrangement of “Silent Night” sound more like my grandmother. With a bad head cold.
The band backs a series of different soloists on each track; as a result, the styles and arrangements are all over the map, from classic big band pizzazz — a nifty, swinging arrangement of “Joy to the World,” with a nice solo from sopranino saxman Dave Schroeder — to a tedious, Latinized take on “We Three Kings,” noteworthy only for the repetitive, monotonous percussive elements that made some of Cal Tjader’s early work so tiresome.
Some of these tracks aren’t even jazz, most notably a solo turn by Jean-Michel Pilc, who whistles and plays piano in a medley of three carols. Pilc’s talents are technically impressive, but more as an academic exercise than a pleasant listening experience.
McCoy Tyner (piano) and Bela Fleck (banjo) guest on a lively, “jazz hot” cover of “My Favorite Things,” and vocalist Maya Azucena turns “O Holy Night” into a sultry, bluesy, rock-the-house church revival experience; both are among the better tracks.
Even so, I expected much, much more from a disc that trades on the Blue Note’s fame.
Most of the arrangements here are slow to mid-tempo, often with a bossa nova vibe, as with “Silver Bells” and “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Shires dominates all the tracks, although guitarist Jack Jezzro — a familiar name in the Green Hill repertory company — provides nice backing on several occasions; he also gets pleasant solos in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Here We Come A-Caroling” (the latter being the album’s highlight).
Keyboardist Jason Webb also shines, if only briefly, on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Carol of the Bells.”
Unfortunately, a few tracks stray too far from actual jazz, most notably a needlessly melodramatic handling of “O Holy Night.”
The disc also suffers from a sameness that eventually grows tedious, mostly because of flat, uninspired and monotonous drum and percussion work. At times, I suspected the presence of a dread drum machine, but no; the beat is established by actual musicians. They should have tried harder; Shires deserves better.
Individually, these 14 tracks are quite pleasant, if undemanding; the problem comes when listening to the entire album. The fault lies mostly with the percussion work, which too frequently relies on repetitive flourishes such as an apparently identical shake of sleigh bells on the back beat. True, most listeners immediately think of the iconic, gently sensual Astrud Gilberto/Stan Getz reading of “The Girl from Ipanema” when the subject of bossa nova comes up, but that shouldn’t be taken as an indication that every song in the genre exploits precisely the same percussion work.
I therefore was drawn more to this album’s peppier tracks, notably Jezzro’s handling of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and Solee’s fast two-beat approach to “My Favorite Things.” Mechem’s work on “White Christmas” also feels more authentically bossa nova, as does Adair’s handling of both “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Home for the Holidays.”
I prefer the piano and guitar tracks to those with trumpet and sax, particularly soprano sax, which is Levine’s instrument of choice. His approaches to “Up on the Housetop” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” have less in common with bossa nova than with the puerile nonmusic of Kenny G.
That said, plenty of people enjoy such an undemanding approach, and they’re certain to love this disc.
Bond opens with an up-tempo arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” that truly cooks, and I also like his fast, flamenco-accented handling of “O Come Emmanuel,” a traditional carol generally delivered in a quiet, somber style. Indeed, Bond enjoys working against expectations; his reading of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” — again, generally a peaceful hymn — is a similar, fast-paced attention-grabber.
Two carols — “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Away in a Manger” — are handled as keyboard solos; they’re granted gentler, more traditional arrangements.
Percussion often is the weak link in lab-created music, and Bond’s otherwise engaging handling of “I Saw Three Ships” is betrayed by a redundant background beat that sounds like it’s coming from a $19.99 drum machine. And while the zany sound effects and cartoon flourishes packed into a medley dubbed “Jangle All the Way” are amusing the first time, they wear badly with repetition.
Bond obviously has chops, and I’d like to hear him in an acoustic setting, backed by live musicians. This album is an engaging experiment — particularly when Bond resists the impulse to let technology overpower artistry — but, at the end of the day, it still sounds like something cooked up in a lab.
But he has jazz roots, and has succeeded admirably in his goal of delivering a holiday album with echoes of Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi. I’d be happier if more of these tracks were instrumentals; Ian and his band mates — bassist Jon Estes and drummer Brian Fitch — do truly lovely things with “The Christmas Waltz” and a whimsical, delicate handling of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
That said, it’s hard to complain about guest vocalist Acacia — of the sister duo Tal and Acacia — whose husky, smoky delivery greatly enhances “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” She’s miked superbly, and her breathy shading turns even a familiar carol into a fresh, sultry experience.
I’m less pleased with male vocalist Andre Miguel Mayo; his gravel-laced tones clash with the cool, bluesy touch Ian strives for in each track. But Mayo does shine during his one duet with Acacia, on a playful Ian original — “Christmas Time with You” — that evokes pleasant memories of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
This is a good snuggling album, for late at night with your Constant Companion, as the last mug of egg nog is enjoyed.
Until next year, then ... may your holiday swing have plenty of Ho-Ho-Ho!
— Catch up on Derrick Bang’s 2010 holiday jazz picks elsewhere in this blog.