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 began this annual survey of holiday jazz in 1997, which makes this the 20th anniversary entry: a milestone ironically marked by the utter absence of major label releases ... pretty much a first, during these past two decades.
Whatta buncha Grinches!
Granted, there’s no shortage of new Christmas albums by artists in the realms of pop, country, folk, New Age and pretty much every other genre one could mention. But not in jazz.
In fact, the only major jazz label even acknowledging the 2016 holiday season is Verve, but only with two more of its potpourri collections of recordings from years past: a nice way for newbies to start a collection, but not such a much for those of us who already own all the albums in question.
Could the bloom be wearing off the holiday jazz rose?
Definitely not. We always can count on musicians who take the independent route, releasing their albums through online entities such as Amazon or cdbaby, via disc or download. It’s still too soon to call physical CDs an endangered species, but it’s telling that — every year — more artists don’t offer that as an option.
Regardless of the distribution form, and the fact that this year’s list is shorter than usual, you’ll still find enough great jazz to put some swing in your holiday step.
This year’s superlative hit is the Fred Hughes Trio’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas, one of the finest piano trio holiday albums ever released. The Pennsylvania-born Hughes has performed, conducted and taught — nationally and internationally — for more than three decades, and his keyboard chops are ample evidence of a lifetime’s worth of devotion. He has worked alongside jazz luminaries such as Arturo Sandoval, Toots Thielemans and Roy Hargrove, and this seasonal CD garnered a well-deserved 3-1/2 star review from Downbeat magazine.
In a word, it’s terrific.
In another word, Hughes is a keyboard monster.
Such beasts come in two distinct flavors. Some are best known for cacophonous, unmelodic “free jazz” solos that soar into a tuneless stratosphere and prompt little beyond grimaces from all but the most broad-minded listeners. Hughes belongs to the other end of the spectrum: His improvisational solos are a melodic blend of lightning-swift single-note runs and tuneful power chords, the results both exhilarating and very pleasant to the ear.
Hughes compares quite favorably to piano legend Paul Smith: high praise that I don’t offer lightly.
Hughes is supported ably by the talented Amy Shook (bass) and Frank Russo (drums), and this collection of 11 Christmas chestnuts is consistently enjoyable. Hughes is a generous leader, granting ample space to both colleagues on all tracks, and it’s clear that all three are having a great time.
The album kicks off with a mid-tempo reading of “Winter Wonderland,” which offers a taste of things to come: a strong beat, ferocious keyboard chops and a lovely midpoint bass solo. The tune concludes, rather cheekily, on an unresolved chord.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is similarly propulsive, with Russo laying down a fast march tempo, and Shook contributing a lively bass solo against Hughes’ deft keyboard comping. “Jingle Bells” opens with Shook’s fast walking bass, Hughes taking the melody with single notes and then lyrical chords, the tempo building as all three get down, until concluding unexpectedly at a gentler shuffle with a droll walking bass finale.
The slower numbers are equally lovely. Hughes opens the waltz-time “Silver Bells” with quiet piano, later inserting a playful keyboard solo against Shook’s equally sweet bass. “The Christmas Song” is given a similarly contemplative arrangement against Russo’s solid 4/4 beat; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is downright poignant, and highlighted by a particularly thoughtful bass solo.
“Let It Snow” opens with a lyrical blend of piano and bass, both trading off in the foreground; the tune’s improv bridge includes a cute bass and drum interlude, along with more of Hughes’ poetic piano riffs. Russo gives “Silent Night” a slow, reverential beat, and he contributes a surprisingly gentle drum solo to an otherwise dynamic reading of “White Christmas.”
The album closes with a mid-tempo 4/4 handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which boasts a sublime bass solo and a playful drum interlude, before concluding with a pleasingly resolved chord: a clever counterpoint to the aforementioned first track.
Get this album. You’ll never stop playing it!
New releases may be limited this year, but folks looking to start a vintage holiday jazz collection have a couple of excellent options. First and foremost is the simply amazing Jazzy Christmas collection, available via Amazon UK. The 10-CD box set contains a whopping 14 classic Christmas jazz albums:
• The Andrews Sisters, Songs for Christmas (a compilation of various recordings)
• Louis Armstrong, his six 1950s Decca singles (plus two bonus tracks)
• Patti Page, Christmas with Patti Page (1955)
• Harry Belafonte, To Wish You a Merry Christmas (1958)
• Johnny Mathis, Merry Christmas (1958)
• Dean Martin, A Winter Romance (1959)
• Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960)
• Peggy Lee, Christmas Carousel (1960, plus five bonus tracks)
• Charles Brown, Please Come Home for Christmas (1960)
• The Ramsey Lewis Trio, The Sound of Christmas (1961)
• June Christy, This Time of Year (1961)
• From the Creative World of Stan Kenton Comes ... A Merry Christmas! (1961)
• Jingle Bell Jazz (1962, various artists)
• Klaus Weiss and the North German Radio Big Band, Message from Santa Klaus (1997)
The best news — are you ready for this? — is the price: a mere £12.87, or (as these words are typed, given the current exchange rate) $16.23, plus a nominal shipping charge. That’s a simply amazing price for a set that’ll give you an impressive holiday jazz collection in one fell swoop. Granted, most of the albums feature vocalists, but it’s still a great price if you’re primarily interested in the four mostly (or entirely) instrumental albums: Jingle Bell Jazz and the releases by Stan Kenton, Ramsey Lewis and Klaus Weiss. What’re you waiting for?
Verve, with a long history of mining its vaults, has gifted us with two similar anthologies in a Joyful Jazz: Christmas with Verve miniseries: one disc devoted to vocals, the other to instrumentals.
The former opens with Mel Tormé’s classic chestnut, “The Christmas Song,” and includes 13 more tracks by the likes of Peggy Lee (“Peace on Earth”), Betty Carter (“Home for the Holidays”), Ella Fitzgerald (“White Christmas”) and Billie Holiday (“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”), along with youngsters such as Diana Krall (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) and Norah Jones (“Peace”).
And of course it includes Louis Armstrong’s iconic rendition of “’Zat You, Santa Claus?”
The instrumental collection, also boasting 14 tracks, opens with the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” and progresses through celebrated offerings from Jimmy Smith (“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”), the Bill Evans Trio (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), the John Coltrane Quartet (“Greensleeves”) and Kenny Burrell (“The Little Drummer Boy”), along with younger turks such as Kevin Eubanks (“Silver Bells”) and Eliane Elias (a medley of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride”).
The bonus on this disc is a previously unreleased cover of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” by the Oscar Peterson Quartet, accompanying Buddy Bregman and his orchestra. (Sadly, the syrupy strings tend to overshadow Oscar’s deft keyboard chops.)
These discs can be considered an excellent “starter set”; dump ’em both into your device of choice, and set the playlist to “shuffle.”
Alexandra Caselli’s Gift is a lovely display of trio jazz, her clever arrangements and inventive keyboard chops sharing time with Adam Cohen (bass) and Dick Weller (drums). They’re a tight little combo, with Caselli and Cohen particularly adept at bouncing a given melody back and forth.
Caselli’s frequent tempo changes are as droll as her arrangements, the latter amply demonstrated by the album’s opening track: a lively handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that slides seamlessly from 4/4 to 5/4, while evoking more than a passing nod to “Take Five.” Her interpretation of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is equally clever, with stanzas from “Silver Bells” woven throughout.
Caselli also is a generous leader, granting her sidemen plenty of room to breathe. Cohen is all over “Joy to the World,” delivered as a dynamic strut, Caselli comping deftly each time Cohen takes the melody. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a mid-tempo swinger, also is powered by a nifty bass groove, a thumping 4/4 beat and some cool electronic effects.
Weller turns the traditionally solemn “O Holy Night” into a vibrant 4/4 march, with Caselli offering a lovely solo at the bridge. The 18th century hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” another mid-tempo finger-snapper, nonetheless maintains an appropriately gentle spiritual tone.
The band is equally tight on the slower tunes, such as a reverential handling of “Sing We Now of Christmas,” and a particularly lovely reading of “Silent Night,” which opens with a tender piano solo and expands to include gentle touches on bass and brushed drums.
The 10 tracks include a Caselli original, which gives the album its title: a sweet little melody that enchants like a soft lullaby, and boasts another of Cohen’s exquisite bass solos.
This album deserves ample rotation during your next holiday party.
Those who prefer their jazz more aggressively dynamic will enjoy celebrated bassist David Friesen’s Morning Star. Although running just shy of an hour, the album has only seven tracks, which grants plenty of space for lengthy solos and lots of free-form improvisation. This isn’t a studio album; the set was recorded live at the Woodstock Wine & Deli in Portland, Oregon. Ergo, the recording includes applause, but the audience is well-behaved: Folks clap only when they should, the approbation never interfering with the music.
Friesen is accompanied by pianist Dan Gaynor, drummer Charlie Doggett and a pair of sax players: Tim Wilcox on tenor, who — thanks to a bit of engineering legerdemain — emerges solely from the left speaker; and Rob Davis on tenor and soprano, heard from the right speaker.
The format is consistent throughout: The first few lines of a seasonal tune are given their due — just enough to allow identification — after which Friesen and his cohorts sail off to the outer reaches of free jazz. In the case of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the energetic improvisation lasts more than 10 minutes, at which point the combo gracefully returns to the core melody.
The result, essentially, is a lengthy jazz jam briefly punctuated by bits of familiar Christmas carols. The listening experience can be challenging, but it’s always rewarding. This isn’t casual background music; it demands one’s attention.
Gaynor has a particularly aggressive piano solo during “Away in a Manger,” which opens with Friesen introducing the tune, before the saxes take over and deconstruct the melody. A medley of “Angels Sing” (a Friesen original) and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is way Out There, highlighted by a long bass passage and some particularly loose keyboard work. Friesen opens “What Child Is This” with a lengthy solo, the sidemen eventually riding alongside as the track builds to a ferociously dissonant climax.
The approach turns softer during the concert’s second half, starting with a slow, gentle sax opener on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the melody passing to Friesen, who then yields once again to the saxes. Gaynor comps quietly during these passages, until being granted his own solo. A sweet, mid-tempo handling of “O Holy Night” begins with some lyrical sax and piano work, before segueing to another of Friesen’s lengthy bass solos; Gaynor returns to the core melody, which finishes melodiously on sax.
The group concludes with “Silent Night,” the sax jumping abruptly into the melody, backed by some deft piano and bass comping. Things then soar into the dissonant stratosphere, but with less intensity; a long, noodly keyboard solo segues to more of Friesen’s adroit bass chops, before the melody once again returns on sax. It’s a lovely way to end the set.
Back in 2008, Texas-based pianist Frank Hailey and bassist Eric Zukoski formed a trio — with drummer Michael Hailey — and released a delightful mainstream jazz album titled An Old Sweet Song. Rather unexpectedly, the CD includes three Christmas tunes: “Shout Out on the Mountain” (actually “Go Tell It on the Mountain”), “Sleigh Ride” and “My Favorite Kings” (a riff on “We Three Kings”). The album gets heavy rotation on several Internet jazz stations, which typically program entire discs; the results can be mildly disconcerting when one of those three tracks pops up in, say, April or July.
It seemed logical to assume that the trio eventually would produce an entire album of holiday jazz, and I’ve searched for such an item ever since. Despite such diligence, I somehow missed the 2013 arrival of Toyland, a modest (22-minute), seven-track EP supposedly on the Seabreeze label. (I say “supposedly” because the disc is manufactured on demand by Amazon, and the pathetic liner notes make no mention of label, nor does they identify the musicians.)
The album is brief but thoroughly enjoyable, highlighted by Frank Hailey’s vigorous piano chops. The tracks aren’t long enough for any ambitious solos or improv, but the trio makes the most of available space. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” opens with some delicious walking bass, which segues to a swinging piano line; Michael Hailey sets “Up on the Housetop” at a strong, mid-tempo 4/4, against which Frank Hailey delivers a cute piano line.
“Deck the Halls” is uncharacteristically gentle and deliberate, Michael Hailey’s clever percussion making the arrangement sound like a steam locomotive slowly pulling out of a station. A waltz arrangement of “The Wassail Song” is highlighted by Frank Hailey’s “delayed” keyboard touch, the melody notes crowding up against the beat at the last possible moment, with Zukoski’s walking bass comping alongside.
The final two tracks feature guest guitarists. Buddy Whittington lends able support to a finger-snapping cover of “Jingle Bells,” initially comping against the keyboard, and then taking the melody for the second verse. No less than famed blues guitarist Anson Funderburgh highlights a swinging version of “Toyland,” inserting a cool improv at the bridge against more of Zukoski’s slick walking bass. Frank Hailey takes over for the final verse, setting up Funderburgh’s final guitar flourish.
Unfortunately, this disc doesn’t include the three holiday-themed tracks from An Old Sweet Song, so if you want a complete Hailey/Zukoski Christmas set, you’ll need to purchase both discs (certainly no hardship).
Philadelphia-based pianist Tim Brey’s Unwrap is a choice collection of mainstream trio covers, all highlighted by his dexterous keyboard chops. Each of the album’s six tracks runs long, granting him plenty of room to stretch; he has an engaging facility for adroit improvisational solos that never stray too far from the melody.
I’d love to credit his sidemen, but since the album is available solely as a download from cdbaby, descriptive liner notes are conspicuously absent. Even his website fails to acknowledge his colleagues. I’m therefore only able to note that the bassist skillfully complements Brey’s style, while the drummer is a bit too aggressive, with a distracting tendency toward unnecessary showboating.
The album kicks off with a mid-tempo handling of “Winter Wonderland” that features the first of Brey’s fine solos, along with a lovely bass solo and a droll “chat” between the keyboard and drums. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” offers a dexterous arrangement that bounces between waltz and standard time, although it builds to a raucous finale that overstays its welcome.
On the softer side, Brey solos on a measured, leisurely cover of “White Christmas,” his right hand wandering around the melody, while the left maintains a slow, rag-style beat. An ethereal cover “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is similarly quiet and languid: poetic rather than melodic, as if the trio is “speaking” the tune, rather than “singing” it.
The title song is a peppy Brey original: a fast-paced swinger that finds him all over the keyboard, the melody conveying a strong sense of Christmas morning magic, as children tear into their presents. The trio closes the album with a roaring cover of “This Christmas,” with a solid R&B beat; sparkling bass and piano solos segue back to the core melody, which then builds to a propulsive finish that’s bound to raise a smile.
At first blush, Ross Walters’ Snow on Snow appears to be a New Age project, given the haunting pennywhistle arrangement of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” that opens the album. But that’s deceptive; the second track — a groovy handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” boasting Terry Millner’s solid bass chops and Ed Goldfarb’s lively piano solo — is much more emblematic of this thoroughly engaging quartet.
Walters dominates on sax throughout, although he occasionally switches back to pennywhistle and, in one case, harmonica: the latter for a slow waltz cover of “Away in a Manger,” which offers more of Goldfarb’s fine keyboard work. A few of the arrangements are agreeably inventive, most notable a cool approach to “O Tannenbaum,” which switches back and forth between 5/4 and waltz time. Walters likes to share; Goldfarb’s piano is showcased quite frequently, and Millner’s bass also gets plenty of exposure.
Drummer Jason Lewis lays down a solid beat, particularly during a vibrant reading of “Carol of the Bells,” which opens with unison sax and piano handling the melody; midway through this clever arrangement, guest cellist Emil Miland plays “We Three Kings” in counterpoint.
Most of the songs are presented thoughtfully, generally at slow to mid-tempos. “Good King Wenceslas” is playful, with a cute “chat” between sax and piano; “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is droll and mildly mysterious, with Lewis’ percussion backing another of Goldfarb’s contemplative piano solos, the tune building to an almost suspenseful climax. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is thoughtful, the sentiment deftly conveyed via gentle sax and piano comping; Miland’s cello returns for an equally lyrical handling of “The First Noel.”
The album highlight is an up-tempo presentation of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” with Lewis and Miller laying down a driving beat worthy of the rowdiest Southern Baptist church revival meeting. The tune builds to a full-blown frenzy, Walters’ sax preaching its own brand of jubilation.
This isn’t a recent album, having been released back in 2001, but it’s new to my ears: a thoroughly enjoyable treat from start to finish.
Christmas Cool comes from Eddie B. Jazz, a quartet composed of Northern Illinois/Southern Wisconsin musicians Alan Feeney (keyboards), Tony Vecchio (sax), Dave Timmcke (bass) and Ed Bogdonas (drums). The album’s 10 tracks are a mostly pleasant collection of gentle to mid-tempo arrangements of familiar holiday chestnuts; the solos are enjoyable but unobtrusive, in a “supper jazz” mode that makes for amiable background music.
Feeney and Vecchio trade off on melodic lead, the other generally comping alongside; both take brief solos during most of the tunes. The arrangements aren’t demanding, although the band works in a few droll touches, as with a cover of “Deck the Halls” that concludes with a few bars of “Sleigh Ride.”
Timmcke’s walking bass delivers lovely introductions to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Winter Wonderland,” and he also contributes some lively licks to “Santa Baby.” Bogdonas kicks off “Let It Snow” with a strong 4/4 beat, providing ample support when Vecchio and Feeney take their respective solos.
Feeney switches to electric keyboard for a slow and sweet reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” but in general his acoustic keyboard work seems better suited to the band’s sound. His acid jazz-hued handling of “The Hip-Hop Drummer Boy” strikingly stands apart from the rest of the album’s 10 tracks, but that distinction isn’t favorable; the weird, off-putting arrangement is likely to raise eyebrows.
I’m also disappointed by some of Bogdonas’ drum work, which occasionally sounds uninspired and mechanical, most noticeably in the aforementioned “Deck the Halls.”
The album concludes with a second take of “Winter Wonderland,” described as a “Sonny-meets-Monk style”; the harder-edged, bop-hued sax and keyboard solos are much more satisfying than the haphazard noodlings found in “Hip-Hop Drummer Boy.”
It’s easy to see how this band has kept Midwestern audiences entertained since 2011.
It’s always nice to be reminded that holiday jazz is an international affair. Jazzy Christmas is a tasty collection of seasonal tunes from Italian trumpet/flugelhorn player Paolo Fresu, leading a sextet that performed the set live at Italy’s Cartellone Nuovo Teatro Comunale di Sassari. As a result, the album isn’t studio quality, and the listening experience is marred slightly by audience applause; even so, the musicianship is lovely, the overall presentation relaxed and intimate.
Fresu never ventures above the mid-tempo range, although the lengthy arrangements give plenty of space to the sidemen, who respond with vibrant solos. The instrumentation is a bit unusual: Aside from the usual complement — Tino Tracanna (saxes), Roberto Cipelli (piano), Attilio Zanchi (double bass) and Ettore Fioravanti (drums) — the group includes Daniele Di Bonaventura on bandoneon, an accordion-style concertina popular in Argentina, Lithuania and Uruguay. Its distinctive sound dominates many of these tracks.
The septet’s onstage presence notwithstanding, many of the performances are duets. Fresu and Di Bonaventura trade the melody on a languid cover of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and do the same on “Adeste Fideles,” in both cases trading solos and comping quietly behind each other. They similarly pair up for a mid-tempo handling of “Joy to the World” and two lyrical little tunes that will be unfamiliar to American listeners: the Sardinian “Notte de Chelu,” and the Italian hymn “Naschid’est in Sa Cabanna.”
The full band is heard on a slow, sweet arrangement of “White Christmas,” which features lyrical solos on piano and bass, and some delightful interplay between sax and horn. Cipelli’s solo piano opens an expansive cover of “The Christmas Song,” which develops as Fresu’s muted trumpet trades licks with Tracanna’s sax, against soothingly swinging support from bass and drums.
Zanchi’s bass provides a lovely backdrop to “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which features lengthy horn and piano solos, and some spirited comping by the bandoneon. This arrangement gets a bit wild toward the end, Fresu indulging in a bit of free jazz: a touch that becomes more prominent in “In Sa Notte Profundha,” a Sardinian waltz that initially sounds like a tender lullaby, Fresu’s sad horn eventually sailing into a dissonant stratosphere.
This is lovely, contemplative jazz: perfectly suited to late evenings in front of a fire.
• Mike Frost Jazz, Frosty Christmas — Bassist/guitarist Mike Frost heads a quartet that straddles the line between jazz and rock, with mostly pleasant results. The album gets off to a great start, with a droll, groove-laden arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman,” powered by Frost’s guitar licks and David Brown’s lively electronic keyboard solo. An up-tempo handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is equally cool, highlighted by Mike West’s spirited drum work; Lauren Meccia’s sax takes the melody, while Frost contributes some nifty walking bass.
The guitar/electronic keyboard combination makes for unusual instrumentation in “Carol of the Bells,” but the result is lovely, and highlighted by another of Frost’s deft guitar solos. Meccia’s sweet sax dominates a gentle arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here,” backed by soft guitar comping and another nice keyboard solo. Meccia also contributes three vocals: wistful readings of “The Christmas Song” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” against her own sax solos; and a melancholy handling of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
Things get a bit weird during an outré arrangement of “We Three Kings,” with both Frost and Brown screeching into the stratosphere. Happily, it’s the only jarring track; Frost makes up for it with a lovely solo guitar version of “Silent Night.”
• Doug Webb, Home for Christmas — Fans of the “smooth” sound will enjoy much of this release by saxophonist Doug Webb; the arrangements aren’t particularly inventive, but the musicianship is tight. Webb gets ample support from sidemen Corey Allen (piano), Kevin Axt (bass) and Roy McCurdy (drums), and a few of the tracks — notably a peppy, up-tempo reading of “Greensleeves” — veer dangerously close to mainstream jazz.
For the most part, though, the approach is unswerving: Webb takes most of the bridge improv solos, generally with Allen and/or Axt comping quietly in the background. “Let It Snow” features nice solos on both sax and piano, with Axt delivering some cool walking bass; he also shines in a playful reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” McCurdy sets a slow march tempo for “O Christmas Tree,” which grants Allen a bluesy keyboard solo; “Christmas Time Is Here” emerges at an atypically peppy tempo, with lyrical sax and piano solos, and more of Axt’s cool walking bass.
Unfortunately, four of this album’s 12 tracks are backed by a full-blown orchestra that’s heavy on both strings and syrup: arrangements treacly enough to send diabetics into sugar shock. They destroy any right this album has to call itself jazz.