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.”

I’d love to credit some of the great instrumental soloists, particularly the various sax players, but track-by-track info isn’t given. But I can cite Miki Hayama’s soulful piano comping behind Freelon, on an up-tempo reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” and Brandon McCune’s vibrant organ work on “Silent Night.” Speaking further of the latter, Jerald Shynett’s clever arrangement grants this classic a percussive line borrowed from Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”

Freelon often seems to have a give-and-take conversation with the band, as she does during a contemplative handling of “Let It Snow.” And she has a genuine story-song chat with Brown, when they share vocals on a deliciously sultry reading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Rarely has this holiday standard been so sexy.

The mood turns gentle and sweet for a rarely heard lullaby: Duke Ellington’s “I Love the Sunrise,” which in Freelon’s hands reflects the excited delight of little children bursting with joy over the arrival of Christmas morning.

The album concludes with Dan Cavanagh’s great arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which emerges as a droll New Orleans stomp: a great send-off for an album certain to become a seasonal favorite.

Some years before I started this annual roundup of holiday jazz, a vocal ensemble known as the New York Voices supplied a single track to the 1991 anthology album, A GRP Christmas Collection, Volume II. The group’s contribution was a bluesy reading of “I Wonder As I Wander”: definitely one of that album’s highlights, thanks both to the tight vocal harmonies and some smokin’ instrumental solos on tenor sax and piano.

Flash-forward two decades and change. The New York Voices are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a holiday album, which includes a fresh take on that same song. The personnel have changed a bit: Original members Darmon Meader, Kim Nazarian and Peter Eldridge remain, but Sara Krieger and Caprice Fox have moved on, replaced solely by Lauren Kinhan.

The now-they’re-a-quartet sounds just as smooth and sultry, their vocal harmonies equally melodic and tight. And “I Wonder As I Wander” still builds to a very dramatic finale.

Let It Snow (Five Cent Records FCR-0001) covers a range of settings, with the singers backed at times by a raucous big band, a smaller but equally swingin’ jazz combo, a studio orchestra or merely themselves. A cappella purists will be drawn to the group’s sweet, haunting covers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “O Come Emmanuel” and “Silent Night,” the latter sung in both German and English, and serving as the album’s gentle closer.

That’s the antithesis of how things begin, with the big band backing their handling of “Let It Snow,” which features every vocal treat from delicious harmonizing to droll scatting. Along the way, Meader also contributes a deft tenor sax solo. The other big band highlights are “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” presented as a mid-tempo finger-snapper that includes a lovely guitar solo from Bob Mann; a lively medley that blends “The Man with the Bag,” “I’d Like You for Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”; and a show-stopping handling of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which offers clever key changes with each verse.

The remaining songs involve the studio orchestra, and thus stray a bit from this column’s “true jazz” mandate; that said, even these five tracks boast solid work from a rhythm section of piano (Andy Ezrin), bass (Paul Nowinski, David Finck) and drums (Marcello Pellitteri, Ben Wittman). I particularly like the “processional” arrangement granted “We Three Kings,” and Eldridge’s striking lead vocal on “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Bach’s “Sleepers, Wake!” gets a gorgeous handling, with an emphasis on vocal shading, rather than lyrics; and the combo honors the Modernaires with a peppy, patter-style rendition of “Holiday for Strings.”

There’s much to like here.

On the subject of jazz vocal groups, no conversation is complete without mention of the Manhattan Transfer. They have two holiday releases to their credit: 1992’s The Christmas Album and 2006’s An Acapella Christmas. Current Amazon listings suggest the arrival of a brand-new concert DVD, appropriately titled The Christmas Concert, but proceed with caution: This MVD Video production actually is re-packaged from Madacy Home Video’s 2006 release, filmed during a December 2005 concert at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pa.

That said, this is a marvelous performance, and well worth a purchase for folks who’ve not yet obtained it.

The set list draws heavily from the contents of the two albums, in some cases replicating the arrangements. The all-important difference, however, comes from the grander instrumental backing, most particularly the dazzling keyboard chops of pianist, arranger and conductor Yaron Gershovky, a longtime Transfer alum who is nothing less than a force of nature. His keyboard solos are quite dynamic, and he also draws equally fine work from Wayne Johnson (guitar), Richie Goods (bass) and Steve Haas (drums).

This unit is very well rehearsed, and the results would have made most folks dance in the aisles ... but the Keswick Theatre audience is dismayingly nonresponsive.

The evening kicks off with a lively cover of “Happy Holidays,” which introduces the quartet — Cheryl Bentyne, Tim Hauser, Alan Paul and Janis Siegel — by way of brief solos in between the crisp ensemble work. The vocal fire is equally hot on a swingin’ arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which features a cute “rap” at the bridge, and the first of Gershovky’s many dynamic keyboard solos.

Most of the remaining numbers are quieter, the better to showcase the group’s gorgeous vocal shading and harmonizing. “The Christmas Song” rarely has sounded so warm and inviting; “Snowfall” is particularly lush and lyrical; and the poignant “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” builds to a heartbreakingly lovely finish.

Each singer also delivers a solo. Hauser tackles “Merry Christmas Baby,” although the result lacks the bluesy sass that helped Charles Brown turn that song into a hit. Bentyne channels her impish side with a playfully naughty rendition of “Santa Baby,” and Siegel roars her way through “Sleigh Ride.” Paul, finally, has a lot of fun with a finger-snapping, doo-wop handling of “White Christmas.”

The quartet assembles again for an impressive run through “Christmas Is Coming (The Goose Is Getting Fat),” delivered as a tongue-twisting round, and they conclude the show with a full-charge arrangement of the gospel tune “Operator,” which boasts another belting solo by Siegel.

The encore, quite appropriately, is the heartbreakingly lovely “Goodnight,” which offers nice accompaniment on piccolo, harp and Gershovky’s piano.

I’d love to credit the harpist and reed soloist; I’d also like to acknowledge the sax and flugelhorn soloists in the backing orchestra. Sadly, the DVD packaging is beyond useless, with no liner notes or credits whatsoever. There’s also no copyright date, which further increases my suspicion that MVD Visual is hiding this disc’s age. But great music is timeless, and this is a marvelous 77-minute performance (even if the audience can’t be bothered to acknowledge as much!).

Serious jazz fans will thoroughly enjoy saxman Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas (Undaunted Music UM007), although mainstream listeners might not agree. Warfield’s arrangements often employ the bare bones of a familiar holiday tune as little more than a backdrop for extended solos that drift quite far into the unchartable waters of free jazz.

That said, Warfield has surrounded himself with an exemplary combo: trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Neil Podgurski, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Clarence Penn and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Most of these 10 cuts are quite long, clocking in at more than 7 minutes and allowing for plenty of improvisational noodling.

Four tracks include vocals — three by Joanna Pascale, one by Jamie Davis — but only briefly; after an opening verse, the singers bow out and let the instrumentalists take the field.

The template is established with the opener, a mid-tempo approach to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” that boasts a great percussive groove and then offers solos on sax, trumpet, vibes, piano and bass. “Caroling, Caroling” also is an up-tempo swinger that grants inventive solos on trumpet, vibes and sax.

The combo dials things back for gentler readings of “Joy to the World” and “O Christmas Tree.” The former emerges as a poignant jazz lament, with a particularly fine keyboard solo from Podgurski; the latter opens with Davis’ rich vocal stylings, and then segues into lovely solos on sax and piano, with some gorgeous bass touches in the background.

Things occasionally get outré; Warfield’s sax turns decidedly squawky during his stratospheric riffs in “Silent Night” and “Snowfall,” neither of which offers more than a hint of the respective core melody. The combo’s reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is all over the map, the sax and trumpet solos far more challenging than melodic.

On the other hand, Warfield certainly has a sense of humor. You’ll detect a quote from Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” during a complex arrangement of “Let It Snow,” and the prologue to “The Dreidel Song” is pure foolishness — deliberately so — before settling into a driving 2/2 arrangement that features great work on sax and vibes (although I could have lived without Penn’s drum solo).

I wouldn’t rotate this disc into a casual gathering; save it for the friends who prefer their jazz complex and challenging.

Don’t be put off by the cartoonish jacket art on the Wonderland Dream Band’s Holiday Cheer (Batteries Not Included) (Greenbriar Classics GC-101). This is a serious 11-piece unit: two trumpets, two trombones, four saxes and a rhythm section of keyboards, bass and drums. It swings like crazy, thanks to lively arrangements by bass trombonist Ken Kugler and a stompin’ percussive assist from veteran drummer Joe La Barbera.

To paraphrase Spencer Tracy, referencing Katharine Hepburn in 1952’s Pat and Mike, the results are “cheerce.” Many tracks run long, granting some melodic solos that groove nicely without straying too far from the core melody. The ensemble work is solid, the unison horns always spot-on. That’s often a failing with under-rehearsed groups, but these folks rise above such shortcomings. (And how!)

The album gets off to a peppy start with a finger-snapping cover of “Silver Bells,” graced by a delicious trumpet solo from Ron Stout. Tom Peterson takes a slick tenor sax solo in a droll take on “Frosty the Snowman,” and I love Kye Palmer’s harmon trumpet work during a somewhat milder “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

Not all the tracks are burners; Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” opens as a gentle ballad, highlighted by Rich Rutterberg’s electric piano solo, before building to a majestic finish. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is similarly slow and sweet: at times achingly beautiful, thanks to the tight ensemble playing.

The album concludes with a quite unusual handling of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” at an extremely slow tempo and done in a minor (diminished?) key; the result sounds like Santa arrived in this town after having downed a few too many spiked egg nogs at the previous stop’s local jazz club. It’s a daring arrangement, and it works; tuneful solos come from Wayne Bergeron (plunger trumpet), Jeff Driskill (alto sax) and Charlie Morillas (plunger trombone).

Every track on this album is a keeper, and the disc demands repeat play. Grab it.

Back-up combos associated with vocalists have a long tradition of “moonlighting” with a few albums of their own, and that’s the case with a trio that dubs itself Tri-Fi. By day, these guys — Matthew Fries, piano; Phil Palombi, bass; and Keith Hall, drums — are the rhythm section behind rock/pop singer-turned-jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers. By night, they fund genuinely terrific instrumental albums via Kickstarter campaigns; during a quick 20 days in the summer of 2011, they raised the scratch needed to produce A Tri-Fi Christmas (Tri-Fi TR309).

And, in the process, they delivered what is guaranteed to be one of my all-time favorite piano trio holiday albums.

The reasons are varied, starting with the fact that these guys are tight. The combo passages are arranged inventively, with a nod toward various keyboard masters from Errol Garner to Marcus Roberts; the solos interweave beautifully, with the melody lines sliding gracefully between Fries and Palombi. Hall, as well, is much more inventive than most drummers; you’ll love the way he turns “Joy to the World” into a droll, New Orleans-style marching band strut.

The album kicks up with a peppy 4/4 rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” which features lively bass work and grants solos to each performer. Fries cleverly deconstructs the melody line during an intriguing cover of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and Palombi uncorks a marvelous walking bass during a droll rendition of “Let It Snow,” performed against the percussive line from “Killer Joe.”

The guys can be slow and stately as desired, as with their somber, minimalist handling of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and an equally leisurely approach to “O Holy Night.” Their cover of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” begins with similar tenderness, but then builds to a rousing, revival-hall finish.

My favorite track by far, though, is the fiendishly clever arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which opens with a fascinating time signature — alternating 3/4 and 5/4, if I’m not mistaken — and then roars into a fast 4/4.

The trio concludes with a sweet, gentle version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features Palombi’s bowed bass on the melody line: a lyrical finish to a truly excellent album.

Speaking of back-up musicians, pianist Ted Rosenthal is the accompanist of choice for jazz vocalists such as Ann Hampton Callaway, Barbara Cook and Helen Merrill. He’s also a deft keyboardist and arranger in his own right, and he definitely “has his way” — to employ his own phrase — with the holiday chestnuts selected for the Ted Rosenthal Trio’s Wonderland (Playscape Recordings PSR 062713).

This swinging, extremely tasty album teams Rosenthal with the equally talented Noriko Ueda (bass) and Tim Horner (drums). Ueda deserves particular mention; her frequent solos are just as lively, inventive and exquisite as Rosenthal’s imaginative keyboard excursions. One doesn’t find many female bassists in a jazz piano trio; on the basis of the talent Ueda displays here, I’d say we’ve all been missing a bet.

The album opens with a hard-swingin’ arrangement of “Winter Wonderland” that offers choice solos from both Rosenthal and Ueda: an excellent indication of great things to come. The arrangements slide from slow and sweet, to up-tempo barn-burners, the latter best represented by a roaring, bebop-ish interpretation of “Angels We Have Heard on High” that’ll forever banish any notion of this being a solemn church carol.

“Sleigh Ride” is granted a similarly energetic reading at an up-tempo 2/2 — Rosenthal acknowledges a touch of Ahmad Jamal in the liner notes — and builds to a strong finish that features deft bass and drum work. Horner lays down a heavy 4/4 for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and all I can say is that this Santa arrives with a swagger, accompanied by a particularly bluesy solo from Ueda.

The trio also can be achingly tender, as with a poignant handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a cheery cover of “The Christmas Song,” and a gentle waltz arrangement of “Silent Night” that opens with a nod toward Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born.”

Horner lays down a heavy 2/2 beat for a delightful reading of “Let It Snow,” which features Rosenthal delivering some Errol Garner-esque stride piano, before comping deftly behind another of Ueda’s brisk solos.

Rosenthal has lots of fun with a samba-hued reading of “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite; Horner plays up the tropical flavor with some spirited bongos. Rosenthal acknowledges, once again in the liner notes, that this is merely one of many jazz arrangements he has done from this Tchaikovsky classic; perhaps we can hope for a future album that will include them all.

You’ll love this album. Buy it.

Back in 2005, the Canadian Cellar Live label released a nifty holiday jazz disc that featured alternating tracks by the Bruno Hubert Trio and the B3 Kings, the latter a quartet starring Cory Weeds (alto sax), Bill Coon (guitar), Chris Gestrin (Hammond B3) and Denzal Sinclaire (drums and occasional vocals). I liked that CD a lot, and therefore was pleased to learn that the B3 Kings had recorded their own album, You Better Watch Out (Cellar Live CL082511).

The good news is that this disc’s 12 tracks do not duplicate any of the holiday favorites covered on the 2005 disc. The additional good news is that most of this album’s arrangements are just as clever, the interplay between instruments just as lively, as the quartet’s earlier work.

Unfortunately, Sinclaire has chosen to sing quite a bit more here, his vocals lending varying degrees of success to five of these 12 tracks. At his best, he evokes the warm sentimentality of, say, Nat King Cole, as on this disc’s cover of Irving Gordon and Lee Lester’s “Christmas Dreaming” (a tune that belonged to Frank Sinatra, back in the day).

At other times, though, Sinclaire’s voice gets in the way of the otherwise fine instrumental work.

The album opens with the energetic title track, actually a version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” that borrows from the lively arrangement employed by the Jackson Five’s 1970 Motown hit. The B3 Kings’ name notwithstanding, Weeds and Coon dominate on sax and guitar, with Gestrin’s keyboard relegated mostly to comping and background shading. It’s a good mix, and Gestrin knows how to extract genuine rhythm from his 400-pound beast.

I love the strong 2/2 arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and an up-tempo reading of “The Holly and the Ivy” is equally inventive. Coon tackles a difficult assignment with “Skating,” a Vince Guaraldi classic that pretty much demands to be dominated by keyboard; to his credit, Coon delivers the melody with equal panache on his guitar.

The generally slow and melancholy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” starts with a roar, and you’ll also enjoy the bluesy, sultry reading of “Angels We Have Heard on High” (suggesting a rather earthy gathering of angels!).

Two tracks — “Ave Maria” and Frederich H. Heider and Carl Kress’ “There’s a Train Out for Dreamland” — are needlessly syrupy and sentimental, but things improve again with “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” cast here as a mid-tempo swinger. Even the album’s final track, a gentle 2/2 handling of “Silent Night,” is a toe-tapper.

For the most part, with a few tracks rotated out, this album is an engaging listen.

Eric Wangensteen’s lovely, lyrical horn work — alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn — is the highlight of his self-produced Blue Christmas, a mildly bebop-hued collection of holiday standards. He’s also a generous leader, granting ample exposure to keyboardist Chris Lomheim, who works tasty solos into most of these cuts. These are unhurried arrangements, most granting plenty of time for tuneful improvs.

The album opens with a frisky cover of “Winter Wonderland,” which grants bassist Gordon Johnson a melodic solo, while displaying Wangensteen’s impish delight at messing with time signatures. Indeed, his arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” emerges in a fast 7/8, which can’t help raising a smile.

Wangensteen turns “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” into a smooth samba, his horn particularly gentle, and then he shifts gears and gets downright sultry for a bluesy handling of “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Lomheim comps beautifully behind Wangensteen’s horn on “The Christmas Song,” and then takes the spotlight for some sweet keyboard noodling.

Drummer Phil Hey moves smoothly between languid and mid-tempo arrangements — nothing on this album could be called a burner — and deftly maintains a presence while never overpowering the other players. He’s more noticeable on Wangensteen’s one original composition, “(Christmas) Afternoon,” a lively tune that doesn’t sound terribly seasonal to me, but is no less enjoyable.

One artistic decision remains puzzling: Considering how good Lomheim sounds on a traditional (acoustic) keyboard, I can’t imagine why he switches to Hammond B3 for a few cuts ... or why Wangensteen encouraged this. Getting a B3 to groove requires a lot of skill (see previous review), but Lomheim’s electronic flourishes are clumsy and ill-prepared on “White Christmas.” He does much better with this album’s closer, a solemn “Silent Night,” when he transforms the B3 into a faux church organ. And further on the subject of keyboardists, guest performer Molly Holmes' work on the aforementioned “Christmas Time Is Here” (sadly) sounds like it came from a drum machine. 

For the most part, though, this is an engaging album that delivers plenty of mid-tempo swing. The stand-out arrangements — a finger-snapping “Let It Snow” being another highlight — more than compensate for the few lesser tracks.

Scott Brookins belongs to a small but enthusiastic subset of musicians I’ll call “jazz worship artists,” who frequently share their craft in a church setting. Brookins, a trumpeter and former session musician who worked with Glen Campbell, the Platters, the Mills Brothers and other notables, was ordained in 1998 and since then has blended his jazz talents with full-time service in his own international faith ministry. He has five albums to his credit, the most recent of which is A Little Christmas Jazz (Scott Brookins SBM06).

This is a lovely, lyrical release, highlighted both by Brookins’ smooth horn work — on trumpet and flugelhorn — and his inventive arrangements, with an assist on the latter by drummer/percussionist Francis Wyatt. Keyboardist Bob Sutter and bassist Tim Fox round out the combo. This album’s eight tracks run long, granting plenty of time for lively solos; the ensemble work is equally crisp.

The album kicks off with a percussive, quite bouncy arrangement of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” in 5/4 time: a vibrant introduction that features guest pianist Paul Mutzabaugh (his only effort on this album). Wyatt’s touch also shines on a mambo-style reading of “The Christmas Song,” a fast 2/2 that truly cooks and features great bass work and a swingin’ keyboard solo from Sutter.

Fox’s bass work also dominates the album’s two gentler arrangements: a moody handling of “What Child Is This” — which finds Brookins taking lead with a muted trumpet — and a hymn-like cover of “Silent Night” that features gorgeous interplay between bass and piano.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” turns into a whimsical blues ballad, while “O Come All Ye Faithful” emerges against Wyatt’s strong drum beat and Sutter’s improvisational keyboard noodling. This tune’s solos drift further away from the core melody than the other tracks, but Brookins’ horn always anchors the arrangement before it slides too far out.

The combo concludes with an up-tempo “Angels We Have Heard on High” that highlights Fox’s cool walking bass: another ferocious 4/4 arrangement that can’t help raising a smile of appreciation. Brookins & Co. can visit my church any time.

Those who prefer their jazz more improvisational will enjoy the Kash Wright Trio’s self-published In the City of David. These bluesy arrangements build on strong percussive foundations by Prakash Wright (keyboards), Mike Montgomery (bass) and Bobby Beall (drums). Most of the 10 tracks are leisurely, slow to mid-tempo, although the trio does cook during “Joy to the World” and the album’s opener, a lively cover of “The Little Drummer Boy” that starts quietly, with a military-style drum roll, and then kicks into ferocious double-time.

Those two tracks are atypical, though. Most of Wright’s arrangements are gentle, groove-heavy 4/4, with sweet prologues on piano or bass. A given song’s familiar melody is introduced briefly, and sometimes only barely — as with “Go Tell It on the Mountain” — before the track is dominated by captivating improvisational solos that only hint at melody.

As a whole, this album demands more of the listener’s attention than most holiday jazz recordings; you’ll want to focus on the serious jazz chops being displayed. Casual listeners may not even realize that some of these tracks are Christmas songs, as with a free-form approach to the album’s title tune.

Wright and Montgomery switch back and forth between solo duties, one deftly comping behind the other, as on “O Christmas Tree” and a particularly lovely handling of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.” Montgomery employs a bow on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the aforementioned “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and the resulting sound adds considerable solemnity to these vintage church carols.

Tenor saxman Vaughn Ambrose guests on a moody, almost ominous reading of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a track I’d enjoy a lot more if Beall had minimized his drum pops. Guest vocalist Sharon Raquel opens a wistful cover of “What Child Is This,” her breathy delivery giving way to lush solos on bass and piano.

The trio turns electric for the album’s final track, a funkified “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that gets plenty of finger-snapping sparkle from Montgomery’s bass solo.


• Vince Guaraldi never recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “The First Noel,” but if he had, the results would have sounded very much like what pianist David Ian delivers on his new EP, Vintage Christmas Wonderland (Prescott Records PR0002). He and his combo — Jon Estes, upright bass; Josh Hunt, drums and percussion; and Elizabeth Estes, violins and cellos — achieve a similarly smooth and gentle style, and I particularly like the contemplative arrangement of “The First Noel,” with Estes’ string shading.

Estes and Hunt lay down a mellow percussive tapestry — with the latter employing brushes to evoke that sense of falling snow — on which Ian weaves some deliciously Guaraldi-esque keyboard magic: never too showy, just marvelous jazz stylings.

The five-track disc also includes the combo’s backing on three vocals, starting with Acacia’s wistful handling of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and Andre Miguel Mayo’s approach to “Winter Wonderland” is similarly charming. The entire group’s cover of “Jingle Bells” is a bit too pop-ish for my taste, but there’s no denying the smile it’ll bring to every listener.

This is Ian’s second holiday EP, following 2011’s Vintage Christmas. One more similar release, and he’ll have enough to fill an album. My fingers are crossed...

• Although more a potpourri of musical genres than a true jazz album, the AIX All Stars’ Surrounded by Christmas (AIX Records 80028) deserves mention for the staggering clarity of its production work and, yes, the talent of its five veteran session musicians. Laurence Juber (guitar), Jim Cox (piano), Leland Sklar (bass), John Ferraro (drums) and Steve Forman (percussion) romp through a dozen Christmas chestnuts in styles ranging from folk and Celtic (a lovely run at “I Saw Three Ships”), to surf (a droll “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”) and, yes, some genuine jazz arrangements.

The latter are best represented by some intriguing time signatures, most notably a swingin’ 5/4 handling of “O Tannenbaum.” Juber and Cox also get one solo each — lovely readings of “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night,” respectively — but the combo efforts will demand plenty of repeat plays. As this is a DVD audio/video disc, you’ll also get to watch the music happen; pay particular attention to Forman’s wealth of percussive toys. This disc is best obtained directly from, and well worth the price of admission.

• You’ll have buckets of fun with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s It Feels Like Christmas Time (Savoy Jazz SVY 17921), which is an equally delightful follow-up to this raucous group’s 2004 holiday release, Everything You Want for Christmas. This new disc offers the same blend of stompin’ jump jazz and big band-era vocal stylings, with lead singer Scotty Morris — who also plays guitar and banjo — often backed by the harmonic shading of “girl group” She, Her & I (Corrie Shenigo, Alisa Burket and Francesca Vannucci).

These guys make a massive amount of beautiful noise for a septet, and you’ll hop ’n’ bop during pianist Joshua Levy’s fast-paced arrangements of chestnuts such as “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” As befits the combo’s swing/rockabilly sensibilities, the program is augmented by the Chuck Berry classic “Run, Rudolph, Run,” while bassist Dirk Shumaker’s deep, booming basso profundo is perfect on a droll cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The title track is a Morris original, and where else will you hear a cover of Disney Channel animated icons Phineas and Ferb’s “Christmas Is Starting Now”?

• Unfavorable production values have compromised numerous albums, and — sadly — that’s the case with the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra’s A Bohemian Christmas (Bleebop Records #1203). The disc was recorded live at Maryland’s Mansion at Strathmore, and the microphone placement didn’t do this 17-piece ensemble any favors. Amy K. Bormet’s engaging piano solos can barely be heard — it sounds like she was in the basement — and the mixing irritatingly favors the audience applause.

The solo work is much stronger than any effort at unison horns — often an issue with large ensembles — and, as a result, the band does much better with slower, quieter numbers such as “A Child Is Born” and “Snowfall.” Many of the charts will be recognized by the owners of holiday jazz albums by Stan Kenton, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and other vintage groups. This CD’s showpiece is a nine-part reading of the Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and the result is uneven at best; the unison horns can’t help making one wince. Better rehearsed, and granted the fine-tuning that comes with a studio recording, I’m sure leader Brad Linde’s band could shine ... but this recording doesn’t serve them well.

Nutcracker fans will be much happier with The New York Harmonie Ensemble’s The Nutcracker Suites (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907493), which offers a double dose of Tchaikovsky’s classic: first as the eight-part orchestral suite the Russian composer debuted in December 1892, and then as the nine-part jazz re-imagining unleashed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1960. The latter features plenty of captivating solos by Lew Tabackin (tenor sax), George Cables (piano), Lew Soloff (trumpet) and Bill Easley (clarinet), with a swingin’ rhythm established by Hassan Shakur (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums).

You’ll love Cables’ driving keyboard work in the “Peanut Butter Brigade,” while Easley’s central clarinet is positively droll in “Chinoiserie” (the re-titled “Chinese Dance”). Lewis lays down a funky, bluesy beat for “Sugar Rum Cherry,” and Tabackin answers the call with a sultry, almost dirty sax solo. The mood turns softer as Scott Robinson kicks off “Arabesque Cookie” with a gentle bamboo flute; Shakur and Lewis then enter the fray and set the stage for some truly sweet clarinet work from Easley.

The entire jazz ensemble goes to town with the climactic, hard-driving “Danse of the Floreadores” — which I always felt should have concluded this Ellington/Strayhorn masterpiece — and you’ll immediately want to play the whole album again. My one complaint: The ensemble horns are occasionally shrill and not entirely in unison, and (sadly) don’t live up to the slick solos.

• The World Groove Trio’s Tropical Christmas (download only, via is a cheerful, charming, Latin-esque take on 10 holiday favorites in styles that range from Brazilian samba to Cuban rhumba, Puerto Rican plena, jibaro and bolero. The album opens with a bouncy cover of “Let it Snow” that amply displays Joey Singer’s keyboard chops; bassist Keith Nelson shines on a percussive arrangement of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and a gentler reading of “The Christmas Song.”

Guaraldi fans will appreciate a toe-tapping arrangement of “Linus and Lucy” — with an inventive piano bridge from Singer — that segues into a slow, sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here.” Drummer/percussionist Jose “Pepe” Jimenez adds plenty of bounce to “Jingle Bells,” “Feliz Navidad” and “Do You Hear What I Hear,” although his efforts become a bit redundant on other tracks (often an issue, with Latin-hued arrangements). All in all, though, this is a delightful little album.

• Point-of-purchase CD racks in big-box retailers (such as Target or Wal-Mart) must be greeted with a skeptical eye, since most go out of their way to conceal the involvement of actual musicians. But this year’s Big Band Christmas (Lifescapes 61466) is a pleasant surprise. The two-disc set features an 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.

Nelson also produced both discs and wrote the lively arrangements for these 20 tracks. He favors strong 2/2 and 4/4 arrangements, and on occasion moves into foot-stompin’ double-time. The arrangements include occasional quotes from standards ranging from “Killer Joe” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and the five horn players give plenty of exposure to pianist Mary Louise Knutson (love her work on “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls”) and bassist Bill Chouinard (who shines of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” among others).

This is all pretty frantic stuff, though; I’d advise playing only one disc at a time, and you’ll still be left breathless.

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