Sunday, December 3, 2017

Let it swing, let it swing, let it swing!

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

It’s another solid year for holiday jazz albums, and the nicest surprise — to paraphrase the Old English rhyme — is that this year’s offerings feature both “something old, something new.”

To be more precise, a trio of “something olds.”

Longtime readers of this annual survey know that three vintage albums have topped my Gotta Have list for decades: classics which, for unknown reasons, have neither been digitized nor re-released since their initial vinyl appearance. I’ve complained about this for years and years; apparently, somebody finally listened.

To a degree.

Jazz pianist Bobby Timmons released Holiday Soul on the Prestige label way back in 1964; jazz organist Don Patterson confused things by using exactly the same title for his Prestige release the same year. Five years later, jazz pianist Duke Pearson produced Merry Ole Soul for Blue Note. All three albums are terrific, although Pearson’s boasts the most inventive arrangements and tastiest jazz chops; his iconic cover of “Sleigh Ride” has been included on at least a dozen holiday jazz compilation albums.

(For the sake of historical accuracy, I should mention that Pearson’s album was issued on CD by Japan’s Toshiba EMI in 2004, with a bonus track — “An Old Fashioned Christmas” — that isn’t available anywhere else. But it’ll cost you a pretty penny, assuming you even can find the blamed thing.)

All three albums once again are readily available — finally! — but with a hitch. In a nod toward current market forces, you have the option of vinyl or streaming ... but not CD. That’ll be fine for vinyl purists who prefer the warmth of LPs, and new-tech streaming fans who aren’t concerned about bitrates and information loss via compression ... but it leaves CD fans out in the cold. Which is a shame.

As for this year’s crop of new releases ... read on!


Starting with a jewel always feels like a good omen, and the terrific Yule Be Swingin’ was the first album to cross my desk this year. The disc features North Carolina Central University’s Jazz Faculty Combo, headed by director/saxophonist Ira Wiggins. Based on this evidence, NCCU must be an excellent institution for jazz studies; every one of this disc’s 10 tracks is a solid swinger.

Wiggins and his colleagues take the old-school approach: Each song begins and concludes with the familiar theme, while lengthy bridges offer ample opportunity for solid solos by two or three sidemen. Wiggins’ fellow faculty members are Albert Strong (trumpet), Robert Trowers (trombone), Aaron Hill (sax), Baron Tymos (guitar), Ed Paolantonio (piano) and Thomas Taylor (percussion). Timothy Holley inserts some well-placed cello touches, and graduate student James Suter handles the bass.

The album kicks off with a roaring 6/8 arrangement of “We Three Kings,” with the melody introduced on sax against lively brass; the bridge opens with a sparkling sax solo against sparkling piano comping, followed by Strong’s enthusiastic trumpet solo and a bit of ferocious drumming by Taylor. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a bit slower but no less rhythmic, with unison brass introducing the melody before handing off solos on sax, trumpet and piano.

The ensemble is equally adept at slower, sweeter numbers. A lovely reading of “Carol of the Bells” opens with delicate piano and guitar, then sails into lyrical solo improvs by Tymos and Paolantonio. “A Child Is Born” is equally languid, the melody introduced on bowed bass against gentle piano comping, after which Tymos delivers an elegant guitar solo.

Paolantonio and Taylor lay down a cool vamp that turns “Little Drummer Boy” into a mid-tempo finger-snapper, with the melody introduced on jazz flute; the lengthy arrangement expands to highlight bluesy solos on trumpet, piano and (particularly nice) Suter’s sassy walking bass.

I’m impressed by Wiggins’ decision to cover a couple of lesser-known holiday tunes, most notably a droll, salsa-style reading of “The Miser Brothers, Heat and Snow,” from the 1974 animated TV special, The Year Without a Santa Claus. Tasty solos come from Strong, Tymos and Taylor.

A slow, reverential reading of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is particularly sweet: essentially a serene duet on bowed bass and guitar.

Vocalist Lenora Helm joins the ensemble for two numbers: a swinging cover of Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule,” with cleverly updated lyrics; and an unhurried, deliciously sultry reading of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Rarely has that classic sounded more like a suggestive invitation.

This disc deserves frequent rotation.

Christmas Tidings is pianist Rick Gallagher’s third holiday album, following 2002’s A Sleigh, a Song & a Baby Boy and 2006’s Snowriding. All three find Gallagher backed by the same sidemen — Paul Thompson (bass), Thomas Wendt (drums) and George Jones (percussion) — and let’s just say that this quartet has gotten even tighter with time. Their musical interplay is akin to mind-reading, and this newest album continues the combo’s tradition of tasty, thoroughly enjoyable holiday jazz.

Gallagher favors slow to mid-tempo “happy” arrangements; he often opens with a keyboard prologue that makes guessing the song a fun exercise. The mood is always cheerful, and the rhythm section is excellent throughout; it’s obvious these guys are having a great time.

It’s also nice to see jazz covers of lesser-known holiday chestnuts such as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Coventry Carol.”

The album opens with a droll reading of “Good King Wenceslas,” handled as a mid-tempo swinger that blends Gallagher’s tasty keyboard chops with Thompson’s walking bass. The cover of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is uncharacteristically playful, with the melody traded between piano and bass; rolling percussion gives the aforementioned “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” a thoughtful tone.

The quartet goes to town during a peppy arrangement of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” which boasts a sleek bass solo and lightning-quick piano/bass improv during the bridge.

The slower tracks are equally fine, as with a reverential reading of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which features another of Thompson’s lovely bass solos. Gallagher delivers “Away in a Manger” as a gentle piano solo, and his thoughtful handling of Lennon/Ono’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” is mostly piano against Jones’ soft background bongos.

A relaxed, swooningly romantic cover of “White Christmas” is particularly charming; Gallagher retained the core melody of this Irving Berlin classic, but added new and complex harmonies that give it an entirely fresh spin.

Apparently encouraged by the positive reception that greeted the original composition (“Snowriding”) on his previous album, Gallagher includes another of his own tunes here: “Rainflakes” is a lyrical keyboard showcase that is strongly reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating,” and just as evocative as its title.

This is a great album to play for visitors who claim not to like jazz; it’s bound to make converts.

Speaking of Guaraldi, seasonal tributes to his music for 1965’s iconic TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, have become quite the cottage industry at this time of the year; the instrumentation usually (and logically) takes the form of a piano trio. Seattle-based jazz pianist Jose “Juicy” Gonzales has presented such concerts for several years now, and I’m happy to report that one no longer must visit the Pacific Northwest, in order to enjoy his efforts.

Linus and Juicy: A Holiday Album covers most of Guaraldi’s score — “What Child Is This”/“Greensleeves” was left behind — along with some apt extras. The versatile Gonzales is ably supported by bassist Michael Marcus and drummer Matt Jorgensen, both of whom get plenty of chances to demonstrate their own chops. The album opens with a ferocious double-time reading of “White Christmas” that positively roars, and offers lively keyboard and bass solos: just a taste of further delights to come.

Given how many hundreds (thousands?) of soloists, combos and bands have covered “Linus and Lucy,” this album’s highlight may well be “Linus and Juicy,” Gonzales’ playful and marvelously unique arrangement of that tune: a wild re-interpretation also highlighted by another of Marcus’ sleek bass solos. The trio’s handling of “Skating” is buoyant and lyrical; “Christmas Is Coming” is aggressively peppy, with a terrific swing bridge dominated by Marcus’ walking bass.

Jorgensen sets an infectious march tempo for “Little Drummer Boy,” adding tasty percussion touches behind Gonzales’ lyrical keyboard noodling; “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is suitably thoughtful and majestic. Gonzales opens “O Tannenbaum” with gentle solo piano, in a respectful echo of Guaraldi’s arrangement, and then “expands” the tune with some delectable swing that invites a tasty bass solo, which segues to lively byplay between keyboard and drums.

A lengthy, 7-minute arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” is properly gentle, offering plenty of lyrical improv by both Gonzales and Marcus. Unexpectedly playful and up-tempo readings of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Silent Night” deliver more sizzle than we generally expect from these two reverential carols.

Gonzales adds enthusiastic but clearly untrained vocals to “The First Noel” and “The Christmas Song,” which may raise eyebrows; although his delivery is heartfelt, Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr. don’t have anything to worry about. But that’s a minor quibble, given the finger-snapping “juice” that characterizes the rest of the album.

Anthology albums often are a mixed bag, and Jazz at the Ballroom Christmas is no exception. The project comes from the still-youthful Jazz at the Ballroom, a Northern California non-profit arts organization based in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, which is a couple seasons into a regular jazz series, and which also advocates on behalf of jazz in area schools.

This album’s roster features many of the artists who’ve performed in the JATB series, including several of this season’s stars: double bassist/vocalist Nicki Parrott, Australian pianist Konrad Paszkudzki, legendary vocalist/pianist Freddy Cole and clarinetist Ken Peplowski.

The disc kicks off with a fresh take of Cole’s “Jack Frost Snow,” a droll Ray Parker tune that Cole first recorded on his 1995 holiday album, I Want a Smile for Christmas. He’s backed here by a solid trio — Elias Bailey (acoustic bass), Henry Conerway (drums) and Randy Napoleon (guitar) — with the latter delivering tasty licks against Cole’s playful crooning and piano chops. The same quartet also contributes a slow, sweet reading of “O Tannenbaum,” highlighted by Bailey’s bowed bass.

Clarinetist Dave Bennett shines on a leisurely cover of “The Christmas Song,” with solid backing from Jeff Kressler (piano), Ed Fedewa (bass) and Doug Cobb (drums). Peplowski weighs in with an equally lyrical arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” joined by Ehud Asherie (piano) and Mike Karn (bass).

Parrott contributes lovely readings of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” accompanied by Paszkudzki and Dag Markhus (drums); she coaxes plenty of seasonal sentiment from the latter tune. She also has fun with co-vocalist Tony Desare during the droll byplay of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Desare delivers similar jovial bounce during an impish, 2/2 arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Vocalist/pianist Champian Fulton gets plenty of spirited sass from “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” suggesting that her time will be spent cozying up to somebody very warm; she and bassist David Williams present an equally lovely reading of “The Christmas Waltz.”

Paszkudzki and his trio — Dylan Shamat (bass) and Markhus (drums) — are new to me, and I’ve become an instant fan. They contribute three instrumentals: a tasty, mid-tempo handling of “O Christmas Tree”; a cute Paszkudzki original titled “Fireside Sizzle,” which lives up to its name; and a roaring, double-time arrangement of “Winter Wonderland” powered further by Shamat’s slick walking bass.

Vocalist Kitty Margolis, alas, is less successful with her efforts. Her warbling, disinterested takes of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Let It Snow” simply don’t gel; she even sounds flat in the latter. And while Kathryn Crosby may have been a logical sentimental choice to sing “White Christmas,” her delivery is uninspired; surely there were far better options for this seasonal classic.

You’ll likely rotate several tracks out of this collection, but one thing is obvious: Paszkudzki deserves his own full-length holiday album, and I hope he makes one soon.

Jazzin’ Around Christmas stars the celebrated Danish Radio Big Band, founded in Copenhagen back in 1964. The incredibly tight unit features five trumpets, five trombones, five saxes and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. American jazz drummer, composer and arranger Dennis Mackrel conducts the unit for this holiday release, and the musicians are impressive throughout, with particular mention going to the unison horn passages.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the 10 different vocalists who perform on all but one of this album’s tracks. Some blend well with the band; others are an unfortunate distraction. Most of the arrangements open and close with the vocalists, who then pause to allow one or more instrumental soloists during a lengthy bridge.

The disc kicks off with a terrific reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with Bobo Moreno sashaying through the lyrics until yielding to Karl-Martin Almqvist’s lovely tenor sax solo. Kaspar Vadsholt’s cool walking bass opens an equally peppy handling of “Jingle Bells,” with singer Sinne Eeg giving a scat-laden introduction to Mads la Cour’s sweet flugelhorn solo.

A delightfully rocking arrangement of “This Christmas” features crisp solos by Vincent Nilsson (trombone) and Peter Fugisang (alto sax), and vocalist Mirian Mandipira turns “I Pray on Christmas” into a vibrant, church-style revival hymn, complete with Kevin Christensen’s reverent trombone solo.

A calm handling of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” opens with a lovely duet between vocalist Lisa Nilsson and pianist Henrik Gunde; the full band adds majesty and pauses for Steen Nikolaj Hansen’s cool trombone solo.

Unfortunately, vocalist Mimi Terris never seems to be on the beat, during “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and Caecilie Norby’s intrusive vocal frankly ruins Gunde’s lyrical keyboard work on a thoughtful arrangement of “Snowfall.”

The arrangement of “Deck the Halls” is a mess all around, from Ola Onbulé’s off-putting vocal, to Gerard Presencer’s dissonant and needlessly squawky flugelhorn solo.

The album concludes well, with a gorgeous instrumental cover of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” offering lovely solos on piano and trumpet. It’s a shame Mackrel didn’t opt for more instrumentals and fewer vocals, because the band clearly is capable of standing perfectly well on its own.

I’d have purchased North Carolina-based gospel pianist Jeff Collins’ The Keys to Christmas for the fourth track alone: an arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” cleverly set against a pastiche of Scottish composer John Lunn’s title theme for television’s Downton Abbey. Collins excuses this artistic choice — as he explains in the album liner notes — on the basis of this being a “haunting English traditional carol,” and therefore quite appropriate to the show’s traditionally English characters.

We hardly need any justification, when the results are so charming.

Collins’ album covers a lot of territory, from orchestral pop and chamber music, to combo jazz and full-blown big band swing. As such, jazz purists are likely to zip past the gentle piano/violin arrangements of “Mary Did You Know” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” along with an opening medley — “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World” — that sounds like the orchestral overture of a stage musical.

The remaining eight tracks, though, are a lot of fun. “The Man with the Bag” is delivered with big band fury, in Collins’ quite obvious homage to 1950s swing ensembles. A soul-flavored reading of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” also swings like crazy, and is highlighted by Steve Patrick’s vibrant flugelhorn and trumpet riffs. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow” begins as a raucous, Latin-fueled toe-tapper, then switches to traditional big band swing at the bridge.

The full band also is on hand for a jazz waltz arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” while “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” blends the smaller combo with some nice sax work by Sam Levine. Collins even works in an updated arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” with an additional swing bridge that features a sleek guitar solo.

Collins’ core group includes David Johnson and Jeremy Medkiff (electric and acoustic guitars), Jason Webb (Hammond B3), Roger Fortner and Tim Surrett (upright bass), and Tony Creasman (drums and percussion). I do wish Collins had resisted the urge to add strings so frequently; it would have been nice to get a few more combo jazz numbers, since these guys obviously know how to cook.

A thought for your next holiday album, Mr. Collins?

New York-based trumpeter Chris Pasin made his bones as a member of the Buddy Rich and Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin big bands, and as an accompanist for stellar vocalists such as Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson and Mel Tormé. These days, Pasin lives and leads smaller combos in the upper Hudson Valley; Baby It’s Cold Outside is his first holiday-themed album.

He’s a generous leader, granting ample solo time to sidemen Armen Donelian (piano), Peter Einhorn (guitar), Ira Coleman and Rich Syracuse (bass), and Jeff Siegel (drums). Guests vocalist Patricia Dalton Fennell adds husky sparkle to three of the album’s 11 tracks.

The disc opens with Fennell’s wistful reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” against mellow backing by Donelian and Pasin, both of whom take lyrical solos at the bridge. Too many artists cover this song as an upbeat number, which is completely wrong; it’s supposed to be melancholy, and these folks get it right.

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is arranged as a droll, peppy salsa, the Latin touch given additional lift by Pasin’s muted trumpet and Einhorn’s sleek guitar improv at the bridge. Unusual syncopation highlights “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the melody almost deconstructed and heard only briefly, before segueing to horn and guitar improvs, the latter against Syracuse’s sleek walking bass, which leads into his own nifty solo.

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is a slow swinger highlighted by smooth horn and guitar solos; “Christmas Time Is Here” is gentle and exquisite, Pasin’s horn taking the melody against soft guitar comping, and both getting soft improv solos at the bridge.

In recent years, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been given a droll gender switch: Instead of the guy trying to persuade the gal to stay, bolder groups now have the gal coyly teasing the guy to hang around. Pasin and Fennell make their verbal flirting cute and sexy, “talking” the song more than singing it, while a multi-tracked Pasin backs this banter with his soft horn.

Pasin also includes two tracks for folks who prefer aggressive jazz. A peppy arrangement of “We Three Kings” sails straight into dissonant Coltrane territory during lengthy horn and piano solos; and the trumpet/keyboard duet on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is similarly “out there” during its lengthy solos.

The album concludes with a relaxed cover of “The Christmas Song,” Pasin once again employing muted trumpet for the melody; the lengthy arrangement includes poetic solos on piano, trumpet and bass. It’s a nice finish to an agreeably varied yuletide menu.

Jazz pianist, composer and educator Mark Flugge was a beloved presence at Ohio State University and Capital University when he succumbed — at far too young an age — to a debilitating hearing affliction in May 2014. At the time of his passing, he had programmed, produced and performed in a Chamber Jazz Series that he founded for the Columbus Museum of Art. The annual December concerts were a particular treat, as they featured Flugge in combo settings of jazz holiday tunes.

A Chamber Jazz Christmas: Mark Flugge Remembered gathers 11 tracks performed live between 2007 and ’11, along with a pair of solo piano arrangements believed to have been laid down during a 2011 studio session. Given the recording parameters, the audio quality is a bit uneven, and the applause occasionally distracts; that said, the album is an engaging listen, and a tribute to both Flugge and post-production engineer Jay Alton.

Flugge favored Latin/Cuban arrangements and hypnotic keyboard vamps behind the improv solos from his various sidemen; both are immediately evident in the album’s droll opener, “Rudolph in Havana,” which boasts sleek solos from Flugge and guitarist Derek DiCenzo. The latter also is all over “Jingle Bells,” which emerges as a joyous strut. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is blended with “Take Five” in the appropriate time signature, and offers lyrical solos by Flugge and DiCenzo, along with some lively drum work by Joe Ong.

DiCenzo doubles on steel drums for a soft, thoughtful reading of Vince Guaraldi’s “My Little Drum” (itself a slight re-working of “Little Drummer Boy); Flugge adds some leisurely country swing to “Blue Christmas,” highlighted by more of DiCenzo’s deft guitar licks. Dave DeWitt’s sublime bass solo is the highlight of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and you’ll detect a nod to Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66’s iconic “Mas Que Nada” in Flugge’s arrangement of “Coventry Carol,” which also offers some tasty vibes work by Ong.

Flugge’s keyboard chops are particularly evident during his solos: a long, leisurely reading of “What Child Is This”; a playful handling of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” laden with great improv; and a slow, gentle cover of “Sleigh Ride in July.” The album concludes with a second, more traditional reading of “Rudolph” that still has a catchy Latin touch, with tasty work by Flugge, DiCenzo and drummer Dave Weinstock.

Flugge’s reputation is well deserved, and I’ve no doubt he’s sorely missed in Ohio; this album is an affectionate — and well-deserved — tribute.


• David Ian, Vintage Christmas Trio: The third in Ian’s “Vintage” holiday series — following 2011’s Vintage Christmas and 2013’s Vintage Christmas Wonderland — is a sweet little album that once again teams the pianist with Jon Estes (bass) and Josh Hunt (drums and percussion). The approach is consistently gentle: quiet “supper jazz” that makes a tasty listening experience at the conclusion of a long day.

Ian’s arrangements are traditional: He trades the melody with Estes’ sleek walking bass licks, one comping behind the other, either or both taking a short improv during the bridge before bringing the tune home. Each of the 10 tracks is brief, the album coming in at a modest 34 minutes. Hunt favors soft sleigh bells amid his percussion elements, and Ian goes for a mildly mysterious tone on classics such as “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings,” the latter opening with a lengthy keyboard solo as Ian “explores” his way to the melody.

He gives a droll reading of “Up on the Housetop” and almost deconstructs “Joy to the World” in a clever arrangement; a soft handling of “Silver Bells” shifts tempo at the chorus, while “White Christmas” opens with a particularly lovely piano solo. The album concludes with a solemn arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” Ian backed solely by Hunt’s soothing cymbal brushes. A lovely album: short but truly sweet.

• Reta Watkins, That Christmas Feeling: The Philadelphia-based vocalist’s debut album is a blend of big band jazz charts and orchestral easy listening; the song selection leans heavily toward her faith-based roots, while allowing room for a few up-tempo classics. She kicks off with an vigorous reading of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which gives ample exposure to the Benny Goodman/Glenn Miller big band sound with which she grew up; her band delivers a terrific blast of instrumental swing during the bridge.

Watkins’ cover of “Sleigh Ride” is equally energetic, and I immediately recognized Harry Connick Jr.’s big band chart arrangement, from his 1993 holiday album. Her sassy, double-time cover of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” is another showcase for big band swing, and she brings smoldering sensuality to a relaxing reading of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” It’s a shame that several of the big band arrangements are cluttered with unnecessary strings.

Both Watkins and the string-heavy orchestra also are needlessly overwrought on a pair of Jeremy Johnson/Paul Marino Christian anthems, “Behold Emmanuel” and “Christmas in Heaven.” Her understated approach to Mark Lowry and Buddy Green’s “Mary Did You Know” is far more satisfying, with just the right amount of dramatic punch.

• Laurence Juber, Holidays & Hollynights: Distinguished fingerstyle guitarist and studio musician Laurence Juber perhaps remains best known (in certain circles) for his stint on lead guitar alongside Paul McCartney and Wings, from 1978 to ’81. But that’s just one note from the symphony of praise accorded an extraordinary musician who deserves the accolade “one of the world’s most remarkable acoustic guitarists.”

Although this seasonal album barely flirts with true jazz, it’s simply too gorgeous to be ignored. Juber is joined by Domenic Genova (upright bass) and Michael Jochum (drums), and every track is a gem. The delivery is consistently soft, at gentle tempos that allow every note to shine. “What Child Is This” emerges as an unhurried, rhythmic waltz; Genova and Jochum add playful touches to “Sleigh Ride.” You’ll detect some country twang in the arrangements of “Blue Christmas” and “Joy to the World.”

Juber’s droll handling of “Jingle Bells” includes some cute oom-pah touches; his arrangements of “Winter Wonderland” is appropriately peppy. The album concludes with his solo reading of “The Christmas Song”: a delicate and reverential arrangement that seems to encapsulate the entire seasonal spirit. My only complaint is that the album clocks in at a scant 38 minutes; I wanted more!

• Dave Koz & Friends, 20th Anniversary Christmas: Although known primarily as “smooth jazz” artists, saxophonist Dave Koz and pianist David Benoit are capable of serious swing chops, as both have demonstrated on previous albums (and previous holiday albums). But there’s little indication of that on this release, which — no doubt intentionally — plays more like a 46-minute TV variety special. Most of these tracks are orchestral pop at best, and some positively sag beneath string-laden sentimentality.

Half the tracks are vocals by different guest stars — Selina Albright, Gabriel Orengo, Jeffrey Osborne, Javier Colon and Kenny Lattimore — and the latter does a nice job with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The family-friendly arrangements are unremarkable, with two exceptions that veer dangerously close to actual jazz. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” starts softly, Koz’s soprano sax gently backed by Rick Braun’s trumpet and Peter White’s guitar. But then the tempo accelerates, bass and drums giving momentum to Benoit’s piano riffs; he, Braun and Koz then deliver peppy solos during a lengthy bridge. “O Tannenbaum” is even more fun; it begins (literally) as a mid-tempo finger-snapper, with Benoit and White adding some pizzazz. The arrangement shifts to 4/4 swing during the bridge, the four soloists inserting droll quotes from “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Killer Joe,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “On Broadway” and more.

It’s a shame more of the album doesn’t have that energy; as things stand, it’s unlikely to satisfy this column’s readers.

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