Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Holiday Jazz 2019: Plenty of tasty stocking-stuffers

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

Let’s start with a blast from the past, finally (finally!) making its debut on CD.

Longtime holiday jazz fans have always prized the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s two classic albums: 1961’s Sound of Christmas and 1964’s More Sounds of Christmas. Both initially were released by Argo and then reissued by Cadet and Chess; the first one went digital in 1989, first on Chess/MCA, and then on Verve. The second album logically should have hit CD simultaneously … but that didn’t happen.

Three decades passed (!). Then, just a few months ago, Verve quietly issued More Sounds of Christmas on CD. Modern listeners now can delight in the trio’s droll handling of “Snowbound,” “We Three Kings” and “Jingle Bells” — the latter a particularly saucy arrangement — and numerous other seasonal chestnuts, along with a couple of originals (“Egg Nog” and “Plum Puddin’ ”). 

The hitch: Five of the 10 tracks are accompanied by syrupy strings, which’ll raise an eyebrow or two. (Oh, well.)

Folks just starting a holiday jazz collection will be delighted by New Continent’s Christmas Hits: Jazz, Lounge and Rhythm & Blues. This three-disc anthology offers 25 iconic tracks in each of the three genres. The Christmas Jazz CD features classics by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton, Mel Tormé, Chet Baker and many others. Christmas Lounge is laden with vocals by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Julie London and others. Christmas Rhythm & Blues, finally, is a smorgasbord featuring The Cadillacs, Brenda Lee, Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Drifters and much more.

With 75 tracks for slightly less than $13, you can’t go wrong!

As this survey was going to bed, Santa dropped a copy of up-and-coming vocalist Rebecca Angel’s CD single cover of “Santa Baby.”Considerable bravery is required to tackle this classic, in the wake of Eartha Kitt’s iconic 1953 version, along with respectable later covers by Kylie Minogue and Madonna. To her credit, Angel has the appropriate little-girl coo, and her flirty reading is backed by a tasty quintet: Dennis Angel (Flugelhorn), Jason Miles (keyboards), Jonah Prendergast (guitar), Reggie Washington (bass) and Brian Dunne (drums).

But will it stand the test of time? Hard to say. 

Now, let’s see what else Santa brought jazz fans this year (or recently, anyway) …


Christmas with Tony Glausi is a lovely album from the New York-based trumpeter, keyboardist and composer, who has been hailed as a “great writer and a terrific trumpet player” by no less than Burt Bacharach.

Glausi’s holiday album offers a variety of configurations — duet, quartet and octet — and the results are enjoyable all around. The arrangements favor the traditional style that introduces a familiar tune via one or two verses, then launches into one or more improvisational solos, and then concludes with a reprise of the melody. Glausi is a generous leader; he grants ample space to his sidemen.

Most of the tracks feature a quartet, with Glausi joined by George Colligan (piano), Tom Wakeling (bass) and Jason Palmer (drums). The album opens with a perky, mid-tempo swing arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman,” which deftly suggests the waddle of that corpulent Christmas spirit. The reading is highlighted by cool walking bass and Colligan’s lengthy piano solo; the latter gets a sparkling improv solo during a similarly lively handling of “Greensleeves,” backed by a rolling rhythm section and Glausi’s sparkling trumpet work.

“Winter Wonderland” is an equally jovial mid-tempo swinger, with energetic solos by Colligan and Wakeling; Ghausi’s muted trumpet delivery of the melody sounds almost mocking, as if itching for a snowball fight. Muted trumpet also handles the melody on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which is softer and slower, with a whimsical tone that belies the song’s melancholy lyrics.

Ghausi shifts personnel for “O Tannenbaum,” accompanied now by Lee Burlingame (alto sax), Josh Hettwer (tenor sax and clarinet), Matt Hettwer (trombone), Jack Radsliff (guitar), Leo Bae (piano), Garrett Baxter (bass) and Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums). This strong 4/4 arrangement is very “front forward,” with the melody carried by the full horn section. The octet goes full-throttle with a double-time arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” with ferocious drumming and bass backing vibrant trumpet and sax solos.

Alternatively, the octet turns quiet for a somber reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which opens with a gentle guitar/muted trumpet duet on the melody; the arrangement expands as the other horns enter, but the tone remains solemn.

The approach is equally hushed on Ghausi and Radsliff’s two duet numbers: an unusually soft arrangement of “O Christmas Tree,” and a poignant “Silent Night,” with Ghausi’s sweet trumpet backed by Radsliff’s soft guitar comping. The latter concludes the album, and it’s a lovely track with which to depart a thoroughly enjoyable program.

It seems to be the year for jazz trumpet players. Virginia-based Craig Fraedrich spent three decades as a featured soloist with The U.S. Army Blues, while also serving as music director and trumpet section leader; aside from his solo career as combo leader and sideman, he also teaches at Shenandoah University, where I’ve no doubt his Pujé trumpet gets considerable exercise.

It certainly does on Silent Night: A Cool Capital Christmas Carol, a terrific collection of holiday chestnuts that slides from Chet Baker “cool” to Miles Davis “hard bop.” This album is aimed more at jazz lovers; only the barest traces of melody open and close each track, most of which run long, granting plenty of room for sometimes stratospheric improv solos by Fraedrich, Jim Roberts (guitar), Regan Brough (bass) and Larry Ferguson (drums).

The stage is set with the album-opening “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” an up-tempo swinger with a nod toward “Killer Joe,” and lengthy solos that’ll raise a smile from listeners who enjoy challenging chromatic harmonies. Brough’s peppy walking bass brings even more sass to “Sleigh Ride,” which offers some particularly tasty guitar comping behind Fraedrich’s horn work.

His touch turns positive plaintive on a gentle, samba-style handling of “Mary Did You Know,” which also boasts Roberts’ fine guitar licks. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is equally tender — almost folksy — with a delivery that borrows from the jazz lullaby “Little Darlin’.” And everybody will recognize Miles Davis’ “All Blues” rhythmic backing on a “Silent Night” that’s anything but, in a cheeky arrangement that plays with time signatures.

A few of the solos go pretty far “out there,” notably on a minor blues waltz handling of “Carol of the Bells.” It opens against hypnotic drums, bass and guitar; Fraedrich subsequently sails out of sight during his lengthy solo. “Coventry Carol” begins deceptively: initially a slow rubato trumpet/guitar duet that abruptly blossoms into a mid-tempo swinger highlighted by lengthy solos from everybody.

The album closes with a double-time arrangement of “Good King Wenceslas,” wherein Brough really goes to town; Fraedrich and Roberts maintain the pace during their equally ferocious solos. After which, listeners also will be out of breath … while hastening to play the album again from the beginning.

Nashville-based jazz pianist Jody Nardone maintains an impressively busy performance schedule, and for the past several years has included holiday tribute concerts to Vince Guaraldi’s iconic music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. 2018’s sold-out show took place in front of an enthusiastic audience at Nashville’s City Winery; the gig was recorded and has just been released as (no surprise) A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Nardone, a veritable keyboard monster, is joined by trio members Jerry Navarro (acoustic bass) and Chris Brown (drums). The lengthy concert includes covers of every track from Guaraldi’s 1965 album, along with additional treats. Although easily capable of replicating Vince’s gentle bossa nova touch — as evidenced by the album’s opening medley of “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Thanksgiving Theme,” and also during “What Child Is This” — Nardone is much more aggressive with his improvisational bridges. He favors ambitious chord structures, whereas Guaraldi leaned toward single-note runs and filigrees.

That distinction is key; it makes this album’s listening experience pleasantly familiar, but by no means slavish.

Nardone’s improv work is playful during “O Tannenbaum” and “The Charlie Brown Theme,” and his “Christmas Time Is Here” is soft, sweet and lyrical, with a lovely keyboard interlude at the bridge. These early tracks definitely channel Guaraldi, but Nardone’s own style becomes more prominent as the performance proceeds. The shift occurs during the quintessential “Linus and Lucy,” when Nardone makes the second bridge distinctly his own.

The audience subsequently gets a couple of engaging “his and mine” examples, starting with Nardone’s “Guaraldi version” of a fleeting melody (“Surfin’ Snoopy”) heard in the TV special — during a comic encounter between Schroeder, Lucy and Snoopy — but not included on the original album. Having tickled patrons’ memories, Nardone and trio then launch into their version of “Surfin’ Snoopy”: a double-time blast of energy with jaw-dropping solos by all three musicians.

This one-two punch repeats with Nardone’s solo keyboard duplication of Schroeder’s nod to Beethoven, on “Fur Elise.” But that’s not Christmas jazz, Nardone cheekily insists, at which point he and the trio launch into a lively blend of Beethoven and Brubeck/Desmond, with an arrangement dubbed “Five Elise.” Once again, the dynamic solos bring down the house.

The cutest interlude comes when Nardone instructs the audience on how to deliver the chanting elements of Guaraldi’s arrangement of “My Little Drum,” and then performs the tune to the Nashville crowd’s impressively accurate unison vocal. Very inspiring.

Other highlights include Nardone’s gentle, achingly sweet solo piano arrangement of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”; his great keyboard runs during the lyrical “Skating”; and the ambitious chord work and tempo shifts during the rock-inflected “Christmas Is Coming.”

The trio obliges the call for encores with engaging covers of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” By which point, the listener has had plenty of merry, but the experience has been far above little.

One of Colorado’s favorite swing bands, After Midnight, has been entertaining fans for slightly more than two decades. Clarinetist Roger Campbell leads the sextet, whose sound will evoke smiles from Benny Goodman fans; Campbell is supported by Mike McCullough (guitar), Rick Weingarten (vibes, bells and percussion), Jerry Weiss (piano), Dwight Thompson (bass) and Jim Moore (drums).

Their holiday album is appropriately titled Christmas Time Is Here, given that the combo covers that title song and two of Guaraldi’s other compositions from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Campbell’s clarinet takes the lead in a spirited reading of “Skating,” trading the cascading melody with Weiss’ piano; the up-tempo jazz waltz expands to include an equally feisty vibes solo, after which Campbell and Weiss bring the tune home.

Piano and guitar trade the melody during an equally vibrant “Linus and Lucy,” in an arrangement that favors McCullough’s rambunctious guitar solo during the single swing bridge. (The song traditionally has two.) The group dials the action down for the traditionally slow and sweet title song, highlighted by a gentle vibes solo backed by tasty guitar comping.

Thompson, Weingarten and Moore lay down a rhythm line right out of “Caravan,” for a terrific version of “We Three Kings” that shifts into swing time after the first verse; “Jingle Bells” is cleverly mashed into Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” and the delicious result should be titled “Jingle Blues.” The group also gets playful with “Angels We Have Heard on High,” transforming that carol into a 5/4 swinger highlighted by lengthy improv solos on clarinet and piano.

“Carol of the Bells” becomes a sleek jazz waltz with some tasty bass work during the bridge; “Winter Wonderland” surrounds clarinet, guitar and piano solos with a melody tweaked by intriguing syncopation touches; a thoughtful, somber “Silent Night” features lovely piano comping behind the clarinet melody, and tasty walking bass behind Weiss’ improv solo.

Weingarten supplies a beautiful solo reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and I’ll now forever associate that carol with solo vibes. Droll clarinet, guitar and piano highlight an original appropriately titled “A Campbell Christmas.”

My one caveat is the wish that McCullough had resisted the impulse to sing on five of these 15 tracks. He’s certainly heartfelt, and usually croons only one or two quick verses before turning the rest of the song over to his comrades, but his vocal chops aren’t in the same league as the instrumentalists … which is particularly true during an ill-advised handling of “Mary’s Little Boy.”

But that’s a minor kerfuffle. This is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable album, and well deserving full rotation during a holiday gathering.

(Don’t be alarmed by the CD cover art, which fails to mention any human beings, and therefore makes the disc look suspiciously like a Frankenmusic production. That was a lamentable art department decision.)

New York-based composer, educator and jazz guitarist Dave Stryker first entered the holiday scene with 2005’s Six String Santa, a sassy solo album that blended straight-ahead arrangements with some post-bop pizzazz. His second seasonal release, Eight Track Christmas, is a group project with regular sidemen Stefon Harris (vibes), Jarod Gold (organ) and McClenty Hunter (drums and percussion). 

The result is a tasty collection of traditional mainstream arrangements; the overall approach is mellow and mid-tempo. Each track opens and closes with a familiar melody, bookending lively improv solos by each combo member. (My one objection is that — for the most part — the sequence remains the same: a guitar solo, followed by solos on vibes and organ. Switching up the order a bit would offer more variety.)

The album opens with a smooth handling of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” with Hunter’s soft rhythm backing a melody traded between guitar and vibes, and a bridge that offers the aforementioned improv solos. Aside from this and similar opportunities for Gold to shine individually, his organ work functions primarily as background color for Stryker and Harris, who display an effortless give-and-take that bespeaks plenty of practice together.

“Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” is gentle, Gold’s organ comping positively wistful, while the others deliver doleful solos that reflect a message that the world has yet to embrace; “What Child Is This” is mysterious and somber, although it concludes with a droll quote from “My Favorite Things.” Hunter sits out a particularly peaceful “Christmas Time Is Here,” with Stryker and Harris gently trading the melody during a slow and thoughtful arrangement. “Blue Christmas” has an appropriately country twang against a strong four-beat.

Things heat up during a sassy, double-time handling of “Sleigh Ride.” Hunter establishes a ferocious beat that enhances some equally feisty improv from Harris; indeed, many of his solos are all over the place (and I mean that as a compliment). Fun as this track is, it’s bested by “Soulful Frosty,” a clever mash-up of “Frosty the Snowman” and Young-Holt Unlimited’s iconic 1968 hit, “Soulful Strut.” The result is wildly entertaining, although the fiery “soul” tends to melt the fleeting traces of “snowman.”

The program concludes with a swinging arrangement of “O Tannenbaum,” which grants each musician one final chance to exit with some sassy improv. I expect this album to get heavy rotation during this year’s holiday jazz radio shows.

Its title notwithstanding, the holiday album by Steve Bradley and the BMS Project strays rather frequently from jazz. Christmas Jazzpressions boasts some nifty tracks, but others fall under the heading of “thoughtful” or “pretty” … which is to say, they ain’t swingers.

That’s a shame, because at times Bradley is an inventive arranger who clearly enjoys playing with time signatures. A mash-up of “We Three Kings” and “Good King Wenceslas” slides between 5/4 and 6/4 time, Derrick Siebert (sax) and Ryan Nottingham (trumpet) cleverly counterpointing each other on the two melodies. A similarly inventive 5/4 handling of “Angels We Have Heard on High” also boasts fine work by Siebert and Nottingham, particularly with improv solos during a 4/4 swing bridge powered by Ron De La Vega (bass), Peter Young (drums and percussion) and Matt Schaffner (additional percussion).

Bradley highlights a cool samba arrangement of “What Child Is This” with his rhythmic piano melody and solo; a dramatic reading of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is highlighted by plenty of sax and trumpet, with Bradley comping skillfully in the background. He and Nottingham dial down the intensity for a thoughtful duet mash-up of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Going Home,” the piano and horn supporting each other quite smoothly.

Sax and piano duel playfully on “Christmas Bossa Nova Blues,” a Bradley original that is engaging, but doesn’t stray anywhere near a holiday mood; another original, “Waltz for Snoopy,” is a whimsical trifle with little substance. Delicate covers of “O Come Emmanuel” and “While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks”/“Away in a Manger” are sweet, but they’re not jazz.

Guitarist Mark Liesenger solos and also croons on “Christmas in Vienna,” his own original: a lyrical little waltz tune that veers toward syrupy sentimentality. His vocal chops nonetheless are better than Bradley, who makes the mistake of singing along with his own keyboard and violin duet; the result leaves something to be desired.

Even so, it’s clear — given more discipline — that this combo can deliver the goods.


• Annie Booth has an inventive touch with arrangements, which has much to do with the delights to be found on her holiday release, Festive! The Denver-based pianist/composer is joined by recurring trio members Patrick McDevitt (bass) and Alejandro Castaño (drums), and their comradeship shows; they’re a tight little combo, with each musician in that “mind-reading” groove that bespeaks plenty of practice and performance time.

Booth’s approach is nothing fancy; she enjoys tweaking syncopation, tempo and time signatures, and she’ll unexpectedly re-cast a familiar major-key tune into an intriguing minor or diminished mode. This is evident in the album-opening handling of “White Christmas,” with Booth’s feisty keyboard chops accompanied by McDevitt’s sleek walking bass. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” turns into a bright, mid-tempo swinger also highlighted by walking bass and Booth’s lively improv during the bridge.

“Silent Night” earns a more thoughtful approach, as befits this gentle carol; the minor key counterpoint is quite effective. A leisurely reading of “The Christmas Song” is particularly heartfelt, with McDevitt once again supplying lovely counterpoint; Castaño cheekily inserts some jingle bells as the tune concludes.

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is a droll, raucous swinger punctuated by a brief but wholly appropriate vocal; “Carol of the Bells” benefits from tempo shifts that alternately accelerate and decelerate, and Booth inserts a thoughtful improv solo during the bridge. The program concludes with “Auld Lang Syne,” re-cast as a toe-tapping New Orleans shuffle: a lively finish to a thoroughly enjoyable album.

• Grammy Award-winning blues singer, guitarist and songwriter Keb Mo (born Kevin Roosevelt Moore) waited almost four decades — after his 1980 debut album, Rainmaker — to release a holiday disc. And although he covers some Christmas blues classics, Moonlight, Mistletoe & You is unexpectedly mainstream for an artist regarded as a “living link to the seminal Delta blues.” Two tracks are even fully orchestrated.

The album opens with an unexpectedly upbeat take on Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” with cheerfully funky instrumentation backing Mo’s optimistic reading of the lyrics. A duet with Melissa Manchester on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” is fun and flirty: one of the fully orchestrated arrangements, backed by strings, brass and sax, and further highlighted by Mike Pachelli’s lovely guitar solo.

Longtime fans will be delighted by the pure blues handling of Teddy Edwards’ “Santa Claus, Santa Claus,” backed by Mo’s wailin’ electric guitar and Phil Madeira’s saucy keyboard touches. Charley Jordan’s equally classic “Santa Claus” blues gets a similarly heavy dose of Mississippi spirit.

Half of the 10 tracks are Mo originals, highlighted by a pair of lovely romantic ballads: the title song, accompanied by Gerald Albright’s playfully sexy sax solo; and “One More Year with You,” with Shelly Berg’s grand piano touches and full orchestration backing a sweetly sentimental reflection on the end of the holiday season, and the pleasure of anticipating another full year with one’s sweetheart.

The whimsical “Christmas Is Annoying,” in hilarious contrast, is a spiritual descendent of Bob Dorough’s 1962 hit, “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)”: a similarly cynical take on the exploitative commercial elements that obscure the true meaning of Christmas. (It was true in ’62, and it’s still true today.)

It’s darn near impossible to introduce a new holiday tune that’ll stand the test of time, but I’ve got money on “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You.” Let’s check back in 25 years.

• Keyboardist Michelle Pollace’s A Latin Jazz Christmas is a tasty little EP that offers a quartet of traditional carols given a lively salsa/bossa nova twist. She’s joined by Ron Sotelo (bass), Sam Sotelo (drums, timbales) and Willie Garza (congas, bongos, chekere and bells), with guest musician Lucy Skystone adding some violin touches to the album opener — a playful cha-cha arrangement of “Deck the Halls” — in order to “capture that classic charanga orquesta vibe” (to quote Pollace’s notes).

The mood is more serious on “What Child Is This,” which is transformed into a rolling waltz with Pollace’s piano work turning positively magisterial. Sotelo takes a sleek bass solo at the bridge, and Pollace makes the final verse mildly mysterious, by switching the melody to a minor key. She favors flowery arpeggios and also has an engaging tendency to jump ahead of the beat — or lag behind it — which makes her arrangements more provocative.

“Joy to the World” is slower and more reverential, the familiar melody slightly deconstructed into a series of descending and ascending motifs; the percussion work is a bit gentler here, as befits the tone. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is the disc’s sole disappointment; Pollace’s shift to electric keyboard is a nice twist, but the rhythm section sounds too “canned” (and since she’s also credited for shakers and loops, I’d argue this track relies too heavily on the latter).

Pollace knows when to get off the stage. At slightly more than 16 minutes, this EP is just the right length; too many Latin-ized holiday albums rapidly turn monotonous, with rhythmic backing that sounds all the same. Pollace’s arrangements are unique enough to satisfy throughout.

• Pianist Terry Lower, on the other hand, doesn’t know when to get out of his own way. His trio’s Sleigh Ride has some lovely moments, but too much of the disc is marred by over-production and the highly irritating presence of strings, invariably in the unvarying rising and falling of canned computer elements. He should have trusted his basic trio configuration — alongside Ray Tini (bass) and Larry Ochiltree (drums and percussion) — because they’re just fine, without any extraneous “sweetening.”

The proof comes with his combo’s handling of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which offers Tini’s cool walking bass against Lower’s keyboard lead; the arrangement is peppier than usual for this song, with a nifty keyboard change toward the end. “What Child Is This” is even more fun; it opens with some lively piano/bass interplay, then slides into a double-time bridge with a hint of salsa. 

An up-tempo “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is flat-out sassy, again with slick walking bass behind Lower’s melody. He takes a sparkling improv bridge on this one: a bit more ambitious than his usual approach, which favors single-note runs over more ambitious chord structures.

A whimsical arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” boasts cute “galloping” percussion touches, but the track is marred by the aforementioned faux strings … as is the case with a slow waltz handling of “Silent Night.”

Most of the remaining tracks feature vocals by Edye Evans Hyde, and that’s another weakness; she often slides upwards while seeking the proper note, and she hits a decidedly bad one at the beginning of a wildly overwrought handling of “Christmas Time Is Here.” She also can’t come anywhere near the energy required by “O Holy Night.”

Ironically, her scatting is far more successful than her singing, as demonstrated by her animated efforts on a double-time “Winter Wonderland,” and an equally enthusiastic “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The latter includes a nice guitar solo by guest artist Mike Hyde. Even so, the overall disc is too uneven to warrant a thumbs-up.

• John Basile’s Silent Night is equally disappointing. He has the chops, performance and recording history to warrant his billing as a jazz guitarist, but you’d never know it from this disc. Almost all arrangements are gentle and undemanding, aside from modestly peppy stand-outs such as “Silver Bells” and an unexpectedly up-tempo reading of “What Child Is This?”

I’m more dismayed by the fact that all backing “instrumentation” is computer-generated, which Basile cheekily describes as “MIDI technology to create colorful textures against ‘live’ jazz guitar improvisations.” In other words, Frankenmusic backing. Doesn’t matter how it’s defined; the result — notably keyboard and percussion touches — can’t help sounding canned and redundant.

Some of Basile’s arrangements also don’t quite succeed. Although he tries for contrasting guitar “voices” on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the song simply doesn’t work without its flirty lyrics performed by sparring lovers.

Basile’s guitar work is pleasant throughout, but this album doesn’t come within shouting distance of deserving its claim of “jazz improvisations.” This is true background music, and that’s not meant as a compliment.

• Les McCann’s A Time Les Christmas is an odd duck, particularly coming from a keyboardist/vocalist who was one of the early innovators of “soul jazz” back in the late 1960s and ’70s. One therefore expects this program to emphasize bluesy, rumbling vocals against funk-laden backing, much like the album-opening arrangement of “Merry Christmas Baby”; it oozes saucy blues, with McCann’s throaty growl backed by Bobby Sparks’ Hammond B3 and Josh Sklair’s sleek guitar solo at the bridge.

“This Christmas” is a similarly cheeky mid-tempo swinger; McCann shares space with Ricky Peterson’s cool electric piano solo. And “Let It Snow” finds McCann backed by a full big band; the tune opens with a flourish of unison brass, then slides into toe-tapping swing, highlighted by Michael Wolff’s deft piano solo against John Patitucci’s walking bass.

Alas, that’s it for the cool stuff. The remaining seven tracks vary from maudlin, string-laden arrangements burdened by the monotonous drums and percussion of mediocre smooth jazz — “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” being typical examples — and overwrought, spoken-word patter songs that seem to have been lifted from a church service. A McCann original titled “The Gift” is particularly egregious: insufferably syrupy, and burdened further by a relentlessly repetitive single line.

“My Christmas Heart,” another McCann original, is an instrumental piece that wanders bewilderingly from tasty swing touches — McCann on piano, accompanied by Del Atkins (bass) and Stix Hooper (drums) — to the sort of phrasing one would expect to back a jubilation choir. The 54-second final track, a solemn, single-verse reading of “Away in a Manger,” merely reinforces the liturgical atmosphere. 

At which point, listeners will wonder what the heck happened to the blues and swing.

• Although I’ve long been drawn to piano trios, guitar trios can be equally tasty; portions of the Anthony Pieruccini Trio’s Figgy Pudding definitely fall into that category. The trio designation is somewhat misleading, since half of this album’s tracks add Josh Spada’s sax chops to the mix. The approach slides between jazz (with Pieruccini usually on acoustic guitar) and rock/fusion (electric guitar), and the transitions can be jarring. That said, the jazz-inflected arrangements make the album a worthwhile purchase.

An up-tempo reading of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is a lot of fun, with the melody shifting between 4/4 swing and waltz time; the interplay between Pieruccini’s guitar and Spada’s sax gives the improv bridge some sparkle. Jeremy Blouch’s walking bass enlivens an equally peppy “Jingle Bells,” given a strong four-beat by drummer/percussionist Nick Kochanek.

Blouch’s bass work also highlights a mid-tempo reading of “Good King Wenceslas”; and Kochanek turns “Up on the Housetop” into a vibrant, New Orleans-style strut, with the droll sax melody yielding to feisty guitar and sax solos at the bridge. A mid-tempo “Angels We Have Heard on High” flat-out swings, and is highlighted by more solid improv guitar work.

The rock-inflected arrangements are less successful. Pieruccini’s electric guitar is inappropriately harsh for “Mary Did You Know,” a carol that demands a softer, more respectful treatment. The rock ’n’ roll touch is better employed on a majestic arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” A rolling, rhythmic jazz waltz handling of “Greensleeves” also veers into rock as the arrangement proceeds.

The album concludes with a brief — but soft and quite sweet — solo guitar reading of “O Tannenbaum,” at which point Pieruccini and his mates gracefully exit the stage.

• Jazz/classical guitarist Peter Curtis has performed and recorded with notable jazz and blues musicians such as James Carter, Taj Mahal and James Moody, and he garnered all manner of accolades for his 2005 quartet album Swing State. That said, his new holiday release — Christmas with your Jewish Boyfriend — doesn’t come within shouting distance of jazz. 

It’s nonetheless a lovely album that showcases Curtis’ lyrical solo guitar chops. The title is a droll reference to the ironic fact that many (most?) of our “modern” Christmas tunes came from Jewish songwriters.

Curtis opens with sparkling arrangements of “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas,” and then shifts to a quieter, contemplative approach on the wistful “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” He takes a sweet, exploratory solo during a lengthy bridge, then returns to the familiar melody as the track concludes.

His up-tempo handling of “Sleigh Ride” is vibrant, perky and fun; “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” benefits from intriguing time signature twists. And he somehow makes his guitar sound “female” and sexy during a droll arrangement of “Santa Baby.”

The album concludes with an original Curtis tune that gives the album its title; he croons the droll lyrics with a heartfelt earnestness that compensates for vocal chops that display more sincerity than range. The song concludes with a brief quote from “Jingle Bells,” at which point you’ll likely want to play the album again.

• A cappella groups have become quite the rage of late, and Accent is one of the best. The sextet is novel in that its members hail from many different countries: tenors Simon Åkesson (Sweden), Jean-Baptiste Craipeau (France), Danny Fong and Andrew Kesler (both Canada); baritone James Rose (UK); and bass Evan Sanders (USA). Their harmonizing is gorgeous and quite “full”; you’d often swear they were backed by an instrument or two.

That’s actually the case with their holiday release,Christmas All the Way … but only sometimes. The album opens with a brisk a cappella medley of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “What Child Is This” and “O Christmas Tree,” which highlights the lively vocal interplay. Another a cappella number — “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (in Swedish) — is pretty, but nowhere near jazz; the same is true of the two songs — “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “O Holy Night” — backed by the string-laden Budapest Scoring Orchestra.

On the other hand, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Let it Snow” get plenty of swing from Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. The former opens with vibrant piano and bass, after which the band roars for almost two minutes; the vocalists then trade lyrics and licks with the instrumentalists until the tune’s swinging finale. “Let it Snow” boasts an equally ferocious band intro, along with clever syncopation and a great instrumental bridge highlighted by Arturo Sandoval’s sparkling trumpet solo.

“The Christmas Song” is a softer, slower ballad, with the vocalese supported by tasty piano comping; Don Shelton contributes a lengthy, lyrical clarinet solo during the bridge. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” gets a funkified makeover, with George Shelby’s saucy sax solo backed by cool vocal comping. An a cappella “Petit Papa Noël,” in French, is literally a finger-snapper; the lyrics are crooned to a slow swing beat.

Those who enjoy tight-tight-tight a cappella groups will love this album; jazz fans must be content with only half the tracks.

• James Morrison is all over This Is Christmas, and not merely because he’s the name attraction; during the course of this baker’s dozen of holiday chestnuts, he rotates between trumpet, trombone, alto horn, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet, tenor sax and Hammond organ. He’s accompanied by the Ray Brown Trio — Brown, bass; Benny Green, piano; and Jeff Hamilton, drums — and when they cook, they really cook. 

This quartet, in turn, is backed by Berlin’s RIAS Orchestra … and therein lies the disc’s identity crisis. Roughly half the tracks are leisurely to mid-tempo big band swingers; the others slide between easy-listening orchestral, and magisterial “church brass.” The latter are pretty and reverential, but they ain’t jazz … and it’s frustrating to hear the quartet’s jazz elements overpowered by strings and (in one notorious case) woo-woo/ah-ah choir vocalese.

That said, the album opens with a marvelous mid-tempo handling of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” with solid solos on sax, drums and trumpet; the arrangement concludes with a three-note Count Basie flourish guaranteed to prompt a smile. Hamilton sets up a terrific beat for a way-cool reading of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which boasts nifty solos and concludes with a resounding crescendo of unison horns.

Guest percussionist Luiz Rodolfo “Rolo” Rodriguez gives “Jingle Bells” a sizzling Latin twist, with plenty of rolling rhythm backing vibrant solos on keyboards and muted trumpet; this arrangement is just plain fun.

Those sassy tracks are balanced by equally enjoyable slower numbers, such as the lovely bass/sax interplay that opens “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” before the full orchestra kicks in; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is similarly reverential, although Hamilton and Brown contribute some rhythmic snap as the song builds to a unison horn climax.

The album concludes with a droll, bluesy handling of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which boasts plenty of Brown’s sleek bass work alongside a cool piano solo and Morrison’s muted trumpet melody. One wishes the entire album could have stuck to jazz, but when the results are this polished, I’ll take what I can get.

• I cannot find any information about the “Manhattan Jazz Masters” — nor is anybody identified at CD Baby or other sources — which fuels the suspicion that this project didn’t involve living, breathing musicians. (One also must be suspicious of a release that claims to be "the classic Christmas jazz album.") But if it is Frankenmusic, the results are impressive. This is a small combo configuration: sax, piano, bass and drums, with occasional flute touches. The rhythm section never sounds “canned,” which is the usual giveaway; the interplay between sax and piano is reasonably agile, and the solos are solid (if not terribly adventurous).

Many of these 18 tracks open with solo piano, after which the melody is traded between keyboard and sax, with the other comping agreeably. The overall tone shifts as the tracks proceed; the initial arrangements are cheerful and peppy, with a mid-tempo bounce that suits standards such as “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (which gets a droll oom-pahbeat), “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (highlighted by sleek walking bass) and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (a tasty jazz waltz).

The mood turns more thoughtful toward the end, with reverential arrangements of “O Holy Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” (with cleverly changing time signatures) and a particularly lovely “Silent Night.”

In between, the side-by-side pairing of a slow, soft and sweet “Christmas Time Is Here” contrasts nicely with a delightful minor key arrangement of “Linus and Lucy,” boasting peppy sax bridges backed by a shuffle beat. A similarly playful “rolling” rhythm kicks off “Feliz Navidad,” which features a lengthy quote from “Auld Lang Syne” during the bridge. A droll arrangement of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is highlighted by more tasty walking bass.

The package appears to have one flaw: The melancholy, slow-waltz arrangement of John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” abruptly cuts off, right in the middle of a sax solo. It’s quite jarring, particularly when we next hear the traditional gentle solo piano introduction to “The Christmas Song.”

Whether programmed or actually performed by incredibly shy musicians, this album would make a good backdrop for a quiet holiday gathering.

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