Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Swing Ye Noel!

By Derrick Bang • Originally published, in abridged form, in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.14

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

When it comes to holiday music, the generational tidal shift is massive.

At one end of the beach, we have those who listen to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. At the other end, Celine Dion, Josh Groban and Sheryl Crow. The middle ground is occupied by Vince Guaraldi, James Taylor and Mannheim Steamroller, and then we have the contingent of folks who find the very concept of Christmas music too corny for words.

Well, feh. That latter group simply isn’t listening to the right Christmas music.

Nor is the situation helped by the Balkanization of the other cliques. No matter where you shop, party or land on the radio dial — terrestrial or web — there’s no denying a certain sameness to what’s being played.

Which is where this annual column comes in.

My survey of new holiday jazz has been a tradition since 1997, during which time I’ve seen this rather specialized genre wax, wane and wax again. I’ve enjoyed efforts by heavy hitters such as Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. I’ve endured a seemingly endless tsunami of puerile swill washed ashore by the so-called “smooth jazz” movement.

I’ve also been heartened by how the Internet has broadened our access to regional artists who previously would have remained unknown to mainstream listeners. You’ll find several of those below: a reminder that talented musicians aren’t confined to major labels on both coasts.

So, the next time one of your holiday party guests wrinkles her nose at the mere prospect of seasonal tunes, plug a couple of these albums into your playing device of choice!


Mack Avenue Records is a relatively youthful label, having been founded in 1999, but it has accumulated an impressive roster of jazz stars during that short time. Roughly 20 have gotten together for It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue, which ranges from bop to blues, frenetic combo work to gentle solos.

The album roars out of the gate with a peppy, hard-bop approach to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which features sassy solos on trumpet and piano by, respectively, Sean Jones and Orrin Evans. At the other end of the tempo meter, bassist Christian McBride delivers a gorgeous introduction to “Silent Night,” after which pianist Christian Sands takes the melodic lead, joined by drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., favoring quiet brushes. The result is peaceful portrait jazz, and you can practically see the new-fallen snow.

Pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist David Wong are the stars of an inventive cover of “Sleigh Ride,” which alternates between a slow, percussive two-beat and an eyebrow-raising double-time assault that demonstrates Wong’s amazing chops.

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf takes the lead on a truly lovely reading of “Carol of the Bells”; I only wish the equally fine supporting bassist, who comps and occasionally covers melody, had been identified. Wolf then teams up with Diehl for an equally sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” granting that Guaraldi classic a slightly melancholy atmosphere.

The mood turns slightly mysterious with Tia Fuller’s sax take on an intriguing cover of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the traditional pa-rum-pum-pum-pum backdrop replaced by lively percussive work from Kim Thompson and Khalil Kwame Bell.

The Django-esque Hot Club of Detroit can be an acquired taste, and I’m not sure the accordion lead on Guaraldi’s “Skating” evokes the desired image of children enjoying the delights of a frozen pond. Similarly, Diehl’s solo stride piano handling of John Williams’ “Christmas Star” — the primary theme from the film Home Alone 2 — veers a bit too much into “free jazz” territory, with the melody left far behind.

The Christian McBride romps through a droll original titled “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto,” with the entire Mack Avenue roster contributing to gentle requests that the Jolly Red Elf include inner-city stops such as the Bronx, Jacksonville, Fla. and ... Palo Alto, Calif. It’s a cute call-and-response tune, with pleasant echoes of the Louis Armstrong classic, “Christmas Night in Harlem.”

The album includes a few vocals, most delightfully Cyrille Aimée’s Calypso-hued “Let it Snow,” and Sachal Vasandani’s swinging strut through “Winter Wonderland,” to some finger-snapping bass and piano accompaniment.

I often rate the likely quality of the impending holiday jazz season on the basis of the first CD to hit my eager hands; based on this Mack Avenue release, things looked quite good.