Thursday, December 6, 2018

Swingle Bells: Holiday jazz 2018

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s primary jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 22 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

So much terrific new Christmas music, and most of the season’s publicity is going to Captain Kirk.

The rest of the media attention focuses on releases by John Legend, Pentatonix, Lindsey Stirling and Eric Clapton (!). Jazz isn’t even an afterthought this year.

There is no justice.

Okay, fine; 87-year-old William Shatner deserves credit for longevity and a willingness to step wayoutside his comfort zone, and he was smart enough — with Shatner Claus — to align himself with top-flight engineers and an impressive roster of guest stars, that ranges from Judy Collins and Todd Rundgren, to Rick Wakeman and Iggy Pop.

But trust me: You can do better.

You won’t find any heavyweights or readily familiar names among this year’s roster of holiday jazz releases, although Joey Alexander should prompt a smile of recognition. But that’s not the point: The goal here is cool seasonal sounds, and it’s always gratifying when terrific material comes from hitherto unknowns, who subsequently make it to your preferred playlist.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s dive in!


Proving once again that jazz is an international phenomenon, this year’s round-up starts with Italian trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso’s Merry Christmas Baby. Bosso has played his horn since age 5, and his career took off with the release of his first album in 2000; subsequent projects included collaborations with Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Dianne Reeves and a veritable Who’s Who of Italian jazz stars.

His quartet on this tasty holiday release features Julian Oliver Mazzariello (piano), Jacopo Ferrazza (acoustic double bass) and Nicola Angelucci (drums), and their interplay is tight. Most arrangements hover in the mid-tempo range, and Bosso grants ample time for generous solos by his compatriots.

The album-opening handling of “Winter Wonderland” is typical of the delights to come: a straight-ahead arrangement with Bosso’s sweet trumpet introducing the melody, then yielding the floor to Mazzariello and Ferrazza. The former’s quiet keyboard solos introduce “Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with Bosso’s horn taking over for the respective melodies, against gentle piano and bass comping.

The quartet’s delivery of “Silent Night” is a lot of fun: Angelucci lays down a terrific New Orleans-style beat that gives this tune an atypically peppy reading, with some wild solos on trumpet and piano. Mazzariello opens “Let It Snow” with some stride piano, then shares the stage with Bosso for what becomes a bouncy little duet. The entire combo goes wild on “Jingle Bells,” which kicks off with some lively drumming, sassy trumpet and “shimmering” piano riffs, eventually yielding to trumpet and piano solos that shoot off into the stratosphere.

Guest vocalist Karima’s wistful handling of “The Christmas Song” is backed by gentle trumpet and piano comping, both instruments supplying lyrical solos when she pauses during the bridge. Walter Ricci offers an equally delicate vocal on “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve,” against soft trumpet and piano; he has more fun scatting throughout a lively “Jingle Bell Rock,” with Angelucci shifting into swing time during a bridge that features nifty keyboard and trumpet solos.

Bosso’s switch to muted trumpet is a cute touch on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” as you can almost hear the lyrics emanate from his expressive horn; the song also features some sultry byplay between piano and bass during the bridge. All and all, this is a nifty album that deserves plenty of rotation in your holiday library.