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.

Proving once again that jazz is an international language, one of the best holiday jazz CDs to reach my hands — years after its initial release — comes courtesy of Sweden’s Dragon Records label. The Claes Crona Trio’s Winter Wonderland (Dragon DRCD 359) is one of the best small-combo efforts I’ve heard in this genre; it immediately shot to the top of my list of favorites.

Many of these 13 tracks run long, allowing for plenty of delicious improv work from Crona (piano), Hans Backenroth (bass) and Pétur “Island” Östlund (drums). These exploratory bridges are always harmonically inventive, while never straying into the stratosphere of weirdness. In a word, this group’s music is interesting, whether noodling around with a core melody or indulging in some lively give-and-take between piano and bass.

Crona opens the album with a sweet keyboard introduction to “White Christmas,” which then roars into sassy life and illustrates Backenroth’s fine work. The bass is similarly front and center on deft arrangements of “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (and the latter really cooks).

Backenroth leads off with the melody on a droll arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman,” with Östlund conveying the character’s roly-poly behavior via background bongos. After another of Crona’s lovely solo keyboard introductions, the Swedish Christian hymn “Nu Tändas Tusen Juleljus (Now Are Lit a Thousand Christmas Candles)” turns into a whimsical 5/4 swinger that grants Backenroth yet another stylish bass solo.

Horn man Jan Allan guests on three tracks, delivering a gentle, muted trumpet reading of the melody in “The Christmas Song” and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the latter often regarded as a holiday song in Western Europe, if not on our shores. Allan also contributes to the aforementioned “Winter Wonderland,” although this time at a peppier tempo.

A lengthy run at “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” affords generous solos to everybody during an arrangement guaranteed to bring the house down, and “Silent Night” emerges as an unexpectedly down ’n’ dirty blues number, complete with a bass line quote from Miles Davis’ “All Blues” and great keyboard work from Crona.

“When a Child Is Born,” a sweet tune memorably covered by everybody from Johnny Mathis to the Moody Blues, emerges here as a quiet hymn, mostly on piano. Crona returns to that tone for the album’s final track, a contemplative keyboard solo version of 18th century German composer Georg Joseph Vogler’s “Hosianna.”

This is a great album. It’s almost impossible to find at this late date, but — believe me — you won’t regret the effort.

Back in 2002 (or 2000, depending on reference sources), Germany’s Mons Records released Swinging Christmas Greetings, featuring “Rainer Heute and Friends.” At this late stage, the album seems available only via iTunes, which is frustrating from the standpoint of personnel and performance information. I can report that the compilation disc features saxophonist Rainer Heute’s Big Band and also his Jazztet, the Thilo Wagner Trio, the Sultans of Swing, Harmony Central and Generation 99 ... but I’m hard-pressed to identify precisely who plays where.

The big band tracks are the most fun, starting with a smoking cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and a swinging version of “Jingle Bells,” the latter offering a slick solo to pianist Thilo Wagner. A nifty arrangement of “White Christmas” begins slowly and then builds to a faster-paced explosion of big band fury: a great track, and a lot of fun.

“Winter Wonderland” and “If I Were a Bell” are handled by Wagner’s trio; the former is a pleasant, mid-tempo romp through a December snowstorm, while the latter cooks explosively. The bassist takes lovely extended solos in both cases, but — alas — I’ve no idea who the musician is.

The two remaining instrumentals — “O Tannenbaum” and “Ich Steh an Deiner Krippen Hier (Beside thy Cradle Here I Stand)” — are presented by a combo (Generation 99?) with an intriguing blend of instruments, highlighted by guitar and flute. Both fall into the category of “pretty jazz,” as opposed to boppers, but they’re lovely nonetheless.

“Jamaican Noel” is a lively, raucous calypso jump, while “Greensleeves” and “The Old Christmas Tree” feature female vocalists backed by (respectively) a small jazz combo and the full big band.

The album’s sole disappointment is the overwrought male vocal on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with its reach-the-back-rafters insistence that this fellow will, indeed, make it home for the holidays. Honestly, with this calling card, I wouldn’t want him in my house!

The overall album, then, is quite a mix ... and not always jazz. That said, the high points make it worth the trouble to track down.

Pianist Yoshiko Kishino’s 1999 CD, My Little Christmas (Universal Victor MVCJ-22001), is simply gorgeous: a gem of a trio holiday album. Kishino has a light, lyrical touch on the keyboard, along with a facility for rich improvisational bridges that wander captivatingly afield before returning to a given song’s core melody.

Kishino takes a strong lead on all tracks, with solid but unobtrusive backing from bassist Mitsuaki Furuno and drummer Yasushi Ichihara. The arrangements are mostly slow and contemplative, as with the album-opening cover of “Silent Night,” which begins quietly and then accelerates just slightly, to a pleasing mid-tempo blend of piano, bass and very gentle drums.

Kishino’s flair for interior noodling is evident in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song,” both of which showcase her sparkling improvisational skills. And while most of the album maintains a soft approach, Kishino displays serious jazz chops during the dynamic, up-tempo bridges in “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Greensleeves.”

Furuno delivers a lovely bowed bass solo in the fifth track, which — despite what the listings claim — doesn’t sound anything like “Ave Maria.” Whatever this song is, though, it’s as pleasant as everything else on this exquisite album.

As befits its title, this collection of eight songs is short, running just half an hour; Kishino concludes with a solo on a very brief original titled “My Little Christmas,” which ends as she wishes her listeners a very Merry Christmas. There’s no doubt of that, given her gorgeous music to amplify that seasonal greeting.

Despite its title, trumpeter Rick Braun’s 1994 album, Christmas Present (Blue Moon/
Atlantic 79198-2), isn’t entirely a collection of familiar holiday tunes; you’ll recognize only five of these 14 tracks. The rest are original compositions: some of them songs, some merely little mood pieces that convey a December-esque atmosphere in the spirit of Windham Hill’s Winter’s Solstice series.

The result is gentle, easy on the ears but by no means mere background music; Braun skillfully blends snow-laden ambiance with some serious jazz chops and clever arrangements. His sensational handling of “Jingle Bells” — here re-titled “Jingle Blues,” by way of acknowledging Miles Davis’ “All Blues” — is worth the album’s price all by itself. Braun cleverly turns this seasonal chestnut into a waltz-time delight, playing the familiar melody against the Davis’ equally memorable bass-line vamp.

Braun also works well with pianist Curtis Brengle on a sweet cover of “The Christmas Song” and a mildly mysterious arrangement of “O Tannenbaum.” And the two deftly trade riffs during “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which opens as little more than quoted notes — not much melody — before building tempo and blossoming into a playfully lively ballad.

Most of Braun’s originals are designed to evoke seasonal feelings, as with “Bell, Book and Candle,” “Maybe Next Year” and a sleigh ride-esque waltz titled “Newborn Christmas,” which conveys a sense of snowflakes landing on chill-reddened cheeks.

Braun also plays piano on occasion, as when he backs vocalists on the less satisfying “Far Away” and “It’s Christmas,” also both originals. And he turns programmer for the computer-generated “The Christmas Clock” and “Grandma’s Music Box,” both little more than novelty frills ... and yet, still, nicely integrated into the album’s overall mood.

Braun is an engaging performer with a strong musical sense, and this CD is far better than most in the “smooth jazz” sub-genre. No wonder, then, that he built a respectable career with many more albums.

Pity the musician who can’t be the star of his own album; that’s definitely the case with saxophonist Warren Hill, on the basis of his 2002 release, A Warren Hill Christmas (Narada 72438-12863-2-6). This disk’s stand-outs are percussionist Ronnie Gutierrez and drummer Dave Hooper, who establish inventive arrangements for each of these 12 holiday standards. Their efforts are far more interesting, musically, than anything Hill does.

To a degree, I blame the instrument; the soprano sax may have been corrupted past the point of redemption. Countless performers equate shrill and squawky with “melodic,” when playing a soprano sax; Hill often succumbs to the same malady. Too many of his so-called improvisational bridges are merely slides up the scale, into the higher octaves, where he perches and screeches like an owl.

In fairness, his work is much more palatable when he switches to alto sax, and several of the tracks here are a lot of fun. The album opens with droll and clever arrangements of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Santa Baby” — although I could have lived without the encouraging whistles and shouts emanating from the background — and Hill also shows some jazz chops during “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells.”

Guitarist Dwight Sills contributes some nice work, particularly during “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and keyboardist Dave Kochanski adds pleasant shading with his minimalist touches on several tracks. You’ll certainly nod in time to the rolling percussive beat that opens “Little Drummer Boy,” or the heavy two-beat approach to the aforementioned “Frosty” and “Jingle Bells”; one wishes for a more creative soloist in front of these arrangements.

Sadly, though, you’re more likely to remember the way Hill shrieks his way through overwrought arrangements of “O Holy Night” — often the victim of a heavy-handed approach — and particularly John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas.” Kenny G may be bland, but at least you can listen to his albums without wincing.

Mark Douthit takes a milder — and much more welcome — approach to his sax work on 2006's December Morning (Green Hill GHD5494), in part because he concentrates on alto and tenor, employing their higher-pitched soprano cousin only a few times. Douthit also is a more generous leader, granting ample exposure to keyboardist Tim Akers; most of these 12 tracks either open with a gentle keyboard solo by Akers, or include a piano interlude midway through a song.

Most of these arrangements are gentle and contemplative, with Douthit and Akers often comping behind each other, as the lead melody switches back and forth. Craig Nelson contributes some fine bass licks in “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Let It Snow”; the latter breaks from the generally quiet tone and roars into life as a genuine jazz swinger, with some dirty alto sax work by Douthit and a slick Hammond B3 solo by Akers.

“O Christmas Tree” also earns a finger-snapping jazz arrangement, again with a melodic piano solo from Akers.

Although the album’s atmosphere is generally calm and easy on the ears, Douthit does occasionally succumb to the smooth jazz genre’s tendency toward slow, magisterial builds and a climactic (read: loud) final verse. And he’s not helped at all by drummer Bob Mater, whose work often displays the mechanical quality of a programmed machine: notably the monotonous back-beat on “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

Laurie Wheeler contributes vocals to “Christmas Time Is Here” and Horace Silver’s “Peace”; she adds a pleasantly cheerful lilt to the former, but her work on the latter is marred by a superfluous string arrangement. The album concludes with a lovely duet on “The Christmas Song” by Douthit (tenor sax) and guest Larry Carlton, on electric guitar: a nice way to wrap up this pleasant — if stylistically unimaginative — collection of Christmas tunes.

Saxman Jimmy Sommers should trust his talents more, because too much of 2004’s A Holiday Wish (Gemini Records) is marred by intrusive string enhancements that frequently s-w-e-l-l ostentatiously, in the manner of a melodramatic film score. It’s a peculiar artistic decision, because four tracks get along just fine without the string section; I can’t imagine why Sommers and his combo didn’t deliver the entire album that way.

The sassy “Santa Baby” features some droll interplay between Sommers and guitarist John Chiodini, and the latter also shares a neat bridge with ace pianist Bill Cunliffe. All three turn “Greensleeves” into a mid-tempo finger-snapper, which offers Cunliffe a great solo; he gets another moment in the spotlight during “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which drummer Bernie Dressel sets up at a swinging mid-tempo two-beat.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album is marred by those ill-advised strings; they particularly ruin trumpeter Chris Botti’s guest appearance on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which otherwise is a sweet blend of sax and horn. Things are even more dire during “Silent Night,” which offers strings and a harp solo. Sorry folks, but strings and harps ain’t jazz.

In fairness, Sommers probably is trying more for the gentler side of the smooth jazz genre, so this album likely will be enjoyed by folks seeking undemanding music to play during a holiday dinner party. The tempos range from slow to medium fast, and never stray into livelier territory, except for a snappy double-time bridge during a mostly soulful handling of “The Christmas Song.” That offers a hint of what Sommers and his band could play ... but that potential remains untapped here.

Pianist Michael Wolff admits, in the liner notes to his Christmas Moods (Artemis Records ATM-CD-51261), that his feelings about the holiday season are “emotionally complex,” due to the darker feelings that surface when remembering loved ones no longer in his life. A reasonable sentiment, but I’m not sure I agree that some of the tracks on this mostly engaging album are “dark.” Eclectic, yes, but certainly not morose.

Wolff brought along several high-profile friends to join bassist John B. Williams and drummers Dick Berk and Roy McCurdy. Famed film soundtrack composer Mark Isham lends his sparkling trumpet work to “O Christmas Tree” and “Let It Snow,” both of which boast clever interplay between the horn and Wolff’s keyboard work. Alex Foster offers sublime work on soprano sax during a duet version of “Silent Night,” with Wolff’s soft piano comping nicely balancing sweet sax sounds that are never shrill. (Scores of “smooth jazz” soprano sax players could learn a lot from Foster; see above.)

I’m less pleased with the guest vocalists. Kenny Rankin contributes a wistful reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” but he turns overwrought during “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; in both cases, he’s supported by gentle comping from Wolff’s trio.

Warren Zevon is, at best, an acquired taste; the late singer also was one of Wolff’s close friends, so I’ll cut him some artistic slack. The bottom line, though, is that Zevon’s gravel-laced, woeful barfly voice is an odd choice for “The Christmas Song,” and even odder on “Ave Maria.”

The album’s highlights belong to Wolff’s trio on its own; the combo rips through a clever arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” delivers a head-bobbin’ cover of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and offers a contemplative, somewhat percussive handling of “What Child Is This.” All three tracks boast fine bass work by Williams, along with Wolff’s inventive improv bridges.

Wolff also delivers three solos. “White Christmas” and “The First Noel” are gentle and deliberate, and then he cuts loose with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: a cute arrangement that brings his album to an enjoyable conclusion.

The Sugo Music Group prides itself on being “the first music label to distribute music products to the United States gift market, dating back to 1984.” Translation: They were among the first to assemble those point-of-purchase CD counter displays that once were ubiquitous in yuppie-leaning retailers such as the late, deeply lamented Museum Store. Although generally sliding toward family-friendly, impulse-purchase artists such as John Tesh, Al Jarreau and Vanessa Williams, one should not assume that the label eschews serious jazz. It’s just hard to find.

A very pleasant combo calling itself Indigo released three tasty holiday jazz albums on the Sugo label, starting with 1996’s Indigo Christmas, which was billed as “retro jazz swing.” That’s a misleading descriptor, since (in my mind, at least) it suggests big band-style jump jazz ... and that’s not the case. The core octet delivers quite pleasant arrangements of 13 holiday classics, with most arrangements designed to favor Brad Allison (trumpet and flugelhorn), Clipper Anderson (upright bass), Tom Collier (vibes) and Nick Manson and Brian Withycombe (both on piano).

The CD kicks off with a sleek cover of “Good King Wenceslas,” a mid-tempo charmer that favors Allison and Collier. The latter’s vibraphone also gets ample exercise in a bouncy rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” My favorite tracks include a mildly mysterious version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” which features Allison; and a whimsical cover of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which opens with a soft solo piano, grants Anderson some deft bass licks, and then allows equal time for the other musicians.

Nothing on this album screams, although “Sleigh Ride” moves along at a good clip, fueled by solid piano chops. (Alas, the sparse liner notes don’t identify which tracks are played by each keyboardist.) Allison’s horn actually sounds best on the sweeter, slower numbers: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “My Favorite Things” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Arrangers Manson and Withycombe apparently like the “drama” of long pauses, an affectation used a bit overmuch. Other minor caveats: The piano sounds too “bright” at times, and the sax players (Andy Suzuki and Tommy Politzer) can be overly shrill.

But this is small stuff. For the most part, the album is a pleasant package: definitely worth playing when friends visit.

No surprise, then, that sales were strong enough to encourage the combo to re-unite for 1998’s Indigo Christmas 2. Clipper Anderson had moved on, replaced by Douglas Barnett on bass. The arrangements on this sequel are peppier and more creative, often including quotes from familiar sources; Mark Ivester’s work on drums and percussion establishes a much more interesting beat on several numbers.

The album opens with peppy arrangements of “Joy to the World” and “Winter Wonderland,” both of which display solid combo skills while allowing sleek work by various soloists. “Deck the Halls” is my favorite track: another lively arrangement highlighted by vibrant percussion that suggests a good time is being had by all.

A moody and mysterious cover of the “Arabian Dance” from the Nutcracker Suite starts off slowly, then bursts into life with the support of a string section; this track segues deftly into the next one, a lyrical reading of “Carol of the Bells” that features some nice piano chops.

“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” offers another clever arrangement, and “What Child Is This” opens with a sweet flute prologue before Collier once again holds court on vibes. Collier and pianist Nick Manson trade delectable riffs on a gentle arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and the album concludes with a lovely, similarly quiet piano/horn duet by Manson and Allison on “The First Noel.”

Sadly, the gang should have let it go with two discs, because 1999’s Indigo III: Merry Christmas Baby is a disappointment. It opens well enough, with “Deck the Halls” delivered as a mid-tempo swinger; it’s also hard to fault a sassy reading of “Santa Baby” that features a vocal by the always sultry Maria Muldaur.

But almost half of this disc’s tracks are vocals, and most don’t live up to Muldaur’s level; other tracks slide more toward pop than jazz. “Wouldn’t You Like an Old-Fashioned Christmas,” the album’s low point, is a sugary mess; and some nice sax work gets buried by intrusive strings in “The Holly and the Ivy.”

That’s a shame, because some of the other solos deserve mention. Tom Collier delivers some smooth vibes work on “The Christmas Song,” while “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” offers both tasty guitar (Jerry Cortez) and keyboard (Brian Withycombe).

Another black mark: The percussion often sounds tinny and canned. I doubt the latter is true, since Peter Booras and Mark Ivester split the credits on drums, but they’re done no favors by the production work.

Santa’s elves should have sent this one back to the factory.

One might be inclined to similarly dismiss A Rat Pack Christmas (Sheridan Square Records 7605) on the basis of its generic packaging, the promise of “lounge noir” and the failure to cite any musicians ... at least, not until you get to the inner sleeve. But shunning this disc would be a mistake, because the quartet is terrific. The group is led by pianist Bill Anschell, long known as Nnenna Freelon’s pianist, arranger and musical director; he’s now one of Seattle’s extremely busy musicians, as both a sideman and leader of his own groups. He frequently records with Origin, where he was part of that label’s splendid 2007 holiday release, The Cool Season.

Point being, he’s a superb musician, and on A Rat Pack Christmas — also released in 2007 — he’s surrounded by three other equally talented guys. (Too bad, then, that Sheridan couldn’t spell his name correctly!)

This album’s 10 tracks are given long, leisurely arrangements, all of which allow plenty of solos by Anschell, Sam Skelton (sax, clarinet and alto flute), Neil Starkey (bass) and Keith Runfola (drums).

Things get off to a great start with a clever arrangement of “White Christmas,” delivered at a fast two-beat that gives Anschell an opportunity to demonstrate his lively keyboard chops. The group’s handling of “Silver Bells” is another up-tempo bopper, and just as much fun.

The combo is just as polished on the slower, bluesy numbers, such as an uncharacteristically languid rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” or the medium-tempo arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which showcases nice work by Skelton on sax. He switches to clarinet and flute, respectively, for gentle readings of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Silent Night.” The latter, also uncharacteristically, is delivered in 4/4 standard time, rather than its usual waltz; the arrangement is delightful.

Longtime jazz fans will smile during “Winter Wonderland,” which boasts a percussive arrangement that strongly echoes Gary Burton’s reading of the Nat Simon/Buddy Bernier jazz standard “Poinciana”; Skelton and Anschell take great solos during this seven-minute gem.

Skelton has an occasionally tendency to get squawky on the sax, in the manner of too many bad “smooth jazz” artists; this is particularly irritating on “Greensleeves.” Happily, he doesn’t do this too often.

You’re also not likely to care. This is a marvelous album by a tight combo that has a lot of fun with some inventive arrangements of these familiar carols.

Gregg Karukas and Shelby Flint recorded Home for the Holidays (Nightowl Records NRD44441-2) all the way back in 1993. He was a rising jazz pianist; she was a veteran vocalist still fondly remembered for writing and performing her 1961 vocal hit, “Angel on My Shoulder,” and as one of the two singers who charted with vocal versions of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

Karukas and Flint mesh beautifully here, and — as of the 2011 holiday season — they’re still touring together and performing music from this album. Half of the dozen tracks are instrumentals by Karukas, bassist John Leftwich, and drummer Joel Taylor; the other six are vocals, mostly originals written by Flint and/or Karukas.

Karukas’ combo is more vibrant than one would expect from the smooth jazz genre; the trio kicks off with a percussive reading of “Little Drummer Boy” that immediately showcases the inventive arrangements that the pianist delivers throughout the entire album. The first track segues into a nice medley of “Silent Night” and “O Tannenbaum,” both delivered with more pep than usually is associated with those tunes.

Karukas shifts the mood with quiet solo piano prologues to “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells,” although the latter quickly kicks into gear, with all three musicians building up quite a head of steam. Leftwich’s bass adds a lot to a gentle cover of “The Christmas Song,” while “We Three Kings” boasts a lively double-time keyboard solo by Karukas.

All four original compositions are charming, gentle ballads; each calls attention to the holiday season’s truly memorable elements — friends, family and lovers — without descending into any denominational preaching. I’m particularly taken by “There’s a Star on the Horizon,” a heartfelt little ode that reminds us of Flint’s facility with poetic lyrics.

These two would be marvelous to hear during a December concert; absent that, this engaging little album is the next best thing.

One final subset of holiday CDs could be regarded as a musician’s nightmare: the intentionally anonymous “products” that now surface in big-box stores such as Target and Wal-Mart. The album titles invariably are generic, and the musicians never are listed anywhere on the outside of the package ... and, sometimes, not within, either. Producers generally are cited — which adds to the general sense of Frankenmusic — and we’re often tempted with vacuous come-ons such as “50-plus minutes of music!”

The impulse, then, is for serious music fans to dismiss such things as crap ... but, surprisingly, that’s not always the case. While true jazz stars certainly have nothing to worry about, some of these discs are reasonably enjoyable in a supper-club sense, and represent respectable assignments for up-and-coming musicians.

The unimaginatively titled Christmas Jazz (Compass Productions) is a perfect example. The musicians are listed inside the otherwise sparse liner notes: a cool, quite enjoyable septet comprising Brian Gallagher (sax), Dave Jensen (trumpet), Michael Nelson (trombone), Donnie LaMarca (piano), Dirk Freymuth (guitar), Joel Sayles (bass) and Jimi Englund (drums).

LaMarca and Sayles shine throughout, and the album kicks off with a bluesy arrangement of “Deck the Halls,” which features a nifty piano/bass duet. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is covered as a mid-tempo swinger, and the handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is just plain cute. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” emerges as another bopper, while the venerable “Old Time Religion” is given an appropriately rowdy gospel flavor. LaMarca’s piano is sweet and gentle on “Silent Night,” which also grants Sayles a nice bass solo.

The unison horns are a bit off at times, wincingly on the otherwise pleasant arrangement of “Ding, Dong, Merrily on High,” but — fortunately — that problem doesn’t crop up often enough to mar an otherwise tasty little disc.

The same cannot be said of the 2005 double-CD set ’Tis the Season: Relaxing Christmas Jazz, a truly deplorable package that also comes from Compass Productions. No musicians are credited here, which saves them the embarrassment of being excoriated by name. Regardless of the title’s claim, this ain’t jazz ... nor is it even active enough to be considered relaxing. The first disc is somnambulant swill at its worst: even more lethargic and New Age-y than Windham Hill’s long-ago Winter's Solstice series.

This is the stuff that gives the phrase “smooth jazz” such a bad name.

The second disc is a tot better, due solely to the two tracks produced by Michael B. Nelson — “Deck the Halls” and “Ding, Dong, Merrily on High” — which veer dangerously close to actual jazz. Which is to say, they actually swing a bit. Can’t imagine how Nelson was allowed to participate with the rest of these twits; it must’ve been an oversight on somebody’s part.

Compass has made a cottage industry of such packages, having released them in one- and two-disc sets every few years. (Be careful, by the way; it’s not always obvious when the material on, say, a given single disc gets recycled onto a two-disc set with a different title.)

Relaxing Holiday Jazz (Compass 52707), a “Lifescapes Holiday” two-disc set that dates from 2007 to ’09, shows better musicality but still functions best as unobtrusive background music. Indeed, it’s hard to find something to discuss, because most of the tracks aren’t distinguishable from each other.

The first disc features a sextet — piano, guitar, horn, sax, bass and drums — on a dozen pleasant arrangements that mostly fade nicely into the background. Guitarist Ron Komie shows some musicality during his solos on “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Gesu Bambino,” and the latter also reflects producer Ed Smith’s willingness to include less common carols such as that one and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Smith also handles the drum chores, but his contribution too frequently sounds like it’s coming from a machine, notably on “Midwinter” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

The sextet almost bursts into life during an unexpectedly brisk reading of “Silent Night,” but that’s an anomaly; you’ll find little life in the other tracks.

The second disc features a standard trio — piano, bass and drums (with two players alternating on the latter) — with a delivery that sounds a bit like the Beegie Adair Trio, absent her more visible jazz chops. Pianist Laura Caviani’s arrangements show a bit of sparkle, particularly on “Joy to the World,” “In Dulce Jubilo” and a percussive reading of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”; “O Come All Ye Faithful” also delivers a bubbly, finger-snapping two-beat.

Bassist Gordon Johnson contributes nice solos on “Jingle Bells” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” and Caviani grants herself a lovely keyboard prologue on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Her opening of “O Tannenbaum” clearly is intended to evoke Vince Guaraldi’s handling of the same song.

As a result, this second disc probably won’t put you to sleep ... but the first one likely will.

Big Band Christmas (Compass 55863), happily, is much better. This two-disc set gathers albums released in 2007 and 2011, and this package is well named. The first disc’s 11 tracks are delivered by a true 19-piece big band: six saxes, seven trumpets, three trombones and a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Longtime holiday jazz fans will recognize some of the players, particularly Attila Fias (piano), Stan Williams (trombone) and Steve Wingfield (tenor sax); Wingfield also produced this session.

The disc roars out of the gate with a rousing cover of “Jingle Bells,” and the band has an equally good time with a mildly countrified version of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas Is You.” I also love the “walking 4/4” arrangement on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which grants Fias a lively piano solo.

Although most of the tempos tend to be peppy, the ensemble capably dials things back during gentler arrangements of “The Christmas Song,” “Silent Night” and “Silver Bells,” the latter two also featuring engaging keyboard work by Fias.

“Good King Wenceslas” offers some nice flute work, while “The Christmas Song” features a pretty trumpet lead; alas, both soloists are uncredited.

Sadly, the arrangements are too short for much in the way of showcase solos; the entire disc is just shy of 40 minutes, and one occasionally gets a sense that all the musicians are racing through the selections, as if trying to beat a master stopwatch. That said, the album closes with an unexpectedly slow and sweet handling of “O Tannenbaum”: a nice finish to a disc that would work well during a spirited holiday party.

The second disc offers an entirely different — and considerably smaller — octet fronted by Michael B. Nelson’s five-member a cappella jazz horn group, The Hornheads; they’re joined by a standard rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. Let it be said: These folks are tight. Nelson also produced this disc and wrote the lively arrangements for the 11 tracks, and the results are likely to generate plenty of repeat play.

Nelson favors strong 2/2 and 4/4 arrangements, and on occasion moves into foot-stompin’ double-time. One doesn’t often think of Christmas carols as dance music, but you’ll find it hard to remain still during the roughly 50 minutes this disc has your attention.

The band roars out of the gate with a peppy handling of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and doesn’t let up until the final bars of a rolling, revival-style assault on “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” That’s another of this disc’s highlights, by the way: the inclusion of several tunes often overlooked by collections of this nature, such as “Ding, Dong Merrily on High” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”

The unison horn passages are terrific, and Nelson grants plenty of room for solos by Hornheads compatriots Steve Strand and Dave Jensen (trumpets and flugelhorns), Kathy Jensen (alto and baritone sax) and Kenni Holmen (tenor sax and flute). Nelson contributes his own smooth trombone licks, while pianist Mary Louise Knulson makes her presence known on “Deck the Halls” and a droll, percussive arrangement of “Santa Baby.” She also delivers a fast keyboard prologue to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” handing off to the horns, which take up the familiar countdown melody.

Nelson likes to defy expectations with his arrangements, such as varying a rip-roaring charge through “Winter Wonderland” with much calmer piano/bass interludes; or by opening “Let It Snow” quietly, before accelerating into a medium-tempo swinger.

The operative word here is fun. This group would be — Would have been? This is the older 2007 disc — a kick to see in person.

And that’s it for this catch-up round. No doubt I’ll have another, in a decade or so...

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