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.

Apparently this is the year for father/daughter duets, because Connick does the same on his album; daughter Kate joins him for a wincingly cutesy reading of “Winter Wonderland.” The spoken introduction and midpoint chat between father and daughter might work during a stage show, but it’s the sort of gawpy affectation that brings an album to a juddering halt.

As for Kate’s voice ... well, it’s not appropriate to pick on children, so let me say this: Connick’s enthusiasm as a parent compromised his judgment as a musician.

Connick always tries his hand at writing new Christmas songs, some of which might stand the test of time; I still get a kick out of “It Must’ve Been Ol’ Santa Claus,” from his first holiday album. This CD’s “What a Night!” is equally clever, its up-tempo arrangement deftly matched by cleverly rhymed and syncopated lyrics that could have come from a Broadway show. The bluesy “Santarrific,” a duet with Lucien Barbarin, also is a smile.

In great contrast, the overwrought “Christmas Day,” another Connick original, is best left out of rotation; his melodramatic covers of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth” are similarly overcooked.

There’s no question that Connick “fits” best with a big band jazz approach, and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” are this album’s highlights.

His arrangement of the instrumental “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is a lot of fun, and his keyboard chops get considerable exercise during his introductory solo for “We Three Kings.”

Taken as a whole, though, this album feels uneven. Perhaps Connick should have let it go at two Christmas collections.

Between the annual Christmas piano jazz programs and various one-off events, public radio has done much to keep holiday jazz alive during the past few decades, and pianist Bob Thompson’s More Joy to the World (Colortones CDC-112270) is a perfect example. This highly entertaining album features concert excerpts from Thompson’s annual Christmas shows, recorded between 2000 and ’06 at the Charleston, W.V., Cultural Center, and broadcast on Public Radio International and The Voice of America.

Thompson is a vigorous pianist with swingin’ jazz chops, and he has the occasionally tendency — as with Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett — to get so focused on his music that he’ll keep time with an audible verbal drone. (I call them “mumblers,” and this tic can be distracting.)

Several of the tracks here are old-school jazz, with arrangements that grant ample time for solos by each of the sidemen, notably Doug Payne (sax), Ryan Kennedy (guitar) and alternating bassists Chris Allen, John Inghram and Dwayne Dolphin. The album’s opening cut, the lesser-known “March of the Magi,” is a perfect example: Payne’s sax lead segues to a groovy keyboard solo by Thompson, who then hands off to Kennedy and finally drummer Tim Courts.

They all do the same with a calypso-flavored reading of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” an up-tempo bopper guaranteed to make even your family’s entrenched Scrooge break into a smile. I also like Thompson’s minor key arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy,” which opens with a droll percussion line and expands to a really cool piano and sax dialogue.

Thompson turns vocalist for his funkified narration of “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which emerges as a cross between a Beat-era poetry reading and a contemporary rap, and he also delivers a lovely solo piano reading of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” at an atypically slow tempo.

Now I have to find a copy of Thompson’s first Joy to the World, released back in 1998!

Halfway through Christmas with the Nate Najar Trio (Blue Line Music BLM 1207), I realized what this lovely jazz guitar trio reminded me of; Najar’s approach to the guitar made me yearn for the alternate universe holiday jazz album that famed bossa-nova guitarist Bola Sete never got around to recording in our realm.

Heady company, indeed ... and while Najar probably wouldn’t place himself in such imposing company, his reading here of “Menino Pequeno da Bateria” — jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy” — revives pleasant memories of Sete’s performance of the same tune on From All Sides, the 1965 album he made with Guaraldi.

Najar’s album is delightful. He opens with a gentle reading of “O Christmas Tree,” which serves as a showcase for his dexterous guitar skills while also granting ample coverage to bassist John Lamb and drummer Chuck Redd.

I’m taken with their reading of “Snowfall,” which begins mysteriously, with Redd laying down a gentle beat as Lamb delivers some nice counterpoint to Najar’s melody line; once at the bridge, the trio segues into a slow, sassy swing that can’t help raising a smile.

Tenor saxman Mike MacArthur guests on four tracks, in each case taking the melody line lead while Najar generously retreats to less ostentatious — but no less important — support. They do a particularly nice reading of jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd’s “A Carol for All Seasons,” a sadly obscure bossa nova original that deserves wider exposure.

Najar contributes two solos, on “A Child Is Born” and “Silent Night,” both of them delicate and lovely. MacArthur pops up again in the CD’s final track, giving such a droll sax lead to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” that we can’t help picturing the Jolly Red Elf swingin’ into view.

Jazz guitar fans won’t want to miss this one ... nor, for that matter, should anybody else.

While on the subject of guitar, Curt Warren’s self-produced A Little Bit of Christmas Jazz (Microphone Pro MP001) is a lovely little album, although light on the jazz shadings. Warren has a genuinely pleasing touch, and — thanks to the magic of overdubbing — he accompanies himself on several tracks; in such cases, both “halves” of the arrangement interweave flawlessly, and you’d swear two guitarists were in the studio.

These are gentle arrangements, even with customarily up-tempo carols such as “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Let It Snow.” Gentle should not be taken as uncomplimentary, however; Warren knows his instrument quite well, and I suspect he had a lot of fun laying down these tracks. The result is equally pleasant on the listening end.

He brings considerable joy to “Home for the Holidays,” which also serves as a good example of his flair for improvisational mid-sections that cleverly find their way back to the melody line. And his lush handling of “Christmas Time Is Here” is enchanting: a truly beautiful guitar reading — with some particularly fine improv work between verses — of a song generally covered on piano.

This is a perfect example of the sort of album that would have remained undiscovered in the old days, prior to the increased exposure afforded by the Internet. I’m pleased every time I find something this nice.

Many writers dislike genre labels, both because authors get pigeonholed, and also because the labels themselves can morph into something undesirable. The latter is equally true of the “smooth jazz” designation, which in recent years has become a dumping-ground for the EZ-listening swill — “elevator jazz,” as my father would call it — that makes jazz purists grind their teeth.

But it didn’t start out the way, and the current bad rep is unfair to those who pioneered the sub-genre. All of which is a long-winded way of discussing Spyro Gyra’s A Night Before Christmas (Heads Up International HUCD 3145), an album that most certainly is more smooth than straight-ahead, but in the original, much more gratifying sense.

Most of the tracks here feature lively solos and interplay between Jay Beckenstein (various saxophones), Tom Schuman (piano) and Julio Fernandez (guitar), with solid beats established by Scott Ambush (bass) and Bonny B (drums). The opening track is a perfect example: an agreeable arrangement of “O Christmas Tree” that allows engaging solos by sax, guitar and finally piano.

A few songs begin with unlikely solo intros that’ll keep you guessing; Schuman wanders pleasantly afield before settling into the familiar melodies of both “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The latter is a hoot, thanks to its enthusiastic vocal by-play between Janis Siegel and Bobby B.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” delivered in a finger-snapping two-beat, also gives Schuman a chance to shine; “Winter Wonderland” grants Fernandez an equally lively guitar solo. The arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” is particularly clever, as it blends with snatches of “Greensleeves.”

More than anything else, the smooth jazz sub-category has been poisoned by too many sub-par sax players who equate glass-shattering shrillness with actual music chops. For the most part, Beckenstein avoids that pitfall, although he briefly succumbs in the overly melodramatic “The First Noel” and “This Christmas.”

Finally — careful, folks! — everybody veers dangerously close to actual mainstream jazz during the album’s closer, a toe-tapping cover of “The Christmas Song” that is anything but its usual gentle self, thanks to Bonny B’s droll vocal and Schuman’s swinging piano chops.

All in all, a nice album. I guess we need a new sub-sub-genre.

Pianist Dan Waldis showcases inventive arranging skills on A Little Jazz with Your Mistletoe (Tempo Records TR081206), recorded live in December 2006 at the Rose Wagner Black Box Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah. Since this is a concert performance, the tonal quality isn’t studio-pristine, but Waldis and his band compensate with plenty of enthusiasm.

Waldis works with three sidemen and vocalist Melissa Pace, who croons and bops her way through roughly half of these 14 tracks. She delivers a deliciously smoky “Let it Snow” at an unexpectedly slow tempo, and sashays her way through a clever medley of “The Christmas Song” and “Over the Rainbow.”

She also works a cute ad-lib into an equally clever blend of “Sleigh Ride,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “On the Trail,” when — in “Sleigh Ride” — she talks about how nice it is to “pass around Kahlúa with our pumpkin pie.”

The album’s instrumental tracks are equally engaging, starting with Waldis’ funked-out 5/4 arrangement of “We Five Kings,” which boasts a decidedly Brubeck/Desmond beat. Waldis’ “Jingle Bells” is similarly unexpected, the normally fast-paced song transformed into a haunting, minor-key lament.

Waldis and saxman Scott Harris have a lot of fun with “O Christmas Tree,” which they turn into a lively toe-tapper with some solid solos; the album-opening “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is a similar showcase of instrumental skills, which gives Waldis, Harris, Jim Stout (bass) and Mark Chaney (drums) plenty of space to stretch.

Things get a little weird toward the end, particularly during a version of “Carol of the Bells” that’s too far gone for my taste. Fortunately, Waldis brings it all home with the moody, ethereal reading of “Silent Night” that closes the album.

I’d love to have seen these folks live; the show must’ve been a kick.

When it comes to live performances, though, nobody works a house like the Brian Setzer Orchestra. This annual column might seem an odd place to mention the onetime Long Island punkabilly kid who first rose to fame after unleashing the Stray Cats in England in the early 1980s, but Setzer’s re-invention of his sound — dating back roughly a decade, at this point — moved him solidly into the swing/jump jazz category.

“Fun” isn’t close to adequate enough a term to describe Setzer’s current shows; “sensational” is more like it. The rockabilly guitar impresario and his orchestra released two holiday-themed albums earlier this decade — Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002) and Dig That Crazy Christmas (2005) — and Surfdog Records just issued a best-of compilation titled Christmas Rocks (Surfdog 2-512780).

It gathers 16 tracks from the previous albums, and adds four more: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the Don Ho-esque “Christmas Island,” “Bach’s Bounce” (a clever adaptation of J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) and “Take a Break, Guys” (a riff on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”).

Great as the simple listening experience is, though, you should — nay, you must — spring for the only slightly more expensive Ultimate Christmas Collection (Surfdog 2-512781), which includes the CD and a DVD of the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s never-officially released December 2004 sold-out performance at the Los Angeles Gibson Amphitheater. (I say “officially” because promotional copies have been floating around for a few years.)

Only by watching these guys can you truly appreciate how tight this orchestra is ... not to mention delight in the well-choreographed (and silent) bits of business the musicians indulge in, when they’re not playing.

The highlights? Too many to cite, although I will mention a rockin’ version of “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag”; a hilarious take on “ ’Zat You, Santa Claus?,” complete with a rotund Santa who capers about the stage and tosses candy to the wildly dancing crowd; and an ambitious big band journey through Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, in an arrangement borrowed from the one used by WWII-era big band leader Les Brown.

Listening to Setzer’s CD is an kick. Watching the DVD is a party!

The Matt King Trio’s Welcome, Christmas (Zeke Music 1313) is an enjoyable little album, and I’m only sorry it took me more than a decade to find it. King has solid keyboard skills, and I’m impressed by his piano work; he ranges effortlessly from the gentleness of this CD’s opening track, “Welcome, Christmas” — the lesser-known “Who Song” from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas — to the solid, straight-ahead jazz chops of “Winter Wonderland” and a truly cookin’ “Sleigh Ride.”

King obviously enjoys trading licks with his sidemen; his back-and-forth with bassist Doug Weiss on “The Christmas Song” is impressive throughout an extended arrangement, more quietly contemplative than what we often hear from jazz instrumentals, of this seasonal favorite.

In fact, King works with three different bassists throughout this album. They all sound great, although Weiss is my favorite. Aside from “The Christmas Song,” I also like his interplay with King on a particularly sweet interpretation of “Christmas Time Is Here,” and the atypically leisurely reading of “O Christmas Tree,” wherein drummer Pete MacDonald establishes a strong, driving beat.

Guitarist Paul Meyers sits in for a samba-style reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which emerges with a distinctly Jobim touch: a Christmas song that would have been loved by that girl from Ipanema.

I’ve only two complaints. King switches to a synthesizer on two tracks — “Silent Night” and “Carols of the Bells” — and both are further “flavored” by the sort of dreadful vocal shading and annoying “electronic brightness” that characterizes elevator-style smooth jazz. You’re better than this, Matt, and you should have resisted the temptation.

An extended arrangement of “Greensleeves” also is mildly irritating; it’s too free-form and “arty,” as if King is trying to improvise in six or seven directions at once.

All is forgiven, though, after hearing King deliver a moody solo of “The Coventry Carol,” a lesser-known but absolutely gorgeous hymn that he nails perfectly.

Despite its title, pianist Mike Strickland’s Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas (MSP Records 5166) isn’t entirely jazz or Christmas. I’m willing to tolerate the many other artists who’ve turned “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music, into a holiday anthem; it actually sounds a bit Christmas-y.

But not “If I Only Had a Brain,” from The Wizard of Oz. Strickland’s vocal may be whimsical, and the cut boasts a pleasant trumpet solo by Jay Thomas, but it ain’t a Christmas song.

Similarly, this album’s treatments of “Silent Night” and “Yuletide Dance” (a Strickland original) are pleasant pop numbers, but they ain’t jazz.

Fortunately, the rest of the album qualifies nicely. Strickland delivers strong piano lines in “Deck the Halls” and a medley of “I Love the Winter Weather”/“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” the latter also boasting a playfully seductive vocal by Greta Matassa. Strickland’s arrangement of “Let It Snow” opens with a soft Brazilian syncopation, and then it segues into a jazzy two-beat; upright bassist Clipper Anderson supplies a groovy vocal.

The usually sedate “O Little Town of Bethlehem” turns into a solid swinger here, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is presented in a toe-tapping two-beat, with another stylish trumpet solo by Thomas and a sultry vocal from Matassa.

Strickland concludes with a moving solo piano reading of “Auld Lang Syne”: a solid finish to an album that would more properly fit its billing if two or three tracks had been held back for some other project.

The Now and Then Trio’s quite pleasant Christmas Time Is Here (Weejazz 43754) is what my father would call a “tasty little album.” The delivery is smooth and gentle, and the instrumentation is unusual: Flip Hoopes on guitar, Eddie Edwards on string bass, and Bob Ransom alternating on cornet, flugelhorn and vibes.

The results convey varying moods, depending on what Ransom plays. I vastly prefer him on vibes; his melodic give-and-take with Hoopes on both “O Christmas Tree” and “The Christmas Song” is contemplative, almost mysterious. Edwards also briefly takes the melody line during pleasing bass solos on both tracks.

The songs that employ cornet, in contrast, aren’t as deliciously mellow; as an instrument, the cornet has a bright, tinny sound, and a little goes a long way. Ransom wisely reserves its use for the slightly more up-tempo numbers, notably “Let It Snow” and “We Three Kings.”

Finally, the atmosphere becomes plaintive and poignant when Random turns to the flugelhorn; his approach to “A Child Is Born” is quite lovely, and his version of “A Christmas Love Song” sounds more like a love lost, than one found ... not a bad choice, mind you, since the holiday season can turn bittersweet.

The album concludes with Ransom on both vibes and flugelhorn, for a delicate version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s more a lament than a joyful wish: an interpretation that will be appreciated by anybody with a cherished loved one who, by circumstance, is unable to be present.

Kutztown University (Pennsylvania) is one of many American colleges with an ambitious jazz program, and of course CDs are pretty easy to produce these days. The Kutztown Jazz Ensemble’s recordings include Home for the Holidays, a 2005 album that pairs half a dozen big-band arrangements with a trio of quieter combo recordings that feature vocalist Kristin Grassi.

The instrumentals come first, and the album kicks off with a lively medley — “Have a Swinging Holiday” — that blends a series of familiar Christmas carols. Then an initially slow and dignified reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” builds a head of steam in an arrangement longtime jazz fans will remember from the Stan Kenton Orchestra’s approach to the same tune.

Kutztown ensemble director Kevin Kjos similarly borrows charts from the Glenn Miller Orchestra for a galloping rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” which concludes with the signature trumpet neigh of the sleigh horse.

I also like the up-tempo arrangement of “O Christmas Tree,” powered by the percussion chops of Marques Walls (drums), Nimrod Speaks (bass) and Ricardo Guiteau (piano).

As often is the case with a college unit, the ensemble work tends to be better than some of the solos; a few of the horns are watery on their own, and you’ll wince a bit at the flute melody line in “Auld Lang Syne.”

Two of the three vocal tracks can’t really be called jazz, as Grassi is accompanied only by Guiteau on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and guitarist Andy Warren on “The Christmas Song.” I can understand the desire to showcase Grassi, as her voice is lovely, but I’d have preferred peppier arrangements. Fortunately, she and a quartet of musicians have a lot more fun with the album-concluding reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” a Dixieland-style track fueled by a cute blend of guitar (Warren) and clarinet (Trevor Davis).

Pianist Al Daniels seems a bit timid on the first tracks of his self-produced Holiday Jazz Piano (Danthree Music), and his solo versions of “O Christmas Tree” and an original composition titled “Christmas Lullaby” sound a bit like warm-ups. But the Los Angeles-based musician settles into a comfortable groove by the third track, a pleasantly relaxed cover of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”; the rest of the album is smooth sailing.

Of the seven solo tracks, my favorites are Daniels’ whimsical, toe-tapping arrangement of “Decked Out (the Halls)” and his slowly swinging version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” “Away in a Manger” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” showcase his gentler side; both are lovely readings of these traditional church carols.

Daniels is joined by a combo for “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “A Midnight Samba Clear,” and both give ample exposure to trumpeter Mike Fijal and guitarist Bryan Clark. The latter track is the album’s highlight: a lively reading and a clever arrangement.

This CD feels more home-grown than most, and the production work could be more polished, but you’ll still find good musicality. I look forward to Daniels’ rise as a jazz artist.

The Canadian-based Somerset Entertainment has put together an impressive product line that blends slick point-of-purchase displays with categories — romance, men, women, spring, summer and Christmas, among others — designed to spur impulse purchases.

Demonstrating that it’s my kind of company, Somerset has released quite a few Christmas jazz albums, although in some cases packaging seems more important than personnel. By way of example, Jump, Jive & Jingle (Reflections 39636) credits its vivacious music to The Swing Kings ... without identifying any of the actual musicians.

That makes me wonder about the degree to which the album might have been “sweetened” or even manufactured by a computer, but that won’t matter if your taste runs to the sort of frenetic “jump jazz” delivered by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or Brian Setzer.

This is dance music, plain and simple: roaring percussion, dirty saxes and saucy muted trumpets. The arrangements deliberately echo the styles of WWII-era big band orchestras fronted by Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Les Brown and their contemporaries, in many cases with familiar musical quotes; “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” for example, opens with a nod to “Ballin’ the Jack” (a tune popular at a time when the song title meant dancing to the point of utter exhaustion).

Individually, each of these tracks is a lot of fun; collectively, the listening experience may leave you exhausted. After awhile, despite the varying stylistic sources, the delivery achieves a certain monotony ... much the way all of disco eventually sounds the same. Unless your entire Christmas party will be spent ballin’ the jack, you’d be advised to mix these tracks with those from several other albums.

Somerset’s Merry Christmas: Big Band Memories (Avalon 36549) does cite its musicians; the album also is much easier to enjoy as (admittedly still lively) accompaniment to less strenuous holiday activities.

The 20-member Steve Wingfield Band is a tight unit that delivers pleasant ensemble work; the solos are more serviceable than dynamic, which fits this unit’s “supper club” presentation.

Wingfield’s arrangements never stray far from a given song’s familiar melody, and he follows the old-style big band structure of introducing most numbers with the full ensemble, granting a solo or two to the trumpets, trombones or saxophones, and then concluding with the entire unit again.

The mostly uniform style calls attention to the few tracks that veer from anticipated arrangements; “Let it Snow” is atypically gentle, and boasts a nice piano solo by Attila Fias, and Wingfield and the band deliver a particularly whimsical reading of “Silver Bells.”

The album concludes with a gentle and soulful reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features a lovely tenor sax solo by Wingfield ... all in all, the perfect way to conclude an enjoyably middle-of-the-road set.

Actually, the best album in the stack from Somerset also involves Wingfield, but only as producer: Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas (Avalon 39246) teams him with a smaller ensemble of Chris Gale (sax), Robbi Botos (piano), Pat Collins (bass), Reg Schweger (guitar) and Mark Mariash (drums).
This is pure combo jazz, and it’s delightful; the album doesn’t feel the slightest bit sterile, nor has it been overly baked on the production end. It’s simply good, solid jazz from a tight quintet, and a genuine pleasure to hear.

The album kicks off with a boppin’ cover of “We Three Kings,” with ample solos traded between Wingfield, Schwager and Botos; this track — and all those that follow — display the spontaneity that is largely absent from the other Somerset releases. Botos truly sizzles with his keyboard solo in “Jingle Bells,” while “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is a double-time swinger that shows Schwager’s serious guitar chops and includes an assist from an uncredited trumpeter.

I particularly like the group’s reading of “Carol of the Bells,” which is mildly otherworldly while still conveying the song’s driving quality, which builds to such a lovely crescendo. The mood turns quieter with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and a gentle reading of “Winter Wonderland,” but you’ll still be tapping a toe or snapping a finger.

I also appreciate hearing this quintet’s smooth arrangements of less-popular carols, such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High” — which opens with a cute quote from “If I Were a Bell” — and a really slick, up-tempo version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (my vote for best track on the album).

This one’s a keeper.

The final entry from Somerset, ’Tis the Season to Be Jazzy (Avalon 37960), also is a combo effort, with a few of the same personnel: Tyler Yarema, piano (and also producer/arranger); Mark Mariash, drums; Reg Schweger, guitar; and Michael Carson, bass. Despite the repeated presence of Mariash and Schweger, though, the approach is noticeably different; this quartet is a bit more whimsical, and has a predictably strong emphasis on piano.

The tone is established early, as Yarema and Schweger trade solos during a lovely reading of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Yarema’s arrangement of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” is particularly droll, thanks to the contribution of a (sadly uncredited) trumpet player.

Yarema also goes to town during a samba-style reading of “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” and don’t be surprised if you find yourself dancing in time. Schweger opens a finger-snapping cover of “Sleigh Ride,” then allows a solo by Yarema; the two finish by carrying the melody line in lively counterpoint.

Both musicians also have a lot of fun with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Although lacking the more ambitious jazz chops of the previous CD, this one’s also an engaging listen ... perhaps for a bit later in the evening, when things are quieting down.

Thanks to the Internet, this seasonal pursuit of holiday jazz — indeed, of music in general — has become much more of an international affair. The Lone Hill Jazz label, hailing all the way from Barcelona, Spain, has produced a two-CD compilation set of holiday jazz classics, Christmas with the Jazz Legends 1 (LHJ44159) and Christmas with the Jazz Legends 2 (LHJ44160).

Nothing on either of these discs is new to me, but the two combined will make a great “starter set” for anybody looking to establish an appropriately swinging mood for the next holiday party.
Both CDs have a mix of instrumentals and vocals, and for the most part both concentrate on older tracks by classic artists.

Volume 1 goes all the way back to Fats Waller’s “Ring Dem Bells” and Les Brown’s “Let It Snow.” Warm-hearted vocals are crooned by Ella Fitzgerald (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), Frank Sinatra (“Christmas Dreaming”), Bing Crosby (“White Christmas,” of course) and others; swinging instrumentals are supplied by Kenny Burrell (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”) and the Stan Kenton Big Band (“O Tannenbaum,” “Angels We Have Heard on High”).

My only complaint is the song repetition; with only 20 tracks, we don’t need a second rendition of “White Christmas” (by Louis Armstrong) or two versions of “The Christmas Song” (the Nat King Cole Trio first, then Doris Day).

Volume 2 features many of the same artists — taking different tracks from their same older albums — but includes a few different folks, notably Maynard Ferguson (“Jingle Bells”), the Ramsey Lewis Trio (“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” “Christmas Blues”) and the Swingle Singers (a medley of “Carol of the Bells,” “Melodies for the Day” and “O Sanctissimo”).

Fitzgerald, Sinatra, Armstrong and Dinah Washington are repeaters; Harry Belafonte also pops up on this second collection, with his lovely “Mary’s Boy Child.” Again, these 25 tracks include some song duplications: “Jingle Bells,” by both Ferguson and Jimmy Smith; and “White Christmas,” by Fitzgerald and the Kenny Burrell Trio.

That’s a total of four versions of “White Christmas,” if you play both these CDs consecutively ... probably two versions too many.

Even so, they’re nice collections of holiday classics, in many cases performed by the bands or singers who, for a time, became firmly identified with them. You really can’t go wrong.

Our European tour bounces next to Germany and the Blue Flame Jazz label, which has released the Christoph Spendel Christmas Jazz Trio’s Silent Night (398 50342). This gorgeous album quickly shot to the top of this year’s favorites; it’s a tasty collection of mostly medium-tempo arrangements in traditional piano trio style, and I mean that as a compliment.

Spendel’s lively piano chops are perfectly complemented by bassist André Nendza and drummer Kurt Billker; the three perform as a tight unit, and the result is a smooth and sparkling hour of music.

Spendel also handles most of the arrangements, aside from three contributed by Gary Burton (“O Christmas Tree”), Don Grusin (“Angels We Have Heard on High”) and Boney James (“Jingle Bells”). I’m particularly taken with Spendel’s salsa-flavored treatment of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and his handling of “Silent Night,” which emerges as a gentle waltz.

While you’ll certainly enjoy this band’s approach to these and other familiar Christmas songs, the album’s highlights include half a dozen traditional German carols that’ll likely be new to American listeners. The album notes don’t include translated American titles, although I must admit that “Kling Glöckchen” sounds much more romantic than “Ring, Little Bell.”

After demonstrating Spendel’s solid keyboard chops with the album’s opener, “O Christmas Tree” — which also allows brief solos from Nendza and Billker — the trio settles back for a mostly medium-tempo session. Billker lays down a livelier beat for an engaging samba/shuffled treatment of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and also cooks during a church revival-style cover of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

The slower numbers are lovely; “Kling Glöckchen” and “Süsser die Glocken” shift the mood to a decidedly romantic tone, and the album concludes with a languid and particularly sweet handling of “White Christmas.”

This one’s not easy to find, but it’s worth the search. Aside from the merits extolled above, you won’t be able to resist Spendel’s droll jazz interpretation of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” ... surely a song you’ve never heard on any American Christmas jazz album!

Pianist Kenny Drew’s 1989 album, Season’s Greetings, originally was released on a small label and disappeared so quickly I never even registered its presence. It was resurrected in 2006 by the Japanese label Pony Canyon/AfterBeat Jazz (PCCY-30106), although finding it isn’t trivial; last time I looked, it was available only via special order at

And the effort may not be worthwhile. This album suffers from a fascinating identity crisis: Four of the nine tracks are keyboard solos by Drew, who has an unfortunate tendency toward butterfly-style flourishes. When held in check, the results are engaging; he delivers a smooth solo version of “The Christmas Song” and his own composition, “Quiet Cathedral” (the piano solo being a bonus track; “Quiet Cathedral” also appears earlier as a trio number).

But his keyboard histrionics are quite intrusive elsewhere; Drew seems determined to end every other measure with the sort of overblown nonsense for which Liberace was famous. This stuff very nearly ruins an otherwise lovely reading of “White Christmas,” which opens with a florid piano solo before turning into a slow trio swinger.

As for the other half of this album’s split personality ... the five remaining tracks are trio efforts, with support from drummer Alvin Queen and the incomparable bassist, Niels Hennings Orsted Pedersen. All three cut loose on a lively cover of “Jingle Bells”; it opens and closes with a darling faux music-box effect, which bookends great solos from both Drew and Pedersen. You’ll also hear great bass solos on “Greensleeves” and the aforementioned trio version of “Quiet Cathedral.”

“Silent Night” is arranged in a rousing, revival-meeting style guaranteed to bring down the house, and Drew keeps the extraneous keyboard nonsense in check during a lovely solo handling of “Away in a Manger” (amusingly titled “A Way in a Manger”; you gotta love careless translations!).

All the trio cuts and a couple of Drew’s solos are worth the price of admission, but his self-indulgent behavior on the rest are sufficiently annoying to raise a grimace or three. If you do take the plunge, you’ll want to rotate those tracks out.

We can thank Japan’s Venus Records for the Eddie Higgins Trio’s Christmas Songs II (Venus TKCV-35381). I reviewed this trio’s first holiday release last year, pronouncing it a pleasant example of supper-club jazz: soft and undemanding, and therefore perfectly suited to a quiet evening at home. This sequel is more of the same.

Most of the arrangements are standard for this type of unit, with Higgins usually trading keyboard solos with bassist George Mraz, while drummer Ben Riley lays down a solid and unintrusive beat. As befits the delicate approach, Riley employs brushes more frequently than sticks.

The trio delivers comfortable readings of familiar carols — “Joy to the World,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Good King Wenceslas” and several others — without varying the approach all that much. A few tracks have a bit more pizzazz: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a solid little swinger, while Higgins shows some ambitious jazz chops in a clever 6/4 reading of “We Three Kings.”
Riley struts his stuff in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” while Mraz pulls out a bow for his lovely introduction to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

The trio becomes a quartet for the final two tracks, thanks to the addition of Scott Hamilton on sax. If the preceding 10 tracks have been ideal accompaniment for a subdued holiday dinner with friends, then Hamilton’s mildly sultry approach to “Silent Night” clearly is designed to be played after the guests have departed, and the hosts have retired to the couch for a final glass of port and some serious snuggle-bunny action.

Hamilton helps the trio bring the album to a finger-snapping close with a mid-tempo arrangement of “Jingle Bells”: a polished finale to a graceful set that’s easy on the ears.

Jump jazz fans won’t want to miss Jingle Bell Jazz (SOLCD85), released on the Canadian-based Avalon Music label by a group billing itself as Jumpin’ Jimmy and the Mistletones. With nine musicians, this isn’t quite a full-blown big band, but these guys definitely make a lot of noise ... all of it quite entertaining.

Indeed, this is one of the year’s highlights, despite the album’s age; it was released in 1999, although I only came across it a few months ago.

The liner notes claim that this nonette will “keep you dancin’ all night,” and that’s no idle boast; this album cooks. Jimmy Brandmeier’s arrangements are lively, clever and almost all up-tempo; the CD opens with a roaring cover of “Sleigh Ride” and never pauses for breath.

Brandmeier’s approach to these holiday standards is deliberately faux retro; drummer Steven Distanislao and guitarists Grant Geissman and Michael Hamilton swing into “Jingle Bells” with a 1960s beach-party American Bandstand groove, while “Little Drummer Boy” roars along with a WWII-style rolling drum beat and the horns to match.

Indeed, the horns get quite a workout on most of these tracks. Some open with deceptively quiet piano (Dan May) or guitar solos, then quickly kick into up-tempo gear; the finger-snapping merengue treatment of “Feliz Navidad” is particularly infectious. You just can’t help wanting to shake ’n’ shimmy.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” also sounds as if it had been air-lifted from the 1960s teen scene, although Brandon Fields’ wonderfully dirty sax is a bit too earthy for that long-ago era. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is simply superb; Distanislao establishes a lively beat that sets up a true finger-snapper.

I always enjoy, when hearing inventive arrangements, trying to anticipate each song from its introduction; at this point, I know Christmas music inside and out, and usually guess pretty well. But Brandmeier’s arrangements are tricky, and they fooled me more than once. That just makes the listening experience even more fun.

Put this one on your must-have list, and haul it out if the holiday party starts to fade. “Jingle Bell Jazz” is like a jolt of jazz lightning.

Jazz pianist and session musician Victor Dey Jr. plies his trade in Accra, Ghana, which makes him a fairly unusual choice for a solo album of typically Western Christmas carols, the self-produced Jazzy Christmas (Zagunor Music).

His origins halfway around the world aside, his approach and jazz chops are skilled enough to have brought him work with Courtney Pine, Stevie Wonder, Hugh Masakela and many others; Dey also spent five weeks in Boston in 2006, where he attended the Berklee Summer Performance Program.

His approach here is more “free jazz” than traditional, with most tracks generally starting at a slow tempo and with a simple melody line, before spinning out into space in a manner that’s difficult to qualify. Put simply, Dey’s a pounder; he hammers his way into keys and chords, frequently off the beat, and often not caring if he misses by a note or two.

Syncopation is all over the map — if, indeed, it exists at all — and the result sounds like the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Dey occasionally quotes jazz standards — as with the brief “Take Five” beat in “Joy to the World” — but mostly indulges in freeform deconstruction that can turn something like “Silent Night” into a cacophonous experiment in sound.

In other words, this isn’t a casual listening experience, and probably will be appreciated more by fans of free jazz than those seeking something to play during the month of December.

University bands are problematic.

Short of the occasional prodigy who has been playing since childbirth, the individual students lack the years of performance and improv that transform ordinary folks into inventive jazz musicians.

Additionally, and by definition, the unit as a whole is in a constant state of flux, as seniors graduate out and freshmen advance in.

That doesn’t have to mean a lack of cohesion; year in and year out, no matter who comes or goes, our own UC Davis Cal Aggie Band-uh remains an impressively tight unit that seems to think as one.

Not so the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble, which in 2006 released Christmas Day, My Favorite Day (Sea Breeze Vista SBV-4576). To put it as kindly as possible, this group wasn’t ready for prime time. A few of the guest soloists shine, and at times the entire band swings into that comfortable groove that bespeaks practicing, living and breathing as a single entity ... but you’ll hear just as many other passages that’ll raise a wince or three.

For the most part, the ensemble work is reasonably solid in the standard melodic sense; the most visible problems emerge with the seemingly spontaneous (but of course anything but) flourishes and accents that punctuate a particular beat. Additionally, the brass section tends to out-perform the reeds; the flute accents in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” are guaranteed to make you cringe.

Tom Krochock does nice things with his trumpet solo in “Silent Night,” and John Raymond is equally solid on the same instrument during the album’s opener, a wonderfully swinging rendition of “Good King Wenceslas.” Evan Benidt shines with most of his sax solo work in an unexpectedly melodramatic reading of “A Coventry Carol,” although he gets a bit squawky here and there.

Bob Thurston’s arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is clever; at one spot, you’ll detect a few bars from the Whoville anthem. And Michael Andrew’s arrangement of “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” turns this chestnut into a clever patter song, with Andrew also supplying a playful vocal.

Other tracks are too old-timey, apparently deliberately so, particularly the two — “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells” — that feature a vocal group, dubbed Five By Design, that’ll make listeners of a certain age think back to the Andrews Sisters and USO dance contests.

I also was a bit disappointed by this album’s rendition of “Let It Snow,” which duplicates the chart used by Nelson Rangell, on 1991’s A GRP Christmas Collection, Volume 2. The instrumentation may be different, but the arrangement’s very distinct prologue — and much of what follows — is identical. The whole point of jazz is to make a song your own; even if somebody else’s arrangement is used as a starting point, one should improvise from there.

On a minor point, the album liner notes needed some serious copyediting; a few of the sentences don’t even make sense.

School bands are a learning experience, and that’s well and good. But that doesn’t necessarily justify recording the results, charging a standard retail price for the resulting CD, and releasing it amid all the truly professional work out there. That’s simply not fair to unwary listeners.

My success with Somerset Entertainment notwithstanding, I remain careful when dealing with the slickly packaging “music products” that often appear in attractive displays near the sales counters at upscale retail shops; the listening experience often doesn’t live up to the wrapping.

The first clue regarding potentially bad news is a CD that fails to identify its musicians, which — at first blush — seems to be the case with Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas (KRMCDA065). It’s one of a set of Kings Road Multi Media albums covering every genre, from “Have Yourself a Choral Little Christmas” to “Have Yourself a Country Little Christmas,” with six other stops in between.

(The musicians are, in fact, cited on the inner sleeve, beneath the disc.)

I wasn’t expecting much, so Jazzy Little Christmas actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The big band outfit — dubbed Time Pools — swings reasonably well, and while the arrangements aren’t particularly inventive, they’re certainly easy on the ears.

The album opens with a crackling rendition of “Joy to the World” that grants some nice solos; I’d acknowledge them, but the personnel aren’t listed in such a fashion. I can say that vibraphonist Tom Collier shines on “Good King Wenceslas” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and I also like the atypically up-tempo versions of “O Holy Night” and “Away in a Manger.”

Two of the tracks are vocals: Jennifer Ivester gives a sweet reading of the newish Beegie Adair/Bob Mater song, “(Wouldn’t You Like) An Old-Fashioned Christmas”; and Douglas Barnett has loads of fun with the hilariously dark “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” a lyrically clever anti-holiday song that’d be right at home if crooned by Tom Lehrer.

A few tracks slide too far from their swing roots, due mostly to some unnecessary strings; “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Waltz of the Flowers” sound more like something Lawrence Welk’s orchestra might have played, while pretending to be a jazz group.

Still, the CD as a whole is several steps above soulless easy-listening junk, and it’ll certainly work as undemanding background music for your next holiday meal.

Guitarist Noel Lorica’s self-published Christmas Jazz on the Smooth & Wayward Path doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up, and the album’s title is misleading; only three of the CD’s nine tracks could be considered jazz in any sense. The rest are a blend of Brazilian, classical and Asian guitar approaches, with occasional New Age-y overtones.

It all feels like a warm-up, while Lorica decides whether to record an entire album in one style or the other.

He’s undeniably talented, and all the tracks are engaging; the numerous styles simply conflict with each other. I’m mostly drawn to the traditional jazz combo sound of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “We Three Kings” and “Silver Bells,” each punctuated by support from sax, bass, piano and other percussion elements. “Silver Bells,” in particular, is a nice finger-snapper.

At the other end of the spectrum, “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are essentially guitar solos, and Lorica’s touch is lovely. I do wish, however, that he had resisted the impulse to “sweeten” these two tracks with, respectively, artificial flute and strings backdrops; his guitar work is sufficiently pleasant on its own.

“Christmas Is Here” is a holiday song from the Philippines; Lorica gives it a gentle, somewhat mysterious reading, and the song evokes another time and place. The album also includes an original composition, “Scent of Cinnamon,” which conjures up images of sipping hot chocolate after strolling through a crisp winter snowfall.

Lorica is at one with his instrument, and his arrangements are compelling; I particularly like what he does with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” But the sense that I’m listening to random tracks taken from two entirely different recording sessions remains distracting.

Last, but certainly not least, Jim Martinez obviously admires Vince Guaraldi, which endears this jazz pianist to my heart. Martinez opens his self-released A Jim Martinez Jazzy Christmas — available only at his Web site, http://www. — with a swinging rendition of Guaraldi’s “Christmas Is Coming,” one of the West Coast jazz great’s three original compositions for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Martinez handles piano and bass; thanks to the magic of post-production, it sounds like two different people performing. Harold Jones contributes solid drum work on most cuts, with Guy Kowarsh filling in on two.

Actually, Martinez’s album could be viewed as a sorta-kinda cover of A Charlie Brown Christmas. He also offers up his readings of Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” — a truly lovely piano solo — and the more rambunctious “Skating,” along with versions of “O Christmas Tree,” “The Christmas Song” and “Greensleeves,” all of which display echoes of Guaraldi’s handling on his classic 1965 album.

Indeed, Martinez’s “Christmas Time Is Here” segues smoothly into a solo piano intro of “O Christmas Tree,” which then kicks into gear with a trio reading that borrows just enough from Guaraldi to make fans smile with recognition. But make no mistake: Martinez’s bridges and noodlings are very much his own, and quite enjoyable. This is supper-club trio jazz at its finest.

The remainder of the album features Martinez’s jazz interpretations of more traditional and sacred carols, perhaps reflecting the fact that he often performs in churches. But even here, his arrangements are unexpectedly lively; I particularly enjoy his readings of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” The latter really cooks.

Evelyn White adds a rich vocal to the gospel-hued “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” although she only sings at the beginning and conclusion; Martinez bridges her contribution with a sprightly keyboard solo.
Martinez travels quite a lot; check his Web site, and don’t miss the opportunity to hear him, if he ventures into your neck of the woods.

And that's it for another year. (Whew!) Happy listening!

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