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!