Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holiday Jazz 2013: Joy to the jingle

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.13

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

Bing Crosby,  Mariah Carey and the Carpenters have their place during the holiday season, but if you really want to impress your mistletoe-smooching friends, dig into the Christmas jazz.

Although jazz stars have recorded seasonal classics going back to the swing era of Glenn Miller and Lionel Hampton, the pickings remained quite small up through the early 1960s, despite marvelous albums such as Ella Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960), Kenny Burrell’s Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (1966) and Duke Pearson’s Merry Ole Soul (1969).

By the early ’80s, however, compilation releases such as Mistletoe Magic and the three-album GRP Christmas series demonstrated the viability of “Christmas jazz” as its own sub-genre ... not to mention Vince Guaraldi’s steadily selling soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which received additional publicity each December, when that Peanuts special repeated on TV.

Within the next decade, everybody from Dave Brubeck to Wynton Marsalis got into the act, and we’ve enjoyed the up-tempo results ever since.

I began covering holiday jazz in 1997, when the avalanche of new releases made it necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. I continue to be delighted by the wealth of albums, whether from established stars or newcomers doing their best to be noticed via Internet outlets such as CD Baby and iTunes. As always is true in the music world, fame is no guarantor of quality; a couple of this year’s best albums come from folks you’ve never heard of.

A handful of selections from the following list can’t help making you the hit of your own holiday party. As the lyrics insist, you gotta dig that crazy Santa Claus!


Nnenna Freelon gallops out of the gate, with a swinging assist from the John Brown Big Band, on Christmas (Brown Boulevard Records), the best blend of chanteuse and full-blown jazz orchestra we’ve heard since Diana Krall teamed with the Clayton-Hamilton ensemble back in 2005.

Freelon is a belter, often going for the back row in the second balcony; she clearly could deliver a smashing rendition of the National Anthem. She and the band get off to a great start with a lively (and appropriately re-titled) arrangement of “Swingle Jingle Bells,” which displays the obvious joy she gets from performing this material.

When she modifies the lyrics to proclaim “Oh what fun it is, to jam in a one-horse open sleigh,” she’s definitely talking about this entire album.

Brown’s ensemble is a truly big band; he leads on bass and is joined by five saxes, five trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, drums and percussion. The arrangements leave plenty of space for the band to roar, as they do during a march-oriented handling (Adonis Rose on drums) of “Little Drummer Boy” and a swinging medley of spirituals that climaxes with a heartfelt “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Christmas leftovers

By Derrick Bang

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

Holiday jazz has become a full-time pursuit, in part because the Web has allowed it to flourish. Back in the day, brick-and-mortar stores wouldn’t display their seasonal music until mid-November, and then everything would get boxed up right after the New Year. But the Internet knows no season, which is both a blessing and a curse: the latter only in the sense that my friends roll their eyes when they hear Christmas music in May. Or August.

For the most part, my annual survey of holiday jazz focuses on new or new-ish releases. That makes it difficult to discuss older albums that come to my attention late: In a column otherwise devoted to current, easy-to-obtain titles, it’s not necessarily fair to extol the virtues of an obscure disc which, being a decade old, may not be readily available any longer.

All this by way of explaining (justifying?) this bonus column’s “catch-up” theme. Most of the albums discussed here will require some dedicated searching, either because they didn’t sell well; or were released in small numbers; or released only in a specific region (or outlet); or have international origins. But as I learned years ago, obscurity isn’t necessarily an indication of quality; if the Web’s involvement in the changing music scene has taught us anything, it’s the need not to judge a disc by its cover. I’ve been burned by plenty of ubiquitous mainstream releases, and delighted by an equal number of seemingly “sketchy” albums that prove to contain plenty of great music.

Fair warning, then: If my enthusiasm prompts a flicker of interest in any of the following titles, be prepared to indulge in the thrill of the hunt. After all, the best things in life are worth struggling for, right?



Once upon a time, during happier economic days, Nordstrom stores often featured live music by local pianists who’d set up at the base of the escalators: an impressive “touch of class” that, sadly, was axed by cost-cutting bean-counters. For awhile, though, it was great exposure for up-and-coming musicians, and the store also released a few seasonal CDs on an in-house label.

I somehow missed Dehner Franks’ Holiday Lights (AEI Music Network), a 1999 release that deserved far better exposure than it received; it’s a lovely, lyrical and frequently lively collection of holiday standards, delivered in a blend of solo piano and small combo formats.

I love Franks’ up-tempo arrangements, best showcased on tracks such as the opener, “Sleigh Ride,” and a rock-inflected handling of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” He cleverly syncopates “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which also offers a cool bass line, and his samba-hued cover of “Feliz Navidad” is a lot of fun.

He’s well supported by bassist Douglas Barnett and drummer Steve Korn; guest guitarist Dan Heck also brings considerable sparkle to a bluesy arrangement of “This Christmas.”

A few percussive elements are overworked, such as the intrusive cymbal pops in the aforementioned “Sleigh Ride” — not sure whether to blame Korn or percussionist Larry Barilleau for those — but for the most part, this is a tasty collection of music.

Franks’ solo offerings include a slow, sweet reading of “The Christmas Song,” an unusually gentle handling of “Silver Bells,” a sentimental cover of “What a Wonderful World” and a meditative interpretation of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which closes the album. He also includes a charming original: “Holiday Lights,” highlighted by soulful keyboard work and a pleasant trio arrangement that includes a finger-snapping bridge.

Franks doesn’t include this album on his website discography, and that’s a shame; it begs to be played every holiday season.