Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Here comes S-A-N-T-A ... S-A-N-T-A!

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

I’ve been compiling the annual survey of holiday jazz for two decades.

Some years have provided a wealth of great new releases; other years have been quite disappointing. This year, I’m delighted to report, is one of the best ever.

Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz sagely explained that a cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing day after day, without repeating himself; the same can be true of musicians brave enough to tackle beloved holiday tunes. We know what they sound like, and we want them to sound that way ... or close enough, in some indefinable manner, to pass muster. That attitude is anathema to jazz musicians, who earn their reputations by taking a familiar melody and changing it up.

Serving both masters, then, is an extremely tricky — and delicate — tight wire act.

It’s arguably even harder with Christmas music. Music fans may be impressed by way-way-out interpretations of classic Gershwin tunes or modern pop ditties, but few people are willing to tolerate a cover of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” that has been deconstructed to the point of obliterating the original melody.

Most of this year’s offerings superbly navigate those rough seas. As you’re about to find out, plenty of great new albums are waiting to enliven your upcoming holiday gatherings.


I’ve gone years without any big band ensembles to discuss, and check it out: This year we’re blessed with a bumper crop. First out of the gate is the answer to a longstanding Christmas wish: a holiday album from Gordon Goodwin’s simply amazing Big Phat Band, quite appropriately titled A Big Phat Christmas: Wrap This! (1201 Music).

Dubbing this unit the best and swingingest big band operating today isn’t sufficient praise. These guys don’t merely cook; they explode. The often mischievous arrangements hearken back to Goodwin’s formative years, when he cut his teeth composing and conducting music for the Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain cartoon shows, back in the 1990s. Since then, new albums by his 20-piece Big Phat Band have been treasured classics the nanosecond they’re released.

No surprise, then, that Wrap This! is every bit as vigorously entertaining. The ensemble bolts from the gate with a marvelously sassy arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” which showcases the terrific unison horn ensemble, along with an excellent soprano sax solo from Eric Marienthal. A wildly syncopated version of “The Little Drummer Boy” is equally ferocious, propelled by strong percussion (Bernie Dresel, Joey DeLeon) and highlighted by sparkling solos on guitar (Andrew Synoweic) and baritone sax (Jay Mason).

Not all tracks are screamers; the band is equally tight at slower and more deliberate tempos, as with a reverential handling of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which opens with nice bass work from Trey Henry, features a thoughtful piano solo from Goodwin, and gradually builds to an intense finale. The mid-tempo handling of John Williams’ “Somewhere in My Memory” (from Home Alone) is sweet and wistful, fueled by locomotive-style percussion touches and Goodwin’s tasty soprano sax solo.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is old-style swing, boasting excellent solos on trumpet (Dan Fornero) and tenor sax (Goodwin); “Santa Baby” opens with an impish duet on ukulele and sleigh bells, and then builds via rolling percussion and sassy solos on tenor sax (Brian Scanlon) and trumpet (Willie Murillo). “Do You Hear What I Hear” positively races to the finish line, powered by Rich Shaw’s smooth bass work and a terrific vocal from the jazz ensemble Take 6.

The album concludes with a slow, solemn reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features more sublime unison horn work that builds to a screaming climax ... and then retreats to a gentle finale on piano. All I can say is Wow!

Up next is the newly formed Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, which in 2010 began what has become a popular annual holiday concert tradition in their home town. An album was inevitable, and hence we have Joyful Jazz (MCGJ1039).

The program is highlighted by co-artistic director Mike Tomaro’s inventive and thoroughly enjoyable arrangements, which grant equal opportunity for lively solos and well-rehearsed ensemble playing. Arrangement stand-outs include a military march-style “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and a clever handling of “Carol of the Bells” that starts softly — granting choice solos to Jay Ashby (trombone) and Marty Ashby (guitar) — and then builds to a cookin’ finish.

Co-artistic director Sean Jones’ screaming trumpet dominates a lively cover of “Jingle Bells,” which also features smooth unison horn work from the rest of the band; Jones and tenor saxman Eric DeFade add some juice to “Merry Christmas, John Coltrane,” an original Tomaro composition that deftly blends “Deck the Halls” with “Giant Steps.”

Jazz vocalist Freddy Cole guests on three tracks: a gentle reading of “A Cradle in Bethlehem,” which also boasts a sweet alto sax solo from Curtis Johnson; an updated but still endearing arrangement of “Jingles, the Christmas Cat,” the singer’s signature holiday tune; and a very intriguing revision of “White Christmas,” which offers a mellow trombone solo from Ashby, against a Moroccan-style percussion background that sounds like a traditional tbal melody.

Keyboardist Alton Merrell delivers some nice comping behind Tomaro’s soprano sax solo on “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which also displays Paul Thompson’s bass chops; I also like Merrell’s sparkling piano solo on a medium-tempo handling of “Sleigh Ride.”

The album concludes with a driving “Joy to the World” that offers plenty of swing, a clever interweaving of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and more of Jones’ wild trumpet work. All in all, another sure-fire bet to slip into a jazz fan’s stocking.

Los Angeles-based composer, arranger, orchestrator and educator Ladd McIntosh is one of those “invisible” jazz artists little known by mainstream listeners, in part because his units haven’t released many albums. But his work nonetheless reaches far and wide, in great part because he has orchestrated the music for more than 125 big-studio films, from Pirates of the Caribbean and Armageddon to The Town and The Equalizer.

He assembles performance units from the cream of Southern California’s session musician crop, and his original compositions share long-ago composer Raymond Scott’s fondness for wacky titles: “The Epic Plight of the Furbish Lousewort,” “Dried Gooshies” and “A Quadrant of Frogs and One Great Hysterical Ribbet” are just a few examples.

McIntosh formed his own big band in 1980, composed of his favorite studio pros; some of them also joined The Ladd McIntosh Swing Orchestra, which came together in 2007. The latter unit began playing Christmas gigs the following year, and — after eventually writing fresh charts for 16 holiday tunes — McIntosh released Christmas in Swingtime (L.E.M. Productions) late last year.

It’s a treat, particularly for those who enjoy the classic swing band sound of long-ago units headed by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman. Which is to say, these are leisurely and medium-swing dance arrangements, all in 4/4 time, and all granting solid solos to various members of the 15-piece unit. Ergo, don’t expect any of the burning, jump-swing typical of, say, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

That said, McIntosh can get feisty; the band’s handling of “Not So Silent Night” is well titled, thanks in great part to a sassy trumpet solo from Stan Watkins; “We Three Kings” boasts a similarly peppy and inventive arrangement, punctuated by brief quotes from other familiar carols.

McIntosh also favors medleys; “Santa and a Swingin’ Little Town” is a sparkling blend of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” with the two songs anchored by Eric Jorgensen’s playful trombone solo. Similarly, “It’s Snow Time” blends “Let It Snow,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty the Snowman,” the latter also given a cute spin by Jorgensen.

Saxman Doug Webb delivers sweet, lyrical solos on gentle arrangements of “The Christmas Song” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” while Rusty Higgins’ tenor sax turns “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into a truly romantic delight, evoking fond memories of Christmases long, long ago.

Vocalist June Aja lends a sultry note to three songs: “Home for the Holidays,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and “Santa Baby,” the latter also highlighted by Geoff Stradling’s droll piano comping, and Jonathon Pintoff’s rich, percussive bass work. Pintoff’s bass also propels the action in “Silver Bells” and “Jolly Old St. Nick ... and other flavors,” the latter getting additional zip from Steve Marsh on tenor sax.

Rich Bullock’s droll bass trombone makes “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” work as an instrumental; you won’t even miss the lyrics. And if Geoff Nudell’s clarinet work on “Sleigh Ride” makes you think of Benny Goodman himself, well, that probably isn’t accidental.

If you enjoy this album — and there’s no reason you shouldn’t — you’ll likely want to pick up the ensemble’s earlier release, Everything Is Jumpin’.

Kim Pensyl’s Early Snowfall (Summit Records DCD 669) is a treat for those who prefer their holiday jazz with a bit more improvisational snap. This actually is a pleasant surprise, given that Pensyl tends to be categorized among New Age “mellow jazz” musicians whose efforts sometimes give the entire genre a bad name.

Definitely not the case here. Some of Pensyl’s arrangements verge on experimental, most notably his deconstructed handling of “Jingle Bells,” which emerges as an intriguing 2/2 march highlighted by a free-form solo from vibraphonist Rusty Burge. Rich VanMatre delivers some nice flute accents, and Pensyl even contributes a bit of trumpet work (the only track that finds him on horn).

The entire album grants generous solo and ensemble work to the entire band, which also includes bassist Michael Sharfe and drummer John Taylor. Most of the familiar tunes find their melody lines traded back and forth between Pensyl’s piano, Burge’s vibes and (usually) VanMatre’s tenor sax; it’s an extremely pleasant blend, with the trio shading and comping each other’s turns on lead.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has a Brazilian flavor, emerging as a playful mid-tempo swinger with energetic solos from Burge and VanMatre (this time on soprano sax). “Let It Snow” gets plenty of percussive snap from Taylor and Sharfe, laying down a samba-style beat while Pensyl, Burge and VanMatre trade licks; you’ll definitely want to dance to this one.

“O Christmas Tree” is a gentle swinger with lyrical flute touches and a sparkling “waterfall effect” delivered by Pensyl’s nimble fingers; I also detected a brief quote from “My Favorite Things.” “Joy to the World” begins uncharacteristically slowly, even reverentially, before granting VanMatre a sweet flute solo and then building to a dramatic finale; “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” emerges as a finger-snapping waltz, with authoritative solos from Pensyl and VanMatre.

Taylor and Sharfe also give “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” plenty of juice in an arrangement that becomes a bit outré, with sax and drum solos that are quite “out there.”

Pensyl includes one original composition, “Early Snowfall,” a charming ballad that evokes images of gently falling snow, and interlaces lovely piano/vibes melodies with a sweet flute interlude.

The album concludes with Pensyl’s solo presentation of “Silent Night,” a soft, truly soulful reminder of seasonal spirit: a thoughtful finale for a disc that displays a nice degree of creative energy.

Gordon Goodwin has been busy. Aside from his own Big Phat Band holiday release (above), he also arranged three of the 11 tracks on the legendary Count Basie Orchestra’s A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas (Concord Records CRE-38450-92), which is — after all this time — the first full-length yuletide album in the Basie oeuvre.

William James “Count” Basie died back in 1984, but his ensemble has lived on ever since — as a “ghost band” — under the direction of various players that he hired. The orchestra has continued to attract top-flight musicians, and this album also features guest appearances by jazz heavyweights such as pianist Ellis Marsalis, tenor saxman Plas Johnson (still famous as the soloist on Henry Mancini’s iconic “Pink Panther Theme”), composer/arranger Sammy Nestico, and legendary singer Johnny Mathis.

The result is fabulous: a great big band package that boasts both excellent solos and terrific ensemble work — particularly the unison horns — not to mention an often eerie echo of the classic Basie sound.

Things get off to a roaring start with an impudent, swinging handling of “Jingle Bells,” highlighted by Bruce Harris’ lively trumpet solo. “Let It Snow” opens with some lyrical keyboard work by Marsalis, before gaining momentum thanks to drummer Clayton Cameron, bassist Marcus McClaurine and guitarist Will Matthews. Marsalis also contributes a noodly piano solo midway through the track.

Mathis has a lot of fun with “It’s the Holiday Season,” which boasts a great mid-tempo instrumental bridge, after which the singer returns for some droll ad-libbing as the song concludes. Longtime Basie Orchestra vocalist Carmen Bradford delivers a bluesy arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while R&B singer Ledisi gives us a sultry and snuggly reading of “The Christmas Song.”

The album highlights, though, are the cheerfully rowdy, up-tempo finger-snappers. “Good ‘Swing’ Wenceslas” opens with some great walking bass and builds to a joyous crescendo; a Kansas City swing cover of “Little Drummer Boy” grants peppy solos to Cameron, pianist Llew Matthews, baritone saxman Jay Bradford, piccolo player Cleave Guyton Jr., and trumpeters Endre Rice and Scotty Barnhart (the latter also the orchestra’s director).

Marsalis returns for a delightful solo piano opener to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which then blossoms into a swinging 4/4 burner highlighted by Johnson’s tenor sax work. The tune builds to a “wall of sound” climax, after which — as befits the album’s closing track — Marsalis supplies Basie’s signature “plink, plink, plink” piano finale: a respectful conclusion to a terrific album.

Pianist David Benoit and jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit got together earlier this year for 2 in Love, an album of smoky love songs and bossa nova ballads; they’re also touring this holiday season with a collaborative Christmas concert. Fans unable to make any of those performances can console themselves with Believe (Concord Records CRE-37154-02), a modest sampling of their lively stage show.

The album’s nine tracks cover considerable stylistic territory, from jazz trio finger-snappers to broader choral and orchestral arrangements designed to accompany the All-American Boys Chorus. The resulting listen is a bit uneven, particularly when (for example) the swinging cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” — highlighted by roaring solos from Benoit and bassist David Hughes — segues to a syrupy, string-laden handling of the title track, from the film The Polar Express.

That said, there’s no denying the solid jazz chops more frequently displayed by Benoit, Monheit, Hughes and drummer Jamey Tate. Monheit’s rich vocal helps turn “My Favorite Things” into a soulful jazz ballad, and she brings “The Christmas Waltz” to a droll finish with some zesty scatting.

She particularly shines on “Just Like Me,” a poignant ode to Charlie Brown and his forlorn little Christmas tree, which Benoit and lyricist Lee Mendelson wrote back in 2005, as a thematic bookend to “Christmas Time Is Here.”

These and a few other tracks follow the same formula: Monheit opens with the first verse, and then steps back as Benoit and his trio deliver some frisky instrumental solos; she then returns to close the song with a final verse.

Longtime fans of A Charlie Brown Christmas will recognize the Vince Guaraldi-esque arrangements given this album’s covers of “My Little Drum” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” with the All-American Boys Chorus supplying that same youthful shading and vocals that we remember so well.

Benoit and his trio also cut loose on an instrumental “Guaraldi Medley” that incorporates four themes from that same TV special: a ferocious version of “Air Music,” followed by “Christmas Is Coming” and a gentle handling of “Greensleeves,” before concluding with “O Christmas Tree,” the latter boasting more fine bass work by Hughes.

Like Beegie Adair, Benoit sometimes gets tagged — quite unfairly — as a gentle, “smooth jazz” dweller, perhaps because many of their albums tend to be softer than their live-concert selves. Rest assured, Benoit displays dexterous finger work on several of this new album’s tracks; he definitely roars with authority.

Believe ends sweetly, with a wistful cover of “The Christmas Song”: a soft trio jazz arrangement that allows Monheit to shine, while backed by quiet shading from the chorus. I only wish this album were longer; at a scant 37 minutes, it’s over much too soon.

Composer/arranger and woodwind artist Tom Kubis demonstrated some of his piano chops on his previous holiday release, 2002’s A Jazz Musician’s Christmas, and he seems to have enhanced his keyboard work since then. His new double-album set, Jazz to the World (Rhondalay Music), finds Kubis devoting equal time to tenor and soprano sax, piano and electronic keyboards; he also noodles a bit on flugelhorn and trumpet.

He’s ably supported by Mike Higgins (guitar), Chris Stevens (vibes), Dave Stone (bass) and Gordon Peeke (drums), and the result is a two-hour program that spans some two dozen seasonal chestnuts.

Highlights include a lively 5/4 arrangement of “Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer,” which evokes fond memories of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”; a droll, richly percussive cover of “Frosty the Snowman,” which showcases Higgins’ deft guitar work; a Calypso-hued “Mary’s Boychild” that opens with a Guaraldi-esque piano line, and then builds to a slick bopper; a fast-paced “Holly, Jolly Christmas” that emerges as a New Orleans strut, and features a great duel between vibist Stevens and guest clarinetist Dan Higgins; and a rock-inflected “Little Drummer Boy” that truly cooks.

The ensemble’s gentler numbers are equally polished, with Kubis’ sax solo highlighting a lyrical cover of “Merry Christmas Darling”; or Kubis and Higgins trading guitar and piano riffs on a poignant reading of “Christmas Time Is Here.” Stone’s peppy walking bass drives the contemplative waltz, “Everlasting Light,” and he deftly trades licks with Kubis on a mid-temp reading of “The Christmas Waltz.”

“Jazz (Joy) to the World” is a lively bopper, highlighted by Kubis’ burning piano solo, along with slick improv work from Stone and Mike Higgins. (That said, I’m not sure why we need two takes of that particular hymn.) “O Come All Ye Faithful” gets a fun, swinging arrangement; “Winter Wonderland” is delightfully impish, with Kubis contributing interlude solos on piano, sax and trumpet.

As an added bonus, we even get a rare jazz cover of Paul McCartney’s “A Wonderful Christmas Time” ... a sentiment also quite descriptive of this double-album set as a whole.


• The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Rockin’ Rudolph — Nobody has more fun with a Christmas album than bad-boy guitarist Brian Setzer and his lively crew, and the listening experience is just as entertaining. (The only way to have a better time is to catch these guys live; check his website for the remaining dates of this year’s Christmas tour.)

At first blush, it might seem that Setzer’s booty-swaying blend of rockabilly and jump jazz is too “pop-ish” for this annual list, but any doubts are purged after hearing the tight unison playing by his six trumpeters and four trombone players, not to mention the frequent sassy solos on sax and horn. The arrangements are both cute and clever; you’ll love a particularly droll, minor key tribute to Santa’s reindeer, dubbed “Rockabilly Rudolph,” which comes across like the title theme to a deranged TV cop show.

Another high point: the boisterous “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide,” with holiday-themed lyrics stapled onto the iconic theme to TV’s The Flintstones. Go for the “extended version” of this track, which amply demonstrates Setzer’s finger-blurring talents on guitar during a lengthy solo, along with equally fiery solos on sax and trumpet (the latter personnel not identified, alas).

The album’s show-stopper, though, is a lengthy, pounding-surf assault on “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which draws its power from Tony Pia and Paul Leim on drums, and positively roars. Setzer cooks during a foot-stomping solo, as do pianist Matt Rollings and the entire horn ensemble. Goodness.

At 34 sizzling minutes, the party seems woefully short; these guys definitely leave us wanting more. (A request Setzer already answered; be sure to pick up his two earlier holiday releases: Boogie Woogie Christmas and Dig That Crazy Christmas.)

• The Maude Locat Trio, Noel (iTunes and CDBaby download) — Proving once again that holiday jazz is an international affair, Quebec-based pianist Maude Locat’s recent release in a genuine charmer, and certain to be enjoyed by lovers of gentle “supper jazz” arrangements. Don’t be put off by the French song titles; all these tunes are quite familiar holiday chestnuts. (You gotta love how, as one example, “Le Feu Danse Dans La Cheminée” turns out to be Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.”)

Locat has a bright and breezy keyboard touch, and she cheekily works deceptively misleading improv “prologues” into most tracks, which makes this album fun for those who enjoying playing “Name that tune.” She’s equally comfortable with quiet ballads and peppier arrangements, such as her take on “Jingle Bells” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” both of which are quite lively.

Sébastian Pellerin’s deft walking bass is a highlight on “Sleigh Ride,” which positively sparkles; he also delivers a solid solo intro to a sweetly melancholy reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Drummer Éric Thibodeau provides a percussive backdrop to “O Come All Ye Faithful,” turning that carol into a reverential march.

Locat’s overall approach is cute, particularly on medium-tempo toe-tappers such as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the latter boasting a Guaraldi-esque keyboard solo. She concludes the album with a contemplative solo reading of “Auld Lang Syne”: a lovely way to end a thoroughly enjoyable set of tracks.

• Various, The Number 1 Jazz Christmas Album (Universal Music Canada) — Speaking of our Canadian neighbors, they’ve assembled a two-disc collection that’ll serve as the perfect “starter set” for folks who are new to the genre of classic holiday jazz. These 28 tracks are a tasty blend of vocals and instrumentals, from the very old (Louis Armstrong’s “ ’Zat You, Santa Claus,” and Les Brown and His Band of Renown’s jazzed-up “Nutcracker Suite”) to modern entries such as Norah Jones’ “Peace” and Diana Krall’s “Winter Wonderland.”

It’s a great Who’s Who of the best and brightest in seasonal swing, focusing on classics that continue to stand the test of time, and newer interpretations that likely could become holiday favorites, such as the Puppini Sisters’ droll, Andrews Sisters-style covers of “Santa Baby” and “Last Christmas.” Along the way, you’ll hear Bill Evans (“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”), Dean Martin (“Let It Snow”), Dexter Gordon (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), Ella Fitzgerald (“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”), Stan Kenton (“We Three Kings”), Billie Holiday (“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), David Benoit (“Carol of the Bells”) and many more.

And let’s face it: Any collection that includes the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Linus and Lucy” obviously has style, right?

• The Mason Embry Trio, Martinis & Mistletoe (Green Hill Music GHD6070) — Nashville-based pianist Mason Embry’s gentle album evokes pleasant memories of Beegie Adair; both have a deft touch with romantic-hued dinner jazz. Most of Embry’s arrangements are slow and sweet, as with his handling of “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The format is standard, with a given song’s familiar theme bookending a simple but sparkling keyboard solo.

But the trio cuts loose now and then, particularly during a lively arrangement of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph, Run,” which shifts into finger-snapping swing at the bridge. Bassist Michael Rinne delivers a deft solo in “Christmas Time Is Here,” and he has fun trading the melody line with Embry in “White Christmas.” Drummer Joshua Hunt gets a bit of action in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Up on the Housetop,” but mostly he and Rinne lay down a solid foundation for each tune; this definitely is Embry’s show.

I’m impressed by the imaginative song selection. One doesn’t often hear jazz arrangements of “Run Rudolph, Run,” and Embry also includes a thoughtful cover of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” and a peppy handling of a truly obscure holiday tune: “The Merriest,” which gave singer June Christy a hit back in 1961.

• Barbara Dennerlein, Christmas Soul (MPS Music) — A little bit of Hammond B3 goes a long way, and Dennerlein frequently exceeds the saturation point on this eclectic, funk/fusion release. She gets excellent support from drummer Robert Ikitz and percussionist Abdissa Assefa, but their rhythmic grooves often are buried beneath long and frankly monotonous solos from Dennerlein and Magnus Lindgren (tenor sax, flutes and clarinet).

“We Three Kings” gets a delicious 6/4 kick from Ikitz and bassist Luca Alemanno, while “Sleigh Ride” is given a droll funk backdrop that (deliberately, I’m sure) evokes memories of Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.”

But neither “B’s X-Mas Blues” nor a dull cover of “Chim Chim Cherie” qualify as Christmas songs, and trying to do Miles Davis’ “Blue Christmas” without Bob Dorough’s caustic vocal is just silly. (Dennerlein’s second shot at the song, this time with vocalist Zara McFarlane, doesn’t compensate for the instrumental version.)

The sad truth is that a Hammond B3 simply doesn’t swing, and Dennerlein’s lengthy improvs with Lindgren are squawky and harsh: not the sort of sound that encourages sharing with friends and neighbors.

• The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, Christmas in Los Angeles (Beach Road Music) — Here’s one for the caveat emptor file: an album listed primarily because I don’t want it confused with the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, which is artistic director Kenny Burrell’s ensemble of UCLA post-graduates.

This “Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra” is neither an orchestra — the instrumentation is the classic trio of piano, bass and drums — nor, as near as I can tell, an ensemble of human beings. Despite the cdbaby download’s claim of a 2014 release date, the set list is identical to a 2007 album titled Light Jazz Piano Christmas, which is “conducted” by Don Jackson ... with no musicians cited. Translation: It’s 12 tracks of Frankenmusic, assembled on a computer.

That said, it’s far better than most digital creations, at times sounding like actual performers. Casual listeners likely won’t notice anything amiss; it’s a reasonably pleasant 40 minutes of music. But it ain’t real, and if that’s important, consider yourself warned.

• Joey DeFrancesco, Home for the Holidays (Alma Records JDM 10282) — DeFrancesco fares better than Dennerlein, with this organ-heavy compilation. It’s divided between two discs: “The Party,” which focuses on secular carols; and “The Tradition,” which features covers of the religious holiday hymns.

The first disc is more successful, mostly because it grants considerable attention to DeFrancesco’s various sidemen. Tenor saxmen Jerry Weldon and George Coleman Sr., respectively, shine on “Mistletoe and Holly” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” while Jeff Parker’s guitar licks add plenty of sparkle to a cute mid-tempo arrangement of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and a solemn DeFrancesco original titled “Christmas at 3 a.m.”

Jose “Papo” Rodriguez’s cool percussion touches highlight a clever arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which also offers some lyrical flute work by Steve Wilkerson; Rodriguez’s percussion adds a soft Latin flavor to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which (refreshingly) features DeFrancesco on piano, rather than organ. He also plays piano on a nifty cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which gets some swing from John Webber’s bass.

Highlights on the second disc include a lively version of “Silent Night” that features Weldon on tenor sax, and Webber on bass; DeFrancesco plays trumpet on this one, and the playful arrangement evokes Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” George Fludas’ drums highlight a larkish reading of “The First Noel,” and Parker’s guitar shines again on a thoughtful mid-tempo handling of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

But DeFrancesco’s tedious and redundant organ solos definitely wear thin on several tracks, notably “We Three Kings” and “What Child Is This.” He’s more successful during quieter, church-like solo presentations of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night” and “Away in a Manger” ... but they’re “straight” readings, and hardly jazz.

• Ann Hampton Callaway, The Hope of Christmas (MCGJ1042) — Penning even one new holiday tune is a bold move during a season when listeners mostly want the tried, true and very familiar; lyricist William Schermerhorn has upped the ante by delivering an entire album of 12 new Christmas songs, all performed by renowned jazz chanteuse Ann Hampton Callaway.

She’s the reason this release even gets covered here, because — frankly — most of these tunes are the sort of overproduced pop ballads more frequently associated with the likes of Michael Bolton. Callaway does her best to make them palatable, but she’s frequently undone by producer Marty Ashby’s overwrought sensibilities.

The messages certainly are familiar — gathering the family during the holidays, feeling incomplete due to absent loved ones, celebrating the “reason for the season” — but Schermerhorn’s lyrics don’t always do justice to the sentiment. The title track is a mushy nod toward the peace, love and brotherhood better expressed by “My Grown-Up Christmas Wish” and John Lennon’s “Merry Xmas (War Is Over),” while lesser efforts such as “One Star” and “I Saw a Sparrow” are so slight that they barely qualify as songs.

Schermerhorn does better with humorous entries such as “What Good Is Being Cranky (When It’s Christmas Time)” and my favorite, a bluesy lament titled “Santa Doesn’t Like Me,” which boasts solid tenor sax and trumpet solos from, respectively, Janelle Reichman and Jami Dauber. Indeed, the instrumental support is top-notch throughout, with contributions from Steve Wilson (soprano sax), Hubert Laws (flute), Gerald Albright (alto sax) and Ted Rosenthal (piano).

Too frequently, though, the result becomes treacly. “I Believe” is the only song here that has been heard before, when it was debuted by Kermit the Frog during the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. And, honestly, I liked it better then.

• Kjell Öhman with Friends, Christmas (Prophone PCD118) — Swedish jazz keyboardist Kjell Öhman was a legend in his native country, having recorded on thousands (!) of albums before his death earlier this year. This 2011 release only just came to my attention, and some of these tracks definitely are worth our attention.

The 15 songs are a blend of vocals and instrumentals, all featuring Öhman and his core trio — bassist Hans Backenroth, drummer Joakim Ekberg — with occasional support from Jan Ottesen (guitar) and Johan Hörlén (sax and flute). Several of the instrumentals are quite nice: “White Christmas” is a lively swinger that grants ample exposure to Hörlén, while Öhman’s piano and Ottesen’s guitar have a lot of fun trading licks on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

“Winter Wonderland” gets playful with time signatures, while giving Ekberg some room to roar; he and Backenroth lay down a toe-tapping percussive background for Öhman’s piano on “Let It Snow.” And although the band has fun with “Deck the Halls,” longtime jazz fans will recognize the Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea chart from the 1974 album Jingle Bell Jazz.

Some of Meta Roos’ vocals are more pop than jazz, particularly when an otherwise light jazz arrangement is marred by faux electronic strings. She does better in a purely jazz setting, as with her lively approach — with a bit of scat — to “Sleigh Ride.” Her handling of “Merry Christmas, Darling,” in contrast, is ruined by those intrusive strings.

Two gentle trio instrumentals demonstrate the problem with this divergent approach: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” also suffers from faux strings, while — in great contrast — the band’s handling of John Lewis’ “Skating in Central Park” is absolutely gorgeous. Too bad more of the album couldn’t have sounded like that.

• Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Wynton Marsalis, Big Band Holidays (Blue Engine Records BE0003) — Wynton Marsalis’ approach to holiday music always is a bit “out there,” thanks in great part to the, ah, challenging arrangements by his longtime bandmate, saxophonist Victor Goines. He and Wycliffe Gordon are responsible for this album’s two most squawky and off-putting tracks, most notably a deconstructed “We Three Kings” that’ll drive listeners out of the room.

This is a live album, with plenty of applause and back-announcements: also not ideal for casual listening. That aside, several tracks are excellent; I love Dan Nimmer’s opening piano work on “Good Morning Blues,” which also boasts one of Cécile McLorin Salvant’s numerous vocals. She also delivers an excellent reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” employing Hugh Martin’s infamous first-draft lyrics that Judy Garland refused to sing to little Margaret O’Brien, insisting they were much too depressing (and she was right).

The ensemble gets off to a rousing start with a fresh reading of Ernie Wilkins’ classic 1961 arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” famously recorded that year by Count Basie; this new take features a great tenor sax solo by Walter Blanding. Vocalist René Marie manages the near-impossible by taking on Louis Armstrong’s famous reading of “ ’Zat You, Santa Claus,” and she does a great job; the lengthy arrangement is a big band strut with plenty of room for numerous solos, including Matsalis’ droll “stuttering” trumpet.

A lovely, mid-tempo reading of “White Christmas” is another of this album’s three instrumentals, arranged as an old-style swing that offers Ted Nash’s excellent soprano sax solo, and some fine piano work by Dan Nimmer. Vocalist Gregory Porter really digs into a bluesy 2/2 arrangement of “Merry Christmas Baby,” further highlighted by Sherman Irby’s deliciously dirty solo on alto sax.

Unfortunately, the album winds up less than the sum of these excellent parts. It’s a bit uneven, reflecting recording sessions that took place over the course of three years, likely with rotating membership. I’m sure this unit would be great to see in person, but the live experience just doesn’t come across on this disc.

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