Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Jazz 2012: Swing Ye Noel!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.12

[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 17 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

It’s getting harder to find this stuff.

Time was, I’d start haunting the holiday section at music stores shortly before Thanksgiving; the better brick-and-mortar outlets would be laden, with some even giving holiday jazz its own sub-category. Berkeley’s marvelous Amoeba Music continues that practice to this day, and therefore remains an essential part of my annual December rituals.

Closer to home, alas, the options aren’t nearly as diverse. Or rewarding.

Which brings us to the ever-more-ubiquitous online alternative. Although Amazon’s search engines continue to improve, one still can’t get reliable results from the phrases “Christmas jazz,” “holiday jazz” or similar choices. CDBaby is a bit better, although I still wade through a lot of non-jazz while hunting for the good stuff. Sadly,, once a great source for hard-to-find holiday jazz, no longer sells CDs.

On the other hand, being able to hear samples — at both Amazon and CDBaby — is a treasure.

Take comfort, then, from the fact that I’ve done the legwork and returned with tidings of jazzy comfort and joy. Patience may have been required, but it turned out to be a good year. Nog those eggs, don a Santa hat and prepare to swing!


The season’s prize is a 2011 release that arrived too late for last year’s column: the Marcus Roberts Trio’s Celebrating Christmas (J-Master Records). This is what jazz is all about: a tightly arranged melodic dance between Roberts, on piano; Rodney Jordan, bass; and Jason Marsalis, drums.

I’m hard-pressed to cite a favorite track, although this group’s inventive approach to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is first among equals: The tune, often redundant as an instrumental, is delivered here in 12 different styles, and with each day represented by one of the 12 major keys. That’s simply brilliant.

The trio’s handling of “Little Drummer Boy” is equally clever, with Marsalis establishing a peppy march beat that Roberts initially refuses to follow, choosing instead to play “behind” the beat at a much slower tempo. Roberts gradually picks up speed as the song continues, until finally all three musicians are in synch.

Jordan’s walking bass is the highlight of a velvet-smooth “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and he also dominates a short but deliciously whimsical cover of “Frosty, the Snowman.” “Let It Snow” has a south-of-the-border ambiance, with some great keyboard wandering and another nice bass solo.

“Winter Wonderland” blends striking percussion with Roberts’ New Orleans grease; “Jingle Bells” has a similar bouncy, New Orleans-style strut, with some more fabulous bass and drums action. This cut features one of Roberts’ many signatures: He fails to complete the line as the song concludes, leaving us a few chords shy.

“Silent Night” is delivered at a slow 6/4, with an achingly sweet call-and-response between piano and bass; later in the song, Roberts delivers similar counterpoint between his left and right hands. Sheer genius.

Three tracks are solo piano: “We Three Kings,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.” Each is slow, deliberate and lyrical: a bit extemporaneous, with a touch of ragtime on “Joy to the World.” Stylistically, these evoke memories of Roberts’ earlier Christmas release, 1991’s “Prayer for Peace,” a solo keyboard album that was far more solemn.

“Celebrating Christmas,” in great contrast, is lively, vibrant and fun: an album that demands close attention because it’s so creative and joyous.

Moving to this year’s releases, the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s self-published Christmas Time Is Here also is a knock-out: a fabulous set of 12 tracks, delivered with snap and plenty of jazz sparkle by a 17-member ensemble. Nothing is as exciting as the thunderous delivery of a big-band unit, and this East Tennessee group really swings.

Founder/director Vance Thompson’s arrangements aren’t merely captivating; they also give a wink and a nod to well-established jazz roots. You’ll recognize the bass vamp from Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” in this lively handling of “Deck the Halls,” while a slower, gentler cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” offers echoes of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.

These aren’t screaming arrangements, although saxmen Greg Tardy, Will Boyd, Mark Tucker and Tim Green occasionally shoot for the stratosphere. For the most part, the orchestra begins these 12 songs slowly and deliberately, sometimes with a single-instrument solo; the intensity then builds until you’ll want to stand and applaud.

Each track grants one solo, sometimes several; the proof of a big band’s collective talent comes from the fact that those solos are just as solid as the unison work.

A slow, almost stately reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” boasts a delectable piano solo by Bill Swann, while Don Hough and Tom Lundberg contribute deft trombone passages to a mid-tempo handling of “Let It Snow.” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” opens with Dan Trudell’s church-like solo on the Hammond B-3 organ; midway through this track, the band kicks into gear, drummer Keith Brown accelerates to a fast two-beat, and Will Boyd delivers a truly sweet tenor sax solo.

The often staid “Silent Night,” traditionally a quiet waltz, emerges here as a rolling, bluesy shuffle in 4/4 time: an arrangement that truly cooks and earns its modified title of “A Not-So-Silent Night.” The “Russian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” roars like a freight train, thanks to Thompson’s marvelous arrangement and slick solos by trumpeter Vance Thompson and bassist Rusty Holloway.

This disc will get a lot of play in our house!

I’ve been covering this holiday-themed beat for many years now, and I’ve come to admire artists and combos that blend solid jazz chops with inventive arrangements. One such highlight came in 2005, with the ACME Brass Company’s X-Mas X-ing, which interpolated familiar Christmas themes in the manner of different jazz classics, or in the style of well-known jazz icons.

The San Francisco-based Octobop ensemble’s West Coast Christmas (Mystic Lane CD 050 100), which hit my eager hands mere days before this column was put to bed, borrows from that same playbook, and with equally delightful results. The musicians claim to have been inspired by “two of the greatest Christmas albums ever made” — by The Ventures and Dr. Demento — and while that statement may raise eyebrows, we can’t argue with the highly enjoyable results.

Thus, Octobop’s album opens with the cleverly titled “Line for Santa,” a reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” flavored by Gerry Mulligan’s iconic “Line for Lyons.” Along (ahem) the same line, “Bernie’s Bells” is a mash-up of “Jingle Bells” by way of Mulligan’s “Bernie’s Tune,” with a hint of Tadd Dameron and, yes, The Ventures. Only Allan Sherman fans will recognize the title “Jerry Mendelbaum,” and here it morphs into a bluesy handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

As composed and performed by Shorty Rogers back in 1957, the swingin’ “Saturnian Sleigh Ride” had nothing to do with the holidays, but trust the whimsical Octobop players to blend it with Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” And if you listen closely, you’ll also hear a quote from “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

The musicianship is grand throughout; I particularly like the melody work and solos by guitarist Jack Conway and guest vibists Rick Gray and Dave Casini. And I’m enchanted by Conway’s 3/4-time waltz arrangement of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which highlights Matt Kesner on sax.

The session comes to a grand conclusion with trumpeter Randy Smith’s totally cookin’ arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” which has a distinct echo of the Jazz Crusaders. Fun, fun, fun.

Anthology albums are like reaching into a box of holiday chocolates: One hopes to find plenty of treats, while avoiding anything that might contain coconut. Shades of Christmas (The Gold Label 82052) is an engaging collection of tracks that’ll play well during your favorite holiday gathering.

These 13 tracks are short but mostly sweet, with top honors going to Yellowjackets veteran Russell Ferrante’s trio, which sparkles during a poignant reading of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Ferrante’s combo also shines on a similarly delicate handling of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which offers some nice bass work from Michael Valerio; and on a whimsical handling of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which features a great beat and smooth sax work from Bob Mintzer.

String impresario Eric Brenton overdubs himself on a lovely reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and he also delivers a clever medley of “Doxology/Ode to Joy.” David Diggs and Bob McChesney team up for a magisterial, all-trombone rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” while pianist Kait Dunton leads her trio through an intriguing arrangement of “The Holly and the Ivy.” The latter also features some smooth bass licks, this time from Ryan McGillicuddy. Things turn lively only briefly, during trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez’s salsa-flavored cover of “O Christmas Tree” (borrowed from his 1997 release, A Latin Jazz Christmas).

The album includes one vocal: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” sung soulfully by poet and American Idol finalist Rachel Diggs. I’d like the arrangement a lot more, however, without the silly background chorus.

Things conclude quietly, with a pair of keyboard solos: a gentle original titled “Christmas Wish,” by pianist Matt Harris; and a solemn reading of “What Child Is This” by organist Stewart W. Foster ... a nice finish to a lovely collection of tracks.

And, speaking of anthologies...

For a decade between 1995 and 2004, Canada’s Justin Time label released four entries in its Justin Time for Christmas series. Each album showcased holiday carols and hymns covered by a potpourri of Canadian jazz, gospel and blues artists; the results could be uneven, but each album featured some stand-out gems.

A few of the latter are revived for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Justin Time Records JUST 245-2), a collection that offers something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue(sy). The vintage material is highlighted by two very early tracks from Diana Krall, recorded back in 1993, years before she became a superstar on both sides of the border. She offers “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells,” backed in both cases only by her own piano; it’s a rare opportunity to hear her sultry vocal and keyboard chops in a solo setting.

The album also grants fresh exposure to the late Hank Jones, who offers an elegant solo piano version of “The Christmas Song”; a medley of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by the Rob McConnell Tentet; and vocalist Coral Egan’s wonderfully droll reading of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” with superb backing by guitarist Alex Cattaneo.

The new material includes the Oliver Jones Trio’s handling of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which begins as a solo piano piece and then segues to a bluesy, mid-tempo combo piece; and pianist Taurey Butler’s percussive cover of “Little Drummer Boy.” The latter includes some slick bass work, and I’d love to credit the musician in question; alas, this CD’s sparse liner notes don’t list any of the sidemen.

Famed Canadian vocalist Johanne Blouin offers a sparkling interpretation of “O Tannenbaum,” first in French and then in English; again, I wish I could acknowledge her backing pianist by name. Rising jazz vocalist Hilary Kole also is granted two selections; her readings of “Let It Snow” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sparkle, with plenty of mid-tempo swing by her (once again anonymous) backing combo.

I’d have preferred more instrumentals, and Quartango’s “Minuit Chrétien/O Holy Night” didn’t need resurrecting; that combo’s blend of piano, bass, violin and accordion is too weird by half. Otherwise, this is a tasty package with some memorable treats.

Smooth jazz trumpeter Rick Braun’s first holiday-themed album dates all the way back to 1994, so he probably figured it was time for a new one. When the result is as much fun as Swingin’ in the Snow (Brauntosoarus Music BRN 1001-2), it’s a shame he waited so long. Armed with guest stars such as David Benoit, Kirk Whalum, Dave Koz and Peter White, Braun and his quartet — David Finck, bass; Richard Freemont, flute; and Joe LaBarbera, drums — uncork a finger-snapping, foot-stomping party that evokes a lively dance band concert at a tony Manhattan supper club.

Aside from switching between trumpet and flugelhorn, Braun also sings most tracks, and does a respectable job at it. The album roars out of the gate with up-tempo covers of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”; other swingers includes “No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and a salsa-inflected “Sleigh Ride,” the latter featuring Peter White’s guitar and some boppin’ percussion work from LaBarbera.

The mood turns gentle for a sweet handling of “O Tannenbaum,” while an equally gentle reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” evokes all the poignance that marked this song’s debut in the film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Mindi Abair joins Braun for a playful, flirtatious reading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and LaBarbera once again lays down a solid beat for a doo wop-inflected arrangement of “White Christmas.”

I could have lived without the string quartet that adds a superfluous layer of melodramatic sugar to four tracks, and the concluding arrangement of “Silent Night” — complete with gospel choir — is much too overwrought ... and, stylistically, not at all like the rest of the album. But these are minor complaints; for the most part, Braun’s album will bring plenty of sparkle to any holiday gathering.

And, best of all, he’s donating a dollar from each sale to the Autism Society of America, which makes this a purchase that keeps on giving.

Cover bands have become quite the rage these days, so why not a cover album? Actually, covering the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s iconic soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is nothing new; Cyrus Chestnut did it back in 2000, and several other combos have released similar projects since then.

The newest comes from a trio calling itself The Ornaments — Jen Gunderman, piano; James Haggerty, bass; and Martin Lynds, drums — and the result is A Vince Guaraldi Christmas: Live at Middletree (Alderman Records), recorded a few days before Christmas in 2010, at Nashville’s Middletree Studio.

The listening experience is strongly familiar but not slavish, thanks to some additional instrumental shading by guests Pete Finney (guitar) and Jimmy Bowland (sax). Indeed, the disc’s best track — a sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” — boasts the full quintet, and includes lovely solos on guitar, sax and bass, all not present in Guaraldi’s original arrangement.

A spirited run at “Skating” also benefits from Bowland’s deft sax bridge and Gunderman’s keyboard solo, and everybody gets a crack at “O Tannenbaum.” “My Little Drum” displays similar instrumental depth, thanks to Finney’s guitar comping.

You’ll smile at the familiar, if subtle echoes from the 1965 album: the gentle cymbal tap that concludes “Linus and Lucy,” and the cute piano filigree at the end of “O Tannenbaum.”

The mimicry isn’t entirely successful, however. “Christmas Is Coming” is a bit stiff, and not nearly as rousing as Guaraldi’s original; and the kid’s-vocal approach to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” — although authentic to how the song is performed in the TV special —doesn’t ring quite true here.

But these are minor quibbles. Since it’s impossible to catch Guaraldi and his trio at this distant remove, I’d happily book a date with The Ornaments. The group’s Peanuts-themed holiday concerts have become a Nashville tradition for the past several years; here’s one California kid who wishes they’d bring their act to the West Coast.

Veteran jazz pianist/composer/arranger Bill Cunliffe has headed his own combos and performed with heavyweights such as James Moody, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. That Time of Year (Metre Records M-1002), however, finds him all by his lonesome in a solo reading of 13 familiar Christmas carols. For the most part, these aren’t traditional jazz arrangements, although a few selections swing a bit; most are deconstructed renditions that defy standard time signatures ... or, in a few cases, any time signatures at all.

Although Cunliffe wanders his way through these holiday chestnuts, I don’t mean to suggest that the results are random or off-putting, in the manner of what somebody else might deliver as unstructured “free jazz.” Indeed not: These readings are thoughtful, meditative and always charming, never straying so far from the core melodies that we cannot recognize the tune.

Cunliffe opens with a slow, simple and yet haunting reading of “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” which beautifully showcases his gorgeous keyboard technique; the song concludes with a charming music-box effect that I imagine must have made him smile. (I certainly did.)

A few cuts are too thoughtful and “pretty” to be considered jazz, such as his gentle covers of “Coventry Carol” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (the latter running close to seven enchanting minutes). Other tracks display a bit more spunk, as with “On Christmas Day” and (of course!) “Jingle Bells.” His right hand is all over the keyboard during “Carol of the Bells” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the cascades, runs and trills somehow magically blending into something truly dazzling. In a sense, this album is mildly frustrating, because it makes me want to experience Cunliffe’s impressive keyboard chops in person.

The album concludes with guest singer Denise Donatelli delivering a wistful, heartfelt rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with Cunliffe comping gently behind her: a sweet finish to a truly elegant CD.

Guitarist Drew Davidsen’s We 3 Strings (Creative Soul Jazz CSJ-DD10) offers some enjoyable moments, but on the whole suffers from the affectations that plague numerous smooth jazz releases: heavy two-beats with loud drum pops; repetitious arrangements that evoke unpleasant memories of disco monotony; and a tendency to play every song at the same tempo, as if getting through the CD were a race. Even traditionally gentler numbers such as “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” have the pace of a race car.

No surprise, then, that two of my favorite tracks are Davidsen’s quieter solos: “O Holy Night” and an original titled “Christmas by the Cement Pond.”

That said, the up-tempo approach works well on a few other cuts. Davidsen’s handling of “Little Drummer Boy” shows some imagination, with an arrangement that has the lively momentum of a train. Bassist Brian Fullen establishes a mildly mysterious mood in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and also takes a nifty solo; he and keyboardist Pat Coil also get engaging solos in “Carol of the Bells.”

The album title refers to Davidsen’s handling of “We Three Kings,” on which he’s joined by fellow guitarists Chuck Loeb and Paul Jackson Jr. The resulting sound is rich and “full,” and definitely another highlight ... but it’s the only track that features all three strings. In that respect, the album title could be considered misleading.

Listening to this CD all at once is exhausting; I recommend resorting to shuffle play amid several other albums.

Jazz guitar fans will be happier with the Gaetano Letizia Jazz Trio’s Christmas Jazz Jam (Tom Letizia Records), a thoroughly engaging display of string wizardry that you’ll want to play all year. You’ll probably get away with it, too; Letizia’s arrangements may open and close with the well-loved melodies of 10 classic Christmas carols, but the bulk of each track is devoted to his inventive, bluesy improvs.

“ ’Twas the week after Christmas, and we jammed through the night,” Letizia quips, in the album’s liner notes. That’s a true understatement; his delicate fingerstyle guitar chops are matched by Kevin Muhammad’s equally skillful support on acoustic bass. Indeed, Letizia generously allows Muhammad to shine during lengthy solos on most of these tracks.

The album kicks off with a smooth, mid-tempo handling of “Jingle Bells,” highlighted by lyrical solos from Letizia and Muhammad; that sets the stage for plenty more of the same. “Frosty the Snowman” ambles along to an energetic, New Orleans-style strut; elsewhere, Muhammad gives a walking bass backdrop to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Drummer Vernon Jones establishes a driving two-beat for a bluesy cover of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and he takes a few brief percussion solos while trading licks throughout a gentle handling of “Silent Night.”

Most of the arrangements are mid-tempo swingers: no barn-burners here, which is appropriate. We wouldn’t want to lose any of the intricate magic contained within Letizia’s fingerstyle solos. Things slow further for “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which offers a particularly expressive bass solo from Muhammad; and “What Child Is This,” which opens with Letizia’s languid, delicate solo before the rest of the band kicks things into a bluesy groove.

The album concludes with a short, larkish reading of “Winter Wonderland”: an exit that definitely leaves us wanting more.

Veteran trumpet player Jeffrey W. Holmes has worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Slide Hampton and Sheila Jordan. He subs with the Paul Winter Consort, leads his own big band and plays lead trumpet for the New England Jazz Ensemble. For our purposes, he also teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and directs the campus jazz ensembles.

Holmes has cherry-picked from favorite live holiday performances dating back to 1997, and the result is the self-published UMASS Jazz Ensemble I & Friends, a two-disc set of 22 recordings. The musical cornucopia is quite diverse, and it ain’t all jazz; some tracks veer toward rock, others toward easy listening, and still others are a cappella show-choir material. A moldy fig cover of “White Christmas” even dredges up wincing memories of Lawrence Welk, complete with the affectation of a popping champagne cork. That might have been fun in person, but it’s an odd choice for this double album.

But I thoroughly enjoy roughly half the contents, which isn’t bad for college ensembles. Fledgling talents can be sensational, and some of the musicians here are just that; they also can be overwrought and self-indulgent, as with the irritating drum solo in the otherwise cookin’ “Toyland,” or the showboaty vocal line in “What Child Is This.”

Novice ensembles learn by following well-established charts by jazz stalwarts, and longtime Christmas jazz fans will recognize arrangements from much earlier holiday albums by Stan Kenton’s big band (“O Tannenbaum” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) and the Tijuana Brass (“Sleigh Ride” and “Winter Wonderland”). They’re great arrangements, and they’re also among this collection’s best tracks; the kids have considerable fun with the TJB covers.

I also recognized a few of Holmes’ own arrangements — “We Wish You a Cookin’ Christmas” and “Jolly Ole St. Nick” — from the Ritz-Carlton Orchestra’s 1996 release, Swing Ye Noel, and then again on the New England Jazz Ensemble’s 2003 holiday album. These, too, are handled well by the UMASS players.

College ensembles generally are better with unison playing than solos, and a few of the latter here are a bit shaky. The instrumentation also can be unusual, as with an all-sax reading of “Let It Snow,” or the all-brass handling of the “Russian Dance,” from The Nutcracker.

But you can’t deny the obvious good time being had by all, and the various audiences are similarly enthusiastic. I’ll likely fine-tune these 22 tracks to a choice dozen or so, and that’s a perfectly acceptable ratio.

Plenty of musicians take a fairly ordinary approach to a holiday album, putting their stamp on favorite hymns and carols. The Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship has done something more ambitious with Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey (Willis I Music): no less than a “programmatic suite in two parts,” to quote the press notes.

That’s a bit of a mouthful; I’d rather call it a Jazz Mass. Although a few of these 11 tracks could be extracted for stand-alone radio play, they’re designed to weave together as a (quoting again) “musical journey through the deeper themes of the Christmas narrative.”

The result is provocative, challenging and — at times — a bit Out There. The arrangements tend to be heavily rhythmic, with strong beats and tempos established by Tommy Sauter (bass), Marlon Patton (drums) and Kinah Boto Ayah (percussion). Foreground melodies and solos are divided between Will Scruggs (tenor and soprano sax), Brian Hogans (piano) and Dan Baraszu (guitar), with guest Joe Gransden (trumpet) swinging like mad during a rousing arrangement of “Go Down, Moses.”

The album opens with a sweet, gentle reading of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but don’t let this understated arrangement fool you; much of what follows is challenging and quite complex. Highlights include “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” an up-tempo swinger with smokin’ solos from Scruggs, Hogans and Baraszu; “We Three Kings,” which offers Hogans another chance to show off his keyboard chops; and “Joy to the World,” which grants everybody solos and brings the program to a rousing finale.

I’m also charmed by this sextet’s reading of the little-known, Native American-inflected “Huron Carol (T’Was in the Moon of Wintertime),” which emerges here as a thoughtful, somewhat mysterious ballad.

On the other hand, the interstitial movements between these familiar hymns sometimes slide into atonal, free jazz weirdness. Even acknowledging the desire to incorporate ancient canticles, hymns and folk melodies, a few of these tracks are hard on the ears. As a result, I suspect this album will be enjoyed best by listeners willing to work a bit, with liner notes in one hand and Bible in the other.

Multi-instrumentalist Chris Davis selected and arranged the 12 tracks on This Christmas (Bunny Jams Records BJRCD0001) based on his fond memories of childhood trips from Florida to Louisiana, to be with family for the holidays, when the likes of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” would play on the car radio. The result here is a lovely blend of traditional carols and holiday-esque ballads such as Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” delivered with plenty of swing by a tight and well-rehearsed quartet.

Davis prefers the bucket-muted trumpet, which gives an often wistful and poignant touch to these songs. His arrangements are inventive but never self-indulgent, with plenty of room for his solos and equally fine work by pianist Victor Noriega, acoustic bassist Adam Thomas and drummer Julian MacDonough.

The album opens with a mid-tempo reading of “Winter Wonderland” that Sinatra himself would have loved; Davis’ arrangement of “The Christmas Waltz” is faster than usual, with MacDonough’s strong two-beat driving the bridges into a gallop.

“Blue Christmas” is granted a droll barrelhouse beat, with cute bass and percussion touches; Noriega gives “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” a regal solo piano intro before the combo jumps in for an arrangement that really cooks. Listen for Thomas’ marvelous walking bass on this one.

Guest clarinetist James Danderfer further brightens the album’s show-stopper: an ambitious, 7/4 arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” that’s all over the map (in the best possible way). Davis’ horn, in turn, is particularly sweet and soulful on “The Christmas Song,” and his pas de deux with Noriega on “Toyland” is a similar treat.

The album closes with a gentle, almost melancholy reading of “Little Drummer Boy” that offers plenty of percussive touches and delicate piano filigree: a wonderful finish for an album that you’ll immediately want to hear again.

Ric Iannone’s Jazzy Christmas (IMMusic) isn’t particularly inventive, but it is quite enjoyable: a solid, swinging piano trio collection of 10 holiday standards. Iannone has an enthusiastic approach to his keyboard work, with arrangements that vary tempos, styles and time signatures in engaging ways. He never loses track of a given tune’s core melody, which is to say that his improvs never drift into the stratosphere.

I’d love to credit the bassist and drummer, but such information remains concealed. Iannone doesn’t have his own web site, and the album is available solely as a download, with nothing but front cover art in the way of supplementary material. The implication is that Iannone may have cooked up the entire project on a computer; if that’s the case, I’m tremendously impressed, because it sure sounds like an actual trio.

Every cut here is lighthearted and whimsical, with many driven by swinging bass and drum work; the latter are particularly evident on “Deck the Halls,” done with a heavily rhythmic two-beat; “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” which is jolly indeed at an up-tempo 4/4; and “Jingle Bells,” a toe-tapper that concludes with a droll flourish of sleigh bells.

Iannone turns “March of the Toys” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” into charming little suites; each begins fairly quietly, in straight time, and then shifts gears into swing time. You simply can’t listen to this stuff without smiling.

Iannone has a fondness for gentle, solo piano prologues that burst into life and then roar to a conclusion; the best example is his handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” He gives “What Child Is This” a more dynamic reading than is usual, in this case favoring another strong two-beat. And his arrangement of “We Three Kings” sounds positively regal ... in a droll sort of way.

The album is short, at just shy of 36 minutes, but it’s choice from start to finish. It would, however, be nice to know more about it. C’mon, Ric ... why so shy?

Trumpeter/flugelhorner Nathan Eklund organized the recording sessions that produced Crafty Christmas (OA2 Records OA2 22096) as a holiday gift to his parents; I’m pleased that he elected to grant the project mainstream distribution. Seattle’s jazz-hued Origin Arts/OA2 Records doesn’t release holiday albums every year, but they’re always worth the wait, and this one’s no exception.

Eklund leads a quartet — joined by Oscar Perez, Fender Rhodes and piano; Tom DiCarlo, bass; and Shawn Baltazor, drums — in a sweet collection of straight-ahead, mostly gentle arrangements. These nine tracks run long, granting plenty of opportunities for improv; several open with Eklund’s soulful lead on horn, followed by bass and keyboard solos.

Eklund’s horn work is particularly sweet, almost contemplative, on expressive readings of “Silent Night” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” both of which also afford Perez nice solos on Fender Rhodes. The musical dynamic switches a bit for “Greensleeves,” which finds Eklund on flugelhorn and Perez on piano; the result is tender, almost melancholy at times.

Baltazor lays down a solid beat for a livelier reading of “Let It Snow,” a solid swinger that boasts both drum and Fender Rhodes solos. The album opener, “Winter Wonderland,” is similarly peppy.

The moody, slightly mysterious arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” opens with a gorgeous bass solo from DiCarlo, but things get a bit stratospheric when Eklund’s horn turns uncharacteristically squawky; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” despite guest singer Kevin-Anthony’s gentle vocal, also is a trifle overwrought. But these are minor quibbles; the overall package is tasty and tight, reflecting the sort of smooth melodic bond that results when four well-rehearsed musicians get together.


• Back in the early 1960s, the Ramsey Lewis Trio released two holiday albums now considered classics: Sounds of Christmas and More Sounds of Christmas. The former has been available on CD for years; for some inexplicable reason, the latter still hasn’t made that transition. You therefore might be tempted by the Master Classics Records release of Christmas Piano Jazz, which gathers both albums onto a single disc. Resist the Impulse. This is, without question, the worst-mastered CD I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience; the music sounds like it was over-compressed and then mixed in a tiny cupboard in the sub-sub-sub-basement of the Batcave. Lewis deserves far, far better than this ghastly reissue.

• Nashville-based jazz pianist Beegie Adair has released many holiday albums over the years, and 1999’s Jazz Piano Christmas continues to get considerable play in our home. But Adair also dabbles in quiet “mood” albums that stray pretty far from jazz, which is the case with this year’s Christmas Elegance (Green Hill GHD5853). She’s paired here with violinist David Davidson; the result is extremely pretty — if a trifle unusual — but it sure ain’t jazz. Adair occasionally slides in a few gently swinging keyboard riffs — notably on “Home for the Holidays,” “The Christmas Waltz” and “Let It Snow” — but for the most part this duet delivers only quiet background music.

• Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become an iconic seasonal favorite: an institutional part of the American Christmas experience. The original 1965 LP debuted on CD in 1988, and Fantasy Records has just issued a newly re-mastered edition that boasts superlative work by digital restoration engineer Joe Tarantino. Guaraldi’s piano — at once more detailed and warmer than on the somewhat brittle-sounding 1988 CD — sits better in the mix here. This draws greater attention to the equally superlative work by the sidemen; in particular, you’ll hear marvelous bass riffs that have been all but buried until now. So let’s be honest: You absolutely need another copy of this album, right?

• Vocalist Halie Loren has a sweet, mildly sultry voice, and she’s paired well with pianist Matt Treder on Many Times, Many Ways (Justin Time Records JTR 8553-2). But despite the label’s attempt to market this album as jazz, that simply isn’t so; the duo’s approach is folk/pop. Loren delivers a winsome cover of “Grown Up Christmas List” and chestnuts such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Home for the Holidays,” but she lacks the range and sass to effectively dig into the likes of “Santa Baby” and “Blue Holiday.” Similarly, Treder’s two instrumental originals — “Sugar Cookies” and “From the Mouths of Babes” — would have been right at home on one of the old Windham Hill Winter’s Solstice albums ... but they weren’t jazz either.

• Kermit Ruffins’ Have a Crazy Cool Christmas! (Basin Street Records BSR 0109-2) is thoroughly Dixieland and therefore not to my taste, but it’s certainly a hoot. Whether strutting through “O Christmas Tree,” or wishing for the New Orleans Saints to reach the Super Bowl in a cute original titled “A Saints Christmas,” Ruffins and his crew bring the house down. I only wish he sang less and concentrated more on his trumpet work; the album opens with a sensational arrangement of “Silent Night” that’s blended against the familiar percussion line from Miles Davis’ “All Blues” ... but it’s one of only three instrumentals. Alas!

• The practically anonymous Yuletide Jazz (Compilations Records CR0018), which credits jazz guitarist Royce Campbell solely as “producer,” actually is a clandestine assortment of tracks from his previous three holiday releases, A Jazz Guitar Christmas, A Jazz Guitar Christmas II and A Solo Guitar Christmas. I’ve nothing against greatest hits collections, and this disc does deliver a nice set of tracks, but why the subterfuge? That feels dishonest, along with Campbell’s failure to identify his sidemen. The package is sweetened slightly by two new tracks — fresh arrangements of “O Christmas Tree” and “Silent Night” — but I still suggest digging up the three original discs.

• One must be wary when dealing with albums that fail to identify personnel, and the John Magaldi Quintet’s Christmas Jazz (Essential Media Group) is a case in point. Aside from Magaldi on sax, we’ve no idea who else is involved ... and that might be due to collective embarrassment. This group simply isn’t ready for prime time: The tempos are listless, the solos uninspired and squawky, and the so-called “digital re-mastering” is a joke. The piano is so faint that it sounds like the poor guy was three studios away and unmiked. Stay away from this one.

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