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.

Continuing our world tour, the Catalonia-based La Locomotora Negra (The Black Locomotive) debuted as a quintet back in 1971, and over time grew into a 17-piece ensemble that reigns as the Spanish region’s oldest stable big band. The group initially released its holiday album ’Round Christmas in 1992, drawing charts from its annual Christmas Eve performance at Cova del Drac. In 2010, the band re-visited what had become its best-selling album, retaining nine of the original 16 tracks, and replacing those left behind with six newly recorded pieces. The result — ’Round Christmas Plus — is by no means new, but it’s new to me, and that’s what matters. 

The approach is a playful blend of traditional big band swing and France’s Le Jazz Hot, with an occasional nod toward American Dixieland. The program blends familiar American holiday standards with Catalan and Andalucian carols. The unison horn work is dynamic, as would be expected from a roster of up to four trumpets, four trombones and five saxes, backed by a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. Many tracks are powered by ferocious 2/2 and 4/4 beats, with introductory melodies — often on sax or muted brass — yielding to lively solos from every section of the band.

The album opens with a swinging, mid-tempo arrangement of “Sleigh Ride,” highlighted by tasty solos on sax and piano, and concluding with a droll horse whinny. “Let It Snow” is equally lively, with a strong oom-pah beat backing a melody traded between numerous soloists. “Fum Fum Fum” is just plain fun, with stride-style piano and muted trumpet backed by those ferocious unison horns. At times, the rhythm section sounds like the eclectic instruments that powered the droll jazz soundtrack to 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville.

On the quieter side, “Silent Night” is appropriately reverential, with a slow, rolling beat supporting a baritone sax melody against expressive piano comping.

Moving to the Catalan carols, “Twelve O’Clock Shuffle” features a cute unison horn melody against a great rhythm line, while the up-tempo “Campana Sobre Campana (Bell Over Bell)” boasts Jordi Casanovas’ walking bass, along with tasty solos on piano (Tòfol Trepat) and guitar (Albert Romani). The slow jazz waltz of “El Noi de la Mare (Mother’s Boy)” is a hoot, thanks to the melody taken by Lluis Trepat on bass clarinet.

Unfortunately, half a dozen of these tunes are vocals. While it’s tempting to give the singers an “A” for effort as they navigate the lyrics of “The Christmas Song,” “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the results are longer on enthusiasm than anything else, and tend to detract from the listening experience. Vocals should have been confined to their native tongue, as is amply evident in the second (Catalan) version of “The Christmas Song.”

On the technical end, portions of the album sound a bit too “bright,” with the mixing/mastering calling toomuch attention to the brass.

Such caveats aside, it’s hard to complain about a disc that delivers this much spirit, zest and fine ensemble work.

Pittsburgh-based saxman Richie Cole’s Have Yourself an Alto Madness Christmas is a delectable blend of combo and “little big band” arrangements, with three original tunes sprinkled among a baker’s dozen of seasonal classics. The give-and-take between the core performers is smooth, polished and bespeaks lots of practice, and there’s no doubt these cats would be quite entertaining in concert. Cole handles most of the melody lines, although he frequently trades off with various sidemen.

The album opens with a swinging version of “Christmas Time Is Here,” at a peppier tempo than usual; Cole allows ample space for tasty solos on piano (Jeff Lashway) and guitar (Mark Lucas), backed by Jeff Grubbs’ sleek walking bass. The tune concludes with a brief quote from “Winter Wonderland,” which is typical of the charming touches found within Cole’s arrangements.

The double-time reading of “Let It Snow” is equally feisty, kicking off with Cole’s wild sax work against drummer Reid Hoyson’s ferocious beat; Lashway, Lucas and Grubbs once again offer solid solos. James Moore (trumpet), Jeff Bush (trombone) and Mike Tomaro (tenor sax) add unison horn sparkle on a finger-snapping cover of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” while a different trio — J.D. Chaisson (trumpet), Reggie Watkins (trombone) and Rick Matt (tenor sax) — is similarly tight on a mid-tempo reading of “Sleigh Ride,” which includes a nod to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

A doo-wop approach to “Blue Christmas” is a hoot, with Cole’s sax backed by Lashway’s piano comping and Lucas’ twangie guitar licks. When the tune concludes, we practically expect Elvis himself to say “Thank yuh … thank yuh very much.”

The softer, slower numbers are equally scrumptious. Lashway and Cole open a poignant reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with a piano/sax duet, after which the bass and drums set a gentle beat that backs lyrical guitar and piano solos. “White Christmas” gets a similar touch — sax/piano introduction, piano and guitar solos — against Hoyson’s bossa nova beat.

Cole’s originals are a mixed bag. As the title suggests, “Mr. Grinch B. Bopsky” is a fast-paced bop romp, with spirited piano and guitar solos … but it doesn’t sound anything like Christmas or the iconic Dr. Seuss character. The gentler “Christmas in New England” is more successfully seasonal, with its lengthy piano solo and terrific interplay between Cole and Grubbs. (The song reminds me of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Skating in Central Park.”) 

“Bad Santa,” finally, is another mid-tempo swinger that gives Grubbs plenty of room to stretch. (Cole also offers an amusingly earthy vocal version of this tune as a downloadable single at cdbaby.)

Unfortunately — as often is the case with sax leaders — Cole has an occasional tendency toward the lengthy, overly squawky solos that put people off jazz entirely. There’s simply no denying that an unrestrained, stratospheric sax solo isn’t nearly as pleasant as (for example) most keyboard solos. The combo’s handling of “Jingle Bell Rock” is a perfect example; Hoyson lays down a droll oom-pah beat that gives Lucas an opportunity to shine on melody, but then the arrangement gets bogged down by Cole’s needlessly long and cacophonous solo. He’s equally intrusive on the album’s title track, a rather silly vocal re-working of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that further loses its way during a jarring sax solo.

At the other end of the spectrum, the atypically gentle arrangement of “Silver Bells” is delivered as a lovely sax and piano duet, and Cole concludes the album with an equally sweet solo reading of “The Christmas Song.” It’s easy to forgive his self-indulgent digressions when the rest of the album is such a pleasure.

Grammy Award-winning producer/singer Laura Dickinson likely is best known for her behind-the-scenes work with Michael Bublé, and as vocal director/contractor for popular Disney Channel animated shows such as Phineas and Ferb and Sofia the First. That may change soon; she enhanced her performance profile with 2014’s well-received One for My Baby: To Frank Sinatra with Love, and has followed that with the just-released Auld Lang Syne.

This 11-track album is a blend of styles. Familiar seasonal classics are presented against lively, big band backing; while newer holiday-themed tunes are granted Broadway-style orchestral arrangements. The latter aren’t jazz by any means, but they nonetheless showcase Dickinson’s crisp articulation and impassioned delivery. (It’s refreshing to hear a contemporary singer whose impeccable diction ensures that listeners can understand every syllable of an earnest lyric.)

The album opens with a kick-ass medley of “Happy Holiday”/“The Holiday Season,” with a lively big band handling a joyously rowdy chart that’ll be recognized from the Manhattan Transfer’s 2005 Christmas Album. Drummer Bernie Dresel and bassist Dan Lutz lead a wicked rhythm section, with Dickinson’s sassy tones rising smoothly above a backing chorus. She pauses during the bridge to accommodate energetic solos from Kye Palmer (trumpet), Dan Higgins (alto sax) and Andrew Synowiec (guitar).

Dickinson turns sultry for arranger Brent Fischer’s rolling, rock-inflected arrangement of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which she describes as “Baden Powell meets Earth, Wind and Fire.” It’s a ferocious swinger that grants plenty of space to backing unison horns, while the rhythm section playfully shifts tempo and syncopation. Steve Trapani’s bass trombone adds playfully droll touches to “The Man with the Bag,” to the point where you’d swear you can hear Santa Claus tip-toeing behind the band.

“Let It Snow” gets updated with fresh, Hollywood-style lyrics during a finger-snapping arrangement that evokes a New Orleans strut, with Dickinson getting plenty of supporting pizzazz from what she describes as the “polite ragtime swing” trio of Palmer, Tom Luer (clarinet) and Steve Holtman (trombone). And I’m delighted by her saucy handling of the ferocious 2/2 arrangement of “Christmas Is Starting Now,” a recent arrival that debuted in 2009’s Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation, where it was performed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Dickinson’s version is just as much fun, and that’s saying quite a lot.

She turns sentimental with an orchestral threesome of torch songs: a string-laden arrangement of Mariah Carey’s “Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)”; “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” which Rosemary Clooney made famous in 1954’s White Christmas; and “Peace and Joy,” from the 2013 Sofia the First special, Holiday in Enchancia. All three slide dangerously close to becoming overwrought, but Dickinson always pulls back at just the right moment.

She’s even warmer during the two gentler songs with which the album concludes. The lovely “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a duet with pianist Alan Steinberger, is achingly poignant in the manner that few vocalists since Judy Garland have been able to manage. “Auld Lang Syne,” a similarly gentle duet with Synowiec, is equally beautiful: a fresh harmonic interpretation that’s even more touching, thanks to Dickinson’s heartfelt handling of some sweetly modified lyrics. As the saying goes, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

So: Come for the half-dozen energetic big band swingers; stay for the entire album.

Some groups turn holiday swing into a cottage industry, and that’s definitely true of Canada’s B3 Kings. They first crossed my radar back in 2005, when they shared A Cellar Live Christmas with the Bruno Humbert Trio. The B3 Kings obviously enjoyed the experience, and in 2013 recorded their own holiday album: the aptly titled You Better Watch Out. And here we are five years later, and the original quartet — Cory Weeds, tenor sax; Bill Coon, guitar; Chris Gestrin, Hammond organ, tambourine, shaker and bells; and Denzal Sinclaire, drums and vocals — has gifted us with Laughing All the Way.

That title notwithstanding, this disc is more likely to make you smile all the way. Jazz organists inevitably get compared to the great Jimmy Smith, and Gestrin definitely holds his own. He never hammers or sustains notes too long — in the manner of lesser players — but instead deftly “flavors” every track, whether taking lead on the melody, or gently comping behind Weeds or Coon.

These mostly traditional arrangements open and close with a given melody, generally bookending tasty solos. The combo’s up-tempo reading of “White Christmas” is a perfect example, with its swinging improv solos on sax, guitar and organ. “God Rest Ye Merry, B3 Kings” is equally peppy, with a rolling R&B introduction given additional swing by guest artist Jack Duncan’s congas and shaker. The album-opening original, “The Twelve Bars of Christmas,” is a fast-paced hoot with sassy sax and organ solos surrounded by plenty of clapping and shouting.

The slower numbers are equally sweet, starting with an uncharacteristically gentle reading of “Toyland,” as Coon’s guitar introduces the melody and then hands off to Gestrin. The two of them contribute silky solos midway through a similarly quiet handling of “Winter Lullaby,” another original tune. Sinclaire’s soft vocals lend poignancy to tender arrangements of both “Little Drummer Boy” and “What Child Is This,” the latter featuring a particularly wistful solo by Weeds.

The usually reverential “O Holy Night” is transformed into a mid-tempo swinger here, trading the melody between sax, organ and guitar, and granting all three lengthy solos. And Sinclaire lays down a rollicking beat for a cute, unexpected 3/4 arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” which trades lively sax and guitar riffs against a rhythm section with echoes of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”

All told, a solid package. Dare I hope, in another five or six years, that you guys will bring out a fourth album?

The Chris McDonald Jazz Orchestra’s A Big Band Swinging Christmas lives up to its billing: definitely the album with which to kick off a lively holiday gathering. The unit boasts four trumpets/flugelhorns — augmented on a few tracks by two more trumpets — five trombones, five saxes/flutes and a rhythm section of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums and percussion. The resulting sound will fill the room, and the straight-ahead arrangements never approach the outré extremes that irritate unenlightened folks who insist they “don’t like jazz.”

McDonald’s approach is big band traditional: Each of these 11 tracks runs roughly four minutes, with the familiar holiday tune kicking off and concluding the arrangement. Bridges are occupied by two or three solos per track, with each musician deftly passing the improv to the next.

You’ll detect occasional winks to other jazz classics — holiday or otherwise — and McDonald definitely has a soft spot for key changes and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”; the rhythm section references that bebop classic in both “Joy to the World” and “The Holly and the Ivy (and the Bones).” The former opens the album and sets the template for what follows, with lively solos from Barry Green (trombone), Rod McGaha (trumpet) and Mark Douthit (alto sax).

The band takes a particularly droll approach to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which includes some slick walking bass from Craig Nelson. The rhythm section establishes a lively rolling beat for “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” which boasts a great trumpet solo from Jim Williamson; Nelson’s walking bass also is a highlight on “Deck the Halls.”

“Good Christmas Men, Rejoice” is presented revival style, against a heavy two-beat, with a sleek muted trumpet solo from Steve Patrick. Pat Coil’s lovely piano solo anchors a quieter, mid-tempo reading of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

On the other hand, the album doesn’t benefit from the two tracks featuring guest vocalist Matt Belsante, who can be called “earnest” at best, particularly on an overwrought handling of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” And while it’s refreshing to see a female face among all these guys — Lindsey Miller, on guitar — it’s a shame McDonald didn’t grant her a solo. Tsk-tsk.

Rotate the vocals out, though, and you’ve got a finger-snapping treat, start to finish.

This year’s award for clever packaging and imaginative arrangements goes to The Clickard Consortium’s Noël Nouvelet, assembled by Dr. Stephen D. Clickard, a music professor and director of several ensembles at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg University. His Clickard Consortium is a “little big band” of 11 musicians: three brass, three saxes and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass, drums and “auxiliary percussion.”

His approach here reminds me slightly of The ACME Brass Company’s 2005 release, X-Mas X-ing, which interpolated each of its 13 tracks in the manner of a different jazz classic, and/or in the style of a well-known jazz icon. Thus, their “Jingle Duke” was arranged in the style of Ellington’s “Take the A-Train,” with nods along the way to “Satin Doll,” “C-Jam Blues” and a few other bits of Ellingtonia.

The Clickard Consortium isn’t quite that ambitious, restricting its occasional cross-pollinations to a given tune’s rhythm section. The album’s first track — the title song, actually a jazz arrangement of a carol we Americans know as “Sing We Now of Christmas” — kicks off with a lively rhythmic ostinato that everybody will recognize from “The James Bond Theme.” The lengthy arrangement leaves plenty of room for delectable solos by pianist Steve Adams and tenor saxman Dick Adams.

Similarly, “Here We Come A-Wassailing” is set against the equally familiar rhythmic elements of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” This arrangement boasts a nice alto sax solo by Larry Fisher, backed by Adams’ keyboard comping and Chris Wheeland’s sassy bass licks; Fisher switches to flute, to take the tune to its fade-out.

The other arrangements aren’t as obvious. A bossa nova handling of “The Holly and the Ivy” sounds a bit Santana-esque, and features Tim Breon’s nifty guitar solo; the opening measures of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” reminds me of the rhythm backing to the Manhattan Transfer’s cover of “Birdland,” and again features Wheeland’s walking bass, along with solos by Clickard (muted trumpet) and tenor sax (Dick Adams).

Most arrangements are traditional in the sense of introducing the holiday melody, then pausing for a lengthy bridge that offers one or more solos, and finally returning to the melody while ushering the tune to its conclusion. The solos tend to be more improvisational than melodic; the handling of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is pretty “out there,” with similarly outré solos from Clickard and Dick Adams.

On the other hand, Steve Adams delivers a long and quite lovely keyboard solo during a swinging arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here,” which bounces back and forth between 6/4 and 5/4 time. Clickard also plays with time signatures on “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which switches from 4/4 to 5/4 and offers another of Breon’s tasty guitar solos.

Unfortunately, the solos are much stronger than the unison horn work, which occasionally is “watery” and not as tight as one might hope. I’m also puzzled by the presence of an alternate take of “Christmas Time Is Here” (which, intriguingly, is more enjoyable than the first version). Much as I love that tune, once is enough.

These are minor caveats. Noël Nouvelet is a kick, and also its own party game. (“Wait, wait; that sounds like…”)

New Jersey-based trombonist/composer Michael Treni gets a lot of effervescent pizzazz from his well-rehearsed 19-man unit on You Better Watch Out, a sassy, swinging collection of big band arrangements. Most of these nine tunes run long, granting plenty of space for vibrant solos from up to half a dozen players. But the solo work isn’t the sole attraction; the band’s collective energy is palpable, with particularly choice unison horn work.

Treni favors arrangements that start soft and slow, gradually building into full-blown ensemble fury. “The Christmas Song” is a perfect example, opening at a reverential tempo with Treni’s solo trombone work; the song suddenly shifts into mid-tempo swing for the middle refrain, and then ratchets back down. “I Wonder As I Wander” is equally respectful of the carol’s liturgical origins, and is highlighted by Frank Elmo’s sweet soprano sax solo against Jim Ridl’s gentle piano comping.

Ridl opens another tune with an impressive, two-minute improvisational solo that’ll have listeners perplexed, until the band chimes in with the familiar melody from “Jingle Bells.” And Ridl is all over the keyboard during an electrifying solo midway through a lengthy reading of “Carol of the Bells,” also highlighted by drummer Wayne Dunton’s rhythmic 6/4 beat and Vinnie Cutro’s way-gone trumpet solo. 

Unfortunately, Bryan Smith’s equally aggressive electric guitar does that track no favors; that instrument simply doesn’t belong alongside its more traditional jazz colleagues.

Treni’s Latinesque arrangement of “The Dreydl Song” is a hoot (not to mention the first time I’ve heard that Chanukah classic given a jazz spin). The tune swings like crazy, anchored by another of Ridl’s sassy keyboard solos, and a lyrical flute solo from Craig Yaremko. Tremi’s mash-up of “Let It Snow” and “I’ve Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm” is quite clever, and includes a sleek trombone solo from Scott Reeves.

The album concludes with a lengthy handling of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” anchored by a dynamic, descending four-note rhythm section; vibrant solos come from Frank Elmo and Rob Middleton (tenor sax), Jim Fryer (trombone) and Reeves (also flugelhorn). Middleton supplies cute touches with a high-pitched recorder.

This album probably is too dynamic for a casual gathering, but it’ll sure liven up a rowdy holiday party!

Guitarist Jack Jezzro has long been a staple of the Green Hill’s “repertory company,” with numerous albums under his own name, along with plenty of guest appearances alongside the label’s other artists. His earlier holiday albums — Christmas Italiano and Dixieland Christmas — didn’t feature enough mainstream jazz to hit this annual survey’s radar, but he scored with this year’s Christmas Jazz Guitar.

It’s a pleasant collection of small-combo cocktail jazz, with Jezzro supported on most tracks by Mason Embry (piano), Jacob Jezioro (bass) and Joshua Hunt (drums); additional Green Hill musicians pop up on individual tracks. Jezzro’s arrangements are comparatively brief, granting space for one or two soloists. Most tempos are mid-range, and the approach tends to be gentle; this is a lovely album for late at night, while enjoying a final glass of wine after having cleaned up the remnants of a lively holiday party.

The mood is set with the album opener, a leisurely reading of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with Jezzro’s lyrical guitar backed by Embry’s tasty keyboard comping; Denis Solee’s tenor sax supplies additional sparkle. “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” are similarly relaxed, with Jezzro’s guitar sounding dreamily romantic.

The tempo picks up on bossa-hued arrangements of “Happy Holiday,” which features Solee’s lovely jazz flute solo; and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” with a soprano sax solo from Sam Levine. Both are mid-tempo swingers. Hunt sets a peppy, double-time beat for “Here We Come A-Caroling,” which features a deft bass solo from Jezioro; he contributes similarly dynamic solos on “Up on the Housetop” and a frisky cover of “O Christmas Tree.”

Jezzro has fun with his jazz waltz arrangements for “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Silent Night” and “My Favorite Things,” and the tone turns appropriately whimsical on “Santa Baby” — with a sparkling trumpet solo from Leif Shires — and a mildly stealthy “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

The set concludes — as do many holiday albums — with a slow, thoughtful reading of “Auld Lang Syne.” Jezzro opens as a soloist, with the rest of the combo joining to bring the tune home. All in all, an enjoyable collection with enough swing and musical chops to avoid being dismissed as elevator-friendly smooth jazz.

The Laura Caviani Trio’s Holly, Jolly and Jazzy dates back to 2013, but only recently crossed my radar. Its origin story is just as captivating as the album itself. The Minneapolis-based Caviani has performed and recorded since roughly the turn of the century, garnering praise from no less than Marian McPartland, and sharing the stage with jazz heavyweights such as Toots Theilemans, Bob Mintzer and Dave Liebman.

This holiday album — Caviani’s second, after 1999’s equally fine Angels We Haven’t Heard — originally was commissioned for Target stores in 2007. The album came to the attention of the Chicago-based game and puzzle retailer, Marbles: The Brain Store, which played it in their 37 brick-and-mortar outlets. When they decided to offer it as a point-of-purchase impulse item, Caviani and her side men — Gordon Johnson (bass) and Joe Pulice (drums) — recorded a “new and improved” version in 2013.

Marbles: The Brain Store is no more, having filed for bankruptcy in 2017, but the album continues to be available via cdbaby and Caviani’s web site. Good thing, too, because you’ll definitely want this one in your home library. (Actually, you’ll want both of her holiday albums.)

Holly, Jolly and Jazzy is a tasty collection of 12 straight-ahead arrangements: not flashy or the slightest bit “out there,” but rather mainstream piano trio jazz at its finest. Caviani favors gentle solo piano introductions on many of these holiday chestnuts, and then she often launches into stride as Johnson and Pulice help kick up the pace. Her syncopations are clever, and she — and her sidemen — slide in and out of swing, often at the bridge between verse and chorus, or melody and improv. These folks are tight; they’ve clearly performed together a lot.

The album opens with a Guaraldi-esque handling of “O Tannenbaum,” delivered as a mid-tempo swinger with Caviani and Johnson trading solos, and comping each other (as they do on numerous other tracks). “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Greensleeves” are both peppy waltzes, the former featuring some choice walking bass. “The Holly and the Ivy” is faster and more cheerful than most arrangements of this church hymn; at times, Caviani’s delicate keyboard work sounds just like rainfall. Pulice lays down a terrific rolling beat for “Jingle Bells,” which features another of Johnson’s excellent bass solos.

I’m particularly taken with the trio’s handling of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which opens as Johnson and Pulice lay down a rapid double-time beat, against which Caviana plays the melody in slower, standard time. The contrast is momentarily disorienting, but then quite beguiling; it’ll definitely make you smile.

Caviani concludes with a delicate solo piano reading of “Auld Lang Syne,” which brings this nifty album to a lovely close. It’ll get heavy rotation in our house this year.


• Keyboard wunderkind Joey Alexander’s A Joey Alexander Christmas is a lively four-song EP released just in time for the holidays. It opens with a kick-ass arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” with drummer Eric Harland and bassist Larry Grenadier laying down a playfully rhythmic beat that turns the tune into a lively strut; it’s impossible to hear without wanting to break out some cool dance moves.

The sweetly bluesy “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is the exact opposite: a sweet, leisurely ballad that opens with Alexander’s lyrical keyboard work against a gently rolling beat. He moves in progressively more aggressive directions during a lengthy improvisational solo, then ramps back down as he returns for a final refrain of the melody. Grenadier opens a lengthy arrangement of “My Favorite Things,” a remastered track from Alexander’s debut 2015 album of the same title; it’s a lengthy give-and-take between piano and bass, with the melody weaving in and out of numerous improv solos.

Alexander concludes with a gorgeous solo handling of the Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World,” a previously unreleased track from the sessions that produced his 2016 album, Countdown. This gentle arrangement is wistful and melancholy, with Alexander never straying too far from the melody. What a wonderful way to conclude this set … and we can hope that, one day, he expands it into a full-length album.

• Pittsburgh-based bassist Jason Hollar’s Cadillac Jazz Christmas is a lovely EP that features deft interplay between its leader and pianist Joe DeFazio, with solid backing by drummer David Jamison. Hollar and DeFazio typically trade melody and comping chores, and the seamless transitions bespeak plenty of practice.

The set opens with a mid-tempo handling of “Deck the Halls,” which boasts a lovely piano interlude and a rhythmic touch that slyly echoes Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.” Hollar’s upright bass is solemn during an unexpectedly relaxed presentation of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and the trio turns an initially gentle reading of “Auld Lang Syne” into a sassy, toe-tapping barrelhouse swinger.

Hollar truly shines with his mash-ups, starting with “We Three Kings Saw Three Ships.” This gentle waltz opens with a bass reading of “Kings,” followed by a piano reprise; Hollar and DeFazio then slide smoothly into “Ships,” at which point the two playfully duel their way through a lengthy improvisational finale. “Away in a Silent Night” is much more delicate: A solo piano opening of “Away in a Manger” segues to a bass reprise, and then to an equally gentle verse of “Silent Night.” “Joy to the Faithful” similarly trades both melodies between bass and piano.

This is a lovely little treasure, and a must for every holiday jazz library. Hollar makes it easy: Cadillac Jazz Christmas is available from cdbaby at no charge! 

• Toronto-based clarinetist and bandleader Bob De Angelis flirts with jazz on Christmas Swing, but far too much of the album finds his 50-piece Champagne Symphony in over-produced children’s pops mode: lots of strings, a harp and arrangements that stray too far from the Benny Goodman influence that characterizes De Angelis’ approach.

On the other hand, five tracks are solid, big band jazz, with nary a string to be heard. The dance band arrangement of the “Huron Carol” is particularly choice, with drums and a rhythm section right out of Goodman’s classic cover of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Sleek walking bass introduces “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” highlighted by terrific unison horns and a “duel” between De Angelis’ clarinet and a solo muted trumpet.

Piano and bass kick off a lively reading of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and a peppy “Joy to the World” offers sprightly solos on trombone, piano and vibes. The latter two players also offer short-but-sweet solos on “Deck the Halls,” alongside some sweet trumpet work. Unfortunately, none of these individuals can be cited, because the disc offers absolutely nothing in the way of liner notes or musician IDs. (Shameful!) Five tracks out of 15 probably isn’t enough to justify a purchase, which is a shame; it’d be nice to hear more of De Angelis’ swing unit, without the intrusive strings.

• I’ve been captivated by the Chad Lawson Trio since his clever re-working of the music from The Wizard of Oz, on their 2002 album, Dear Dorothy: The Oz Sessions. No surprise, then, that I’d be similarly charmed by Jazz the Halls. Lawson’s playful piano once again is augmented by equally skillful work from Elisa Pruett (upright bass) and Al Sergel (drums), and the result is a cheerful romp through five seasonal classics.

Lawson frequently opens and closes a tune via solo piano, and his improvisational passages favor rapid flurries of single notes punctuated by simple, well-chosen chords: not hummable melodies per se, but always beguiling sprints up and down the keyboard. Page gets plenty of exercise, as evidenced by the trio’s peppy rendition of “Deck the Halls,” where the walking bass beautifully complements Lawson’s sparkling solo. “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” are cheerful mid-tempo swingers; “Silent Night” emerges as a slow, contemplative waltz given gentle zest by Lawson’s delayed, slightly-off-the-beat approach to the melody.

Lawson also released a thoughtful arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as a single back in 2009 (downloadable from iTunes and other outlets), alongside Zack Page (upright bass) and Sergel (drums). It features Lawson’s similarly novel syncopation on the melody, against a gentle snowfall suggested by Sergel’s quiet brushes. All six tracks deserve plenty of play during your next holiday gathering. 

• Far too many combos I’ve covered over the years are dominated — or, generally, populated exclusively — by men. I therefore was delighted to come across the Mistletone Trio’s four-track EP, Christmas Lights: a nifty little program by Dharma Dorazio (bass), Carmen Murray (drums) and Edward Gabrielyan (piano). They’re students at the San Diego, California-based Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, where it’s obvious that educator/trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos is doing a fabulous job.

These kids have impressive chops for their age, and the arrangements here are dominated by cool rhythmic backing that grants far more attention to bass than we usually hear. A nifty, up-tempo handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” establishes finger-snapping backing for guest artist Castellanos’ sweet trumpet reading of the melody; he yields to tasty solos by Gabrielyan and Dorazio, the latter sharing her bass licks with smooth piano comping.

Castellanos also shines on a mid-tempo jazz waltz approach to “We Three Kings,” with the melody traded between his trumpet and Gabrielyan’s keyboard. The latter does well with his improv solo during a lengthy arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” again built upon a sleek bass/drums framework. Finally, Murray and Dorazio set up a ferocious double-time rhythm behind Gabrielyan’s majestic keyboard riffs on “Deck the Halls.”

I look forward to a full-length holiday jazz release by these and/or other Young Lions alums. It’s bound to be a similar treat.

• One would assume that an album titled Christmas Piano Jazz Music, with only one name on the cover — Chris Sidwell — features keyboard work by the gent in question. But no: Sidwell actually handles acoustic bass and guitar. He’s joined by Tony Campodonico (piano) and Sinclair Lott (drums), and their 10-track holiday collection qualifies as short but sweet: a gentle program that’s ideal as quiet background music during a gathering when you’d actually like to hear the folks you’re talking to.

The arrangements and solos are straightforward and unchallenging, but — important distinction — definitely not as puerile as most lobotomized smooth jazz. Sidwell and Campodonico deftly trade the melody on most tracks, and the solos never stray too far from the familiar verses and choruses. “O Christmas Tree,” “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” are given a tasty bossa nova beat, while “A Holly Jolly Christmas” emerges with a subtle country twang.

Jean Frye Sidwell adds vocals to two selections; her honeyed tone is just right for “The Christmas Song,” but she doesn’t have near enough playful sass for “Santa Baby.” That’s not a song for timid singers, and she simply doesn’t live up to the saucy arrangement.

On a sidebar note, the label — Pacific Coast Music — definitely needs to try harder with its liner notes and disc information; these are strictly from hunger. Curious listeners shouldn’t have to spend time on the Internet, trying to figure out who’s handling which instrument (a rapidly growing problem, in this era of digital downloads). Back in the day, sidemen often got no respect on early LPs; are we really heading backwards, to those unenlightened times?

Fortunately, the album itself is nowhere near that slapdash.

• Speaking of poorly described projects, one must beware of albums that fail to list sidemen at all; that’s often an indication of Frankenmusic that is partially — or completely — created on a computer. “Partially” seems to be the operative description for St. Louis-based drummer Kevin Kelley’s A Soulful Christmas, which backs a bit of fine keyboard work with a lot of mechanical percussion and frequently irritating sound effects. (You’d think a guy who bills himself as “one of the nation’s most versatile and sought-after professional drummers” would do a better job of concealing blatant fakery.)

It’s easy to tell on tracks such as “White Christmas,” and “Let It Snow,” which insert identical, repetitive “finger snaps” on every single down beat; the obnoxious “water squirt” sound effect in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is even worse. The drumming throughout shows little life or spontaneity, with a few notable exceptions: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” slides deftly between 5/4 and 6/4 time, and offers a wild keyboard solo at the bridge; “Winter Wonderland” is a pleasant, mid-tempo swinger, again highlighted by a nifty keyboard solo.

The quieter arrangements are more successful. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” emerges as a gentle jazz ballad backed by some well-placed “shimmer” effects, and the reverential handling of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is equally nice.

For the most part, though, Kelley’s tendency toward excess — most tracks are over-produced — obscures occasionally fine keyboard chops by … somebody. Although he acknowledges a “brotherhood of musicians” that includes Tony Simmons, Lawrence “Larry” Johnson, Keith Fowler and brother Kyle E. Kelley, there’s no indication of who does what, or where.

Don’t be misled by this album’s breathless promotional exaggeration; it’s not worth your time.

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