Monday, November 30, 2020

Holiday Jazz 2020: A world affair!

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s primary jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for 24 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

As a greater number of releases have become solely digital, it has gotten harder to separate the (rare) wheat from the (all too common) chaff. The primary reason is an absence of data. Most digital releases offer only a cover image, and nothing else, in the way of information. No little essay about or by the primary artist(s), no recording or mastering engineers, and — quite often — no instrument personnel. 


This is a frustrating a throwback to the early days of LPs, when (as but one example) several of Vince Guaraldi’s Fantasy albums failed to credit his sidemen. It was rude and unacceptable then, and it’s just as intolerable now.


I also mourn the loss of cdbaby’s online store, which ceased operation in March, in order to focus exclusively on helping artists to monetize and promote their music. Every album listed in the former store — whether digital or hard media — had its own page, with all the essential information one would expect from a detailed CD booklet. Visitors also could sample tracks from every entry.


Fortunately, iTunes, Spotify and Amazon still allow sampling.


Even so…


Little by little, it’s getting harder to “browse” music — as in the good ol’ days of record bins — looking for wonderful stuff that you won’t know you want, until you stumble across it.


This is progress?


I think not.




New York-based pianist Ben Paterson is both a Steinway artist and winner of 2018’s inaugural Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition. No surprise, then: He has serious keyboard chops. He also performs smoothly alongside bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Charles Goold, with whom he shares one of those symbiotic relationships that suggests mutual mind-reading. They’re a tight unit, and I’ll Be Thanking Santa is a terrific album.


Paterson is a generous leader, granting Sellick almost as much solo time as he takes himself. Sellick favors walking bass, and his licks are quite engaging on “O Tannenbaum” and “Winter Wonderland.” He also introduces the melody on “The Christmas Waltz” and subsequently dominates that tune.


Goold tends to be less visible, establishing solid rhythmic backing without calling attention to himself; it’s almost startling when he takes occasional drum solos, on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Winter Wonderland.”


I love Paterson’s solo introduction on a thoughtful reading of “The Christmas Song”; his keyboard work sounds like a series of melodic questions and answers. His contemplative solo handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” precisely captures the wistful tone Judy Garland gave that song, when she introduced it in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis.


“O Tannenbaum” is a groovy, mid-tempo toe-tapper that challenges listeners not to get up and boogie; the arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” is much peppier than usual, backed by driving rhythm that feels like a moving train. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” emerges as a bossa nova sparkler, while the Tagalog carol “Pasko Na Naman” is transformed into a tango-esque swinger that builds to an aggressive climax by all three musicians. Paterson also is all over the keyboard during most of “Winter Wonderland”; it’s easy to see how he won that Marsalis competition.


Paterson includes two vocal originals. “Christmas, Won’t You  Stick Around for Awhile” is a wistful ode to those who can’t bear to see the holiday season conclude; “I’ll Be Thanking Santa” is a cheerier love song that acknowledges life’s truly most important gifts. Both tunes boast clever lyrics and rhymes; Paterson definitely could moonlight as a songwriter.


This album demands heavy rotation on your playlist.