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.



Richmond, Virginia, is blessed with a full-blown swing band fronted by bassist/arranger Andrew Randazzo, which performs as the R4nd4zzo Big Band. The 15-piece unit boasts four trumpets, three trombones, four reeds and a rhythm section of keyboards (Jacob Ungerleider), guitar (Alan Parker), bass (Randazzo) and drums (DJ Harrison). The ensemble presented a swinging tribute to Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas to a packed house at Richmond’s Vagabond on December 18, 2017; the performance was recorded and released as a Bandcamp digital album — A Big Band Tribute to Vince Guaraldi — a month later.


I can’t imagine why it took so long for me to find it; this album definitely shouldn’t be missed.


Aside from his inventive arrangements, Randazzo also has a cheeky sense of humor; the classic holiday tunes and Guaraldi originals have been given fresh titles that occasionally require a bit of thought … such as “SK8N,” which features unison brass on the familiar melody, following Randazzo’s tasty solo bass introduction. The pace picks up, with Toby Whitaker and JC Kuhl delivering cool solos on (respectively) bass trombone and baritone sax.


The set kicks off with “Tannenbomb,” which begins in gentle Guaraldi fashion; the full band then sets a mid-tempo pace for sleek solos on piano and brass, against Randazzo’s bass comping. The ensemble returns to the melody and then concludes with a double-time burst of speed.


The mid-tempo “Drum Closet” (“My Little Drum”) is dominated by groovy rolling percussion, the melody taken by brass against Parker’s guitar comping. Parker similarly dominates the melody in a thoughtful cover of “Black Friday” (“Christmas Time Is Here”), and he also gets plenty of exposure — notably during a lengthy bridge solo — in “Whose Baby Is This!?”


A few arrangements may challenge Guaraldi purists, starting with an unusually contemplative, mid-tempo reading of “Linus, Single Again,” dominated by Ungerleider’s sweet piano solo and some cool rhythm work. But the stand-out, for exploratory ambition, is “Xmas on a Thursday,” a deconstructed handling of “Christmas Is Coming.” It’s dominated by funky bass and percussion, a barely recognized melody in a minor key, and an acid rock electric guitar solo that soars into outer space … after which the track concludes with a traditional solo piano reading of “Fur Elise.” Far out, man!


The set finishes with a gentle reading of “Chestnuts,” featuring guest vocalist Roger Carroll; Randazzo’s acoustic bass solo at the bridge is particularly lush, backed by unison brass comping. The horns takes over the melody when Carroll returns to croon the iconic tune to a close. At which point, a very good time clearly has been had by all.


(One minor issue: I rather doubt Peanuts Worldwide, Fantasy/Concord and all others concerned would be pleased by this digital album cover!)



Proving once again that both jazz and pop-culture Christmas songs are beloved around the world, Christmas Time is a fantastic duo album from Japanese pianist Hideaki Hori and bassist Hiroshi Takase. They’re both veritable monsters on their respective instruments, and many of this album’s tracks are jaw-dropping displays of speed, jazz chops and always-engaging harmonic and improv interplay.


But you wouldn’t suspect that from the album’s opening track, a leisurely reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” that deftly captures the tune’s wistful qualities. The duo’s handling of “Silent Night” — which appropriately concludes the album — is similarly peaceful and reverential, and Hori’s solo reading of “The Christmas Song” also is gentle; all three tracks probably can’t be considered jazz.


Ah, but everything in between is a different story. Many of the remaining tracks run long, allowing ample space for sensational improv work as the two musicians trade off; sometimes one comps the other, other times they both roar in tandem.


A fast-paced “Jingle Bells” is great fun; Hori is all over the piano, with Takase’s dynamic walking bass keeping up every step of the way. “Jingle Bell Rock” is equally peppy and playful, with plenty of keyboard runs and a midpoint shift that puts the straight-time melody against double-time bass. “Let It Snow” is buoyant and sparkling, cleverly conveying precisely what it feels like to play in snow. Takase’s bass work is particularly clever in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”


The arrangement of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is unlike any other cover I’ve ever heard: ferocious double-time, with simply stunning keyboard work during the lengthy improv bridge. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is equally clever, with the melody introduced in blocked chords, and a lively improv bridge that slides in and out of swing time.


Takase shifts to bowed bass to introduce the melodies for both “Coventry Carol” and “Deck the Halls.” The former remains delicate and solemn, as befits its qualities as a traditional hymn, but the latter becomes increasingly more intense during the lengthy improv bridge.


By the time we reach the penultimate track, most listeners will be breathless. Thankfully, Hori and Takase slow our heartbeats with a thoughtful handling of “O Holy Night,” with bold chords and an inquisitive bass solo; and then conclude with the aforementioned “Silent Night.”


This album must, must, must find its way into your library.



And it’ll be in good company, when placed alongside the Kazumi Tateishi Trio’s Christmas Meets Jazz. The prolific pianist/composer/arranger and producer is well known for his clever concept albums, such as Ghibli Meets Jazz, with its lovely covers of themes and songs from Kiki’s Delivery ServiceMy Neighbor Totoro and other Studio Ghibli hits; and Classics Meets Jazz, featuring swing arrangements of Mozart, Chopin Beethoven and others.


Tateishi favors lyrical “quiet jazz” that is inventive enough to be captivating, without ever straying aggressively into the stratosphere. Jazz purists might dismiss him as too simplistic, but that’s unfair; Tateishi has the same flair for catchy melodic hooks — within his improv bridges — that served Vince Guaraldi so well.


Tateishi shares this album with bassist Shinobu Sato and drummer Mao Suzuki. Their approach is conventional: Tateishi generally begins a tune with a solo keyboard intro, and then he and Sato trade the melody back and forth, with Suzuki maintaining a leisurely to mid-tempo beat. A straight-ahead reading of “Let It Snow” suggests the frivolity of dancing in falling snowflakes; ambitious keyboard improvs and a bit of call-and-response between keyboard and drums highlight “Winter Wonderland.”


A gentle reading of “O Holy Night” is positively reverential, with lovely solos on both bass and keyboards; a lengthy handling of “White Christmas” is truly charming, particularly when Sato takes the melody for a spell. Peppier highlights include a lively medley of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” with Sato’s bowed bass bridging the two songs; and a cute arrangement of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which slides between swing time and New Orleans-style shuffle, and boasts cool walking bass.


The album concludes with “December in Seoul,” a sparkling Tateishi original that opens with cymbal shimmer and a gentle keyboard theme. As the tune develops between piano and bass, it takes on a wistful quality, as if this tune recalls a rather sad December.


Absolutely excellent, from start to finish: Difficult to find, but worth the search.



Drummer Steve Davis has been quite busy since the early 1980s, dividing his time between faculty positions and performance tours throughout North American and Europe. He currently teaches at Missouri’s Washington University in St. Louis, while freelancing and putting out the occasional album. Jazz for Christmas is a tasty trio package, with Davis backed by Nick Schlueter (piano) and Chris Turnbaugh (bass). They’re a tight unit, and Davis is a generous leader; both sidemen get ample opportunity for lengthy solos.


The track list is a bit droll, with titles that coyly suggest the actual tune. The album opens with “Jingles,” which immediately calls attention to Turnbaugh’s slick walking bass. The mid-tempo, straight-ahead arrangement includes some lovely improv piano at the bridge, and Davis grants himself a brief but pleasing solo.


Schlueter’s work throughout is terrific; most of his improvisational bridges are melodies in their own right (as frequently was the case with Guaraldi’s solos).


“Let It Snow” is another straight-ahead, mid-tempo charmer, highlighted by Turnbaugh’s handling of the melody against gentle piano comping. Davis maintains a gentle, toe-tapping beat while bass and piano trade roles.


An ethereal, reverential reading of “Night of Silence” opens with quiet solo piano; the arrangement expands to include gentle touches on bass and drums. “A New Xmas Song” (actually just “The Christmas Song”), similarly sweet and delicate, also opens with solo piano; bass and drums come in equally softly, and the tune builds to a lovely solo piano conclusion.


On the other hand, the groovy arrangement of “Snowman” (as in Frosty) opens against the familiar “Killer Joe” rhythm line, with Schlueter’s keyboard improv backed by vibrant work on bass and drums. “Drummer Boy” is flat-out sassy; Davis establishes a swinging beat that evokes a New Orleans-style strut, and Schlueter responds with equally feisty improv work. “House Top” (as in “Up on the”) emerges as a peppy bossa nova, with Davis’ lengthy drum solo backed by deft piano comping.


The bright and bouncy “Christmas Waltz” finds Schlueter’s melody notes landing just behind Davis’ droll oom-pah beat; the result is a lot of fun, ultimately dialing back to a slower solo piano finish, with a final brief quote from “Jingle Bells”: an affectation Schlueter also inserts to the conclusion of a mellow reading of “A Christmas Tree.”


You really can’t ask for more; this is an excellent treat for fans who prefer their jazz on the melodic, (mostly) softer side.



Popular jazz pianist David Benoit has made a cottage industry of holiday jazz. In addition to having fronted — or co-starred in — ambitious Christmas concert tours for many years now, these performances have been accompanied by a roster of albums going back to 1983’s Christmastime. (It was followed by 1996’s Remembering Christmas; and 2015’s Believe.)


He also has played a vital part in keeping Guaraldi’s Peanuts music relevant in today’s market: a role Benoit absolutely deserves, since he scored five of the franchise’s animated specials, for a decade starting in 1992. That also generated several albums: 2000’s Here’s to You, Charlie Brown: 50 Great Years; 2005’s 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas; and 2008’s Jazz for Peanuts.


His newest album, It’s a David Benoit Christmas!, also covers both passions. The 18 tracks are a blend of traditional carols and Guaraldi’s many Peanuts themes (not all of them Christmas-related). It’s a solo piano endeavor, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s great to hear Benoit in a solo mode; he puts considerable emotional feeling into (as a couple of examples) his covers of “What Child Is This” and “Christmas Time Is Here.”


That said, a couple of Guaraldi’s bouncier Peanuts tunes — notably “Red Baron” and “Christmas Is Coming” — sound “empty” without the swinging bass and drums that power both, in their original jazz/rock fury.


Benoit’s arrangements of several other Guaraldi covers are too “pretty”: more like challenging keyboard exercises, devoid of the bossa nova touch that always makes Guaraldi’s listeners smile.


Benoit mostly follows the standard jazz “head” form, with one or more improv bridges sandwiched between the familiar melody. He favors rapid-fire bridges that showcase either swift chords or lightning-quick keyboard runs in the right hand, sometimes backed by a bouncing stride/ragtime style with the left. His robust handling of Guaraldi’s “Skating,” “Pebble Beach” and “Peppermint Patty” are great examples of this; the latter is particularly ferocious, with Benoit all over the keyboard.


On the gentler end, he gives a mischievous, even charming reading of “Oh, Good Grief”; turns “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown” into a sweetly wistful ode to unrequited love; and delivers a poignant reading of his own original ballad, “Just Like Me.”


Traditional carols include “O Tannenbaum,” highlighted by a breezy, shuffle-style bridge; a sparkling arrangement of “My Favorite Things”; a reverential approach to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (punctuated by another peppy bridge); and a cute, mildly deconstructed handling of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”


(I couldn't help noticing that this album’s presentation of “Carol of the Bells” owes much to the way Benoit performed it on 1983’s Christmastime … but it’s his own arrangement, so I suppose he’s entitled.)


The production end features a couple of odd quirks, starting with the lengthy silence (up to 10 seconds!) between tracks; I kept thinking the disc had stopped playing. And somebody is math challenged; the back jacket claims a running time of 68:47, when in fact it’s 52:42.


Both are inconsequential, of course, and in no way detract from what is (mostly) another solid entry in Benoit’s Christmas/Peanuts library.



Famed Austrian chanteuse Simone Kopmajer is best known for her warm and sparkling jazz chops, which makes her new holiday release — simply titled Christmas — something of a puzzle. The album’s 16 tracks are all over the map, in terms of genre and style: mildly swinging covers of seasonal classics, along with folk, pop and hymn-like spirituals (the latter performed in her native language).


The jazz selections are quite tasty, starting with the album-opening reading of “Santa Baby,” with Kopmajer sounding playfully flirty (in contrast to Eartha Kitt’s much, ah, earthier reading). Kopmajer is backed by John di Martino (piano), Boris Kozlow (bass) and Reinhardt Winkler (drums). An equally lively “Jingle Bells” is highlighted by Kopmajer’s scat passages, Kozlow’s sleek walking bass and Aaron Heick’s feisty sax solo.


“White Christmas,” another mid-tempo swinger, features Dominik Fuss’ muted trumpet solo at the bridge; a leisurely, mischievous “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” grants the piano/bass/drums trio some lovely work at the bridge, followed by a sax solo. Di Martino delivers a particularly gorgeous piano solo midway through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while the soft arrangement of “The Christmas Song” boasts a lovely duet between Kopmajer and Allan Harris.


The folk/pop realm is acknowledged with “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” “Driving Home for Christmas” and “The Most Wonderful Time” (a Kopmajer original), none of which comes anywhere near jazz. As mentioned above, the Austrian/German selections — “Leise Rieselt Der Schnee,” “Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa,” “Oh Heiland, ReißDie Himmel Auf” and “Is Finsta Draußt” — more properly belong in a church. They’re lovely, but a rather jarring shift from the other tracks. 


Kopmajer closes with a sweetly lyrical reading of “Silent Night,” sung in both German and English, and backed by both de Martino’s piano and a background chorus.



Baltimore-based vibraphonist/keyboardist Warren Wolf Jr.’s jazz chops are as formidable as his mega-watt smile. His lively Christmas Vibes finds him joined by Jeff Reed (acoustic and electric bass) and Carroll “CV” Dashiell III (drums), with guest vocalists Allison Bordlemay, Christie Dashiell and Micah Smith popping up on a few tracks. The result is an excellent showcase for all concerned.


Thanks to the wonders of overdubbing, Wolf plays both vibes and piano: most frequently taking the melody with the former, and comping himself with the latter.


The album-opening reading of “O Christmas Tree” establishes the template: punchy percussion, deft walking bass and an improv bridge that dances back and forth between vibes and piano. Wolf’s arrangement of Guaraldi’s “Skating” is a total sparkler: The descending melody is gorgeous on Wolf’s rapid-fire vibes, and (again) the vibes/piano improv bridge is lots of fun.


“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is slow and solemn, the somewhat deconstructed melody augmented by lovely bass touches and a noodly bridge. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is soft and mysterious, as if the song’s title is a whisper; Dashiell’s drums and cymbals positively “shimmer.”


Dashiell establishes a strong rock ’n’ roll 4/4 beat for “This Christmas,” Wolf shifting this time to a blend of vibes and Fender Rhodes. Smith’s smooth vocal is just right for this Donny Hathaway/Nadine McKinnor classic, and Reed gets a brief (but sassy) electric bass solo at the bridge. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” also with a strong rock beat, finds Wolf adding some tambourine touches as Bordlemay croons the lyrics.


“Sleigh Ride” is simply awesome: an up-tempo, percussively furious arrangement that showcases lightning-quick vibes and bass work. It literally leaves the listener breathless. Smith’s vocal is perfect on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” presented as a mid-tempo swinger backed by droll bass and drums, with Wolf’s cheerful piano/vibes improv building to the final line’s “Stink … stank … stunk,” with a drum roll between each word.


The only questionable note is the album closer: a Wolf original titled “Wake Up Little Kids, It’s Christmas.” The song can’t seem to decide what to be — church spiritual or aggressively bluesy anthem — and the mismatch is rather jarring. That track aside, this slice of Christmas Vibes is a stylish additional to any holiday playlist.



Southern California-based jazz chanteuse Amber Weekes has a truly gorgeous voice: warm, soulful and laden with poignant inflection. When she sings a ballad, she always sounds like every word is heartfelt. Although she’s splendidly showcased on her debut Christmas album, The Gathering, only half of its 10 tracks can be considered jazz. The rest are more accurately described as pop/spirituals, due mostly to producer Mark Cargill’s abundance of backing strings.


That said, the peppier numbers are a lot of fun; Weekes concludes many with playful, spoken-word “tags” that add a bit of mischief. The album highlight is an up-temp reading of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which swings like crazy and features solid solos by Ricky Woodard (sax) and Tony Capodonico (piano). The larkish, mid-tempo handling of “Winter Wonderland” is equally fun, thanks to Kevin Brandon’s bass licks and more tasty piano/sax from Woodard and Capodonico.


Drummer Fritz Wise lays down a heavy 4/4 beat for a bluesy reading of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” with Weekes’ mildly sassy delivery making her sound quite eager for that upcoming evening; Jacques Lesure delivers a solid guitar solo at the bridge. Wise and bassist Adam Cohen turn “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” into a gentle bossa nova, with Weekes putting wistful angst into every word.


Andrew Carney’s soft, muted trumpet trades licks with Kevin Brandon’s bass on a swinging reading of “Let It Snow,” which Weekes turns into a teasing invitation for a snowball fight; Capodonico and Carney trade brief (but tasty!) solos at the bridge.


The album concludes with a Cargill/Weekes/Gregory Cook original, which gives this album its title; unlike far too many modern efforts at new Christmas songs, this one is a captivating ear worm that has a solid shot at becoming a holiday standard.



You’ll have a lot of fun with Univers Jazz Big Band’s Christmas Jazz, which hails from our French cousins across the pond. This is a sensational unit in the classic big band mold — four trumpets, four trombones, four saxes, a French horn, piano, bass, two drummers and percussion — and their playing is tight. The ensemble was founded in 1994 by Jean-François Durez, who handles the piano, and comprises conservatory graduates from France’s Nord-Pas-de Calais region.


Big bands always are judged by both solos and unison playing, and this group scores an A-plus with both.


Many of the arrangements are brief, with tracks clocking only two or three minutes: just enough time for an exhilarating introduction, a tasty solo at the bridge, and a reprise of the melody. The album opens with a finger-snapping swinger cheekily titled “Yo Hark! Those Angels Swing,” which boasts a peppy clarinet solo by Frédéric Vandeputte. A kick-ass reading of “Sleigh Ride” is just as much fun, highlighted by another of Vandeputte’s solos. (Longtime jazz fans will recognized Dave Wolpe’s big band arrangement, complete with concluding horse whinny.)


Durez clearly likes medleys, and this album offers three. The first, “A Big Band Christmas,” touches on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” (with some tasty walking bass by Hubert Fardel), “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (with exquisite unison horns) and “We Three Kings” (featuring Denis Kowandy’s sleek tenor sax solo). “A Charlie Brown Christmas” cycles through a peppy reading of “Linus and Lucy” (with nice counterpoint by the horns), “O Christmas Tree,” “Skating” (the melody covered by those luxurious unison horns, rather than piano) and “Christmas Time Is Here” (with Fabrice Binoit’s achingly lovely alto sax solo).


The album’s standout track is an ambitious 12-minute medley of songs from classic Disney animated movies: not exactly holiday fare, but you’re unlikely to mind. The unison horns dominate the opening “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is followed by “Some Day My Prince Will Come” (showcasing tenor saxman Denis Kowandy), “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go,” “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” (with Fred Pisson’s screaming trumpet solo), “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (with Durez taking a sleek keyboard solo against Fardel’s walking bass), “Alice in Wonderland” (offering another lovely solo by Binoit, this time on soprano sax) and a cheerful, percussion-laden “The Bare Necessities.” Sheer magic.


Half the tracks are vocals. Chanteuse Anne Vandamme’s charming French accent highlights her English-language renditions of “Everybody’s Waiting for the Man with the Bag,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (initially backed, rather unexpectedly, by a harp), and sweet, softer readings of “Let It Snow” and “The Christmas Song.” French actor and cabaret performer Smaïn Faïrouze prefers his native tongue for “Noël Blanc (White Christmas),” in a playful arrangement that feels like folks skipping hand-in-hand through a snowy landscape. His handling of the French tune “Flocon d’été (Summer Snowflake)” is more dramatic, backed by Fred Pisson’s bugle solo.


The album concludes with a gorgeous duet arrangement of “A Child Is Born,” with Pisson’s bugle accompanied by Durez on vibes: a stylish way to leave us wanting much, much more.



Austria’s Rat Big Band, formed in 1984, is an equally large ensemble: five trumpets, four trombones, six saxes, two pianists, guitar, bass, drums and percussion. The unit favors the classic Glenn Miller approach, and in fact has made a tradition of “Miller style” concerts — complete with U.S. Army Air Force uniforms — since 2007.


The band also is celebrated for its “Swingin’ Christmas Concert,” traditionally presented on the first Sunday of Advent. Alas, COVID concerns have canceled that annual benefit this year, but all is not lost; you can attend from the comfort of your own living room, thanks to the ensemble’s Swingin’ Christmas album, recorded live on December 3, 2017, at Scharnstein’s Parish Church.


The overall approach is the finger-snapping medium swing favored by Miller, back in the day, along with plenty of unison horn passages in arrangements that also favor drum and unison brass “pops” along the way. The one caveat: This performance lacks the balance and crisp perfection of a studio recording, and a few instruments — notably one piano, the xylophone and some muted trumpets — aren’t properly miked, and cannot be heard well during solos.


The group opens with a punchy arrangement of “Winter Wonderland,” then slides into a smooth, somewhat dreamy reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with the melody dominated by a sleek sax soloist. Various solo horns trade the melody back and forth, in a thoughtful handling of “Christmas Time Is Here,” while a soft and reverential “Silent Night” opens on solo piano, before expanding to include the full band.


A particularly catchy “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” kicks off in a punchy bossa nova style, then shifts to swing time at the bridge; heavy percussion establishes a similar Latin vibe in an equally dynamic reading of “Feliz Navidad,” with a solo sax supplying melodic counterpoint. A cute arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” opens in peppy 4/4 time, then shifts to swing time and concludes with a quick quote from Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts.”


“Sleigh Ride” should be peppier, and it also suffers from a piano solo that’s too faint to be appreciated; a clever arrangement of “Jingle Bells” is much more satisfying, building in intensity until its dynamic finale. It’s also nice to hear a cover of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which opens with a lonely trumpet and slowly builds to a joyous, triumphant climax. The album concludes with a dramatic reading of “The Christmas Song”; it opens slowly, almost moodily, with unison horns backed by lovely piano filigrees, and then builds to an all-stops-out crescendo by the entire band.


The audience is quite polite, and doesn’t interferes with the music; the applause never begins until each tune’s final note has died out. Long may this band reign!



I covered pianist/composer/arranger Bill Cunliffe’s That Time of Year — a lovely and inventive solo album — back in 2012. He has returned to the Christmas well, this time in a trio format alongside bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, with Christmas in the Dog House. The cover image, and presence of several tracks by Guaraldi, suggest a partial tribute to his score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.


It’s also nice to see an imaginative collection of tunes, including several that rarely make holiday jazz albums: Irving Berlin’s “Snow,” from 1954’s White Christmas; and Ryiuchi Sakamoto’s melancholy title theme to 1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Cymbal and keyboard shimmer open the former, which boasts Cunliffe’s lightning-quick keyboard runs and a swing-time bridge; the arrangement perfectly evokes falling snowflakes. The latter’s gentle 5-6-5 motif is given a softly thoughtful reading with a slight Japanese flavor; a mainstream trio improv bridge leads to a fading percussive close.


The album opens with a playful 5/4 arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” which boasts peppy piano and bass solos, and builds to a dramatic finale. Guaraldi’s rock-flavored “Christmas Is Coming” opens with bouncy percussion that backs guest Ralph Moore’s peppy tenor sax solo, followed by more of Cunliffe’s sparkling piano work amid several key changes.


“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” begins as a lively jazz waltz, then slides between 3/4 and 4/4 time during a ferocious keyboard solo backed by Robaire’s cool walking bass. A lengthy reading of Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” is an inventive blend of novel syncopation, key changes, lyrical bridges, more walking bass and electrifying keyboard runs.


On a more serious note, Moore’s magisterial sax work highlights a church revival-style arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” while a sweet arrangement of “Merry Christmas Darling” — a hit for the Carpenters, back in the day — is dominated by Cunliffe’s soft solo piano and barely heard backing on bass and drums.


The sole eyebrow lift is an “out there” reading of the 16th century carol “On This Day (Earth Shall Ring),” which gets lost amid aggressively dissonant sax work.


Cunliffe concludes with a gorgeous — and quite tender — solo reading of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”


On the production end, some bright spark made a serious error; the jacket claims 11 tracks, but the disc contains only 10. The intended track 6, a cover of Percy Grainger’s “The Sussex Mummers,” is nowhere to be found.



Italian-born bassist Marco Marzola, based these days in London, has become quite a fixture in the European jazz scene. He slides between double bass and electric bass, and he takes the genre quite seriously: “Jazz is the heartbeat of the universe,” he insisted, in a 2014 interview.


No surprise, then, that his Jazz Christmas Celebration offers serious chops: his own, and those of the sidemen involved in various quartet/quintet configurations. He’s joined by Steve Turre (trombone); Sherman Irby (sax and flute); Nico Menci (piano); and Darrel Green and Dion Parson (alternating on drums). Most of the album’s nine tracks are lengthy arrangements that grant plenty of space for sleek solos.


The set kicks off with a lively, mid-tempo reading of “Let It Snow,” with Irby’s sax introducing the melody and then yielding to feisty solos on piano, sax and bass. “White Christmas” opens in swing time, with Marzola’s cool walking bass backing another round of solos on sax and piano; the arrangement builds to an unexpectedly quiet — and quite lovely — finale.


Everybody is quite animated on “Winter Wonderland.” Green and Marzola open with saucy, rock-inflected percussion; Turre and Irby’s unison horns introduce the melody, and the bridge features vibrant solos on trombone, sax and piano. Menci opens “O Christmas Tree” with some saucy solo piano; Marzola’s walking bass once again compliments aggressive solos on sax, piano and drums.


The combo’s reading of “Santa Baby” is particularly droll, with Turre’s muted trombone and Irby’s flute standing in for the two “voices” generally featured in this patter song. The trombone/flute “conversation” is so clever and precise, that we can almost hear the lyrics. An unexpectedly playful 4/4 reading of “Silent Night” is just as much fun, with Marzola’s bass shadowing droll solos on sax and piano. (Rest assured, Marzola also takes plenty of his own solos.)


The album concludes with an eyebrow lift: an outré arrangement of “We Three Kings” completely unlike everything that has come before. That one track aside, this is a solid set of holiday jazz.



South Korean pianist Shin Giwon has made a cottage industry out of Christmas music; his playlists and digital albums are all over the Web, various social media outlets, and the usual download sources.


Most are best categorized as easy listening; one compilation — Relaxing Smooth Christmas Jazz Instrumental Collection — could cure insomnia. Isolated tracks, on their own, are pleasant enough … but listening to 14 lethargic arrangements in a row is beyond my skill set. On top of which, slow-slow-slow covers of “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” are a contradiction in terms.


But Giwon shrewdly caters to all ends of the listening spectrum, and Happy Christmas Jazz Instrumental Collection is a tasty trio project. His chops here are solid, and he runs the keyboard top to bottom — and back again — during the lengthy improv bridges bookended by each of these familiar holiday chestnuts.


The approach is fairly consistent, from the opening “Feliz Navidad” to the concluding “Silent Night.” The arrangements favor mid-tempo swingers; Giwon introduces the melody against gentle bass and percussion, roars through some vigorous improv against sleek walking bass, and then reprises the melody to bring the track home. He doesn’t credit sidemen anywhere, which raises suspicion regarding their existence; amplifying that notion, the bass never gets a solo, and there’s only one fleeting drum solo, in the middle of “Jingle Bells.”


That said, the bass and drums elements — subtle as they are — certainly don’t sound canned. 


I like Giwon’s “little touches.” He tends to land just after the beat, which always makes an arrangement more interesting; he also has a clever way of repeating the same verse — a common occurrence in Christmas songs — while making each reprise sound fresh. His lengthy handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” includes nods to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, while “Winter Wonderland” concludes with the call-and-response couplet, “Shave and a haircut/two bits.”


Giwon gives “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” strong 4/4 backing, granting this tune a mildly sober military atmosphere, which reflects its 1943 origins as a World War II lament. “Jingle Bells” earns a particularly fiery solo, then he dials down the intensity for “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and the aforementioned “Silent Night,” which bring the album to a gentle conclusion.


Which is a good thing, because three or four of Giwon’s ferocious bridge solos, in a row, can leave one breathless!



On the gentler side, pianist Mason Embry has released a follow-up to his 2015 release, Martinis & Mistletoe: Christmas Jazz Piano. This one, a six-track EP, is predictably titled Martinis & Mistletoe 2: Christmas Jazz Piano, and is available solely as a download. His sidemen aren’t credited on this sequel — see my rant, at the top of this lengthy article — so I’m going to assume he’s still accompanied by bassist Michael Rinne, and drummer Joshua Hunt.


Embry’s approach leans toward quiet and contemplative; this is a nice set for late in the evening, when you’re relaxing with that final glass of wine. He opens with an atypically unhurried arrangement of “Frosty the Snowman,” which emphasizes the song’s sentimental nature; Embry slides into gentle swing during the bridge. An equally wistful “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” offers a similarly lyrical bridge.


The trio comes alive for a sassy handling of “Cool Yule,” with Embry’s piano backed by Rinne’s spirited walking bass; the latter is granted a brief solo during the bridge. A sparkling, mid-tempo reading of “The Man with the Bag,” also highlighted by walking bass, is just as much fun.


The album highlight is a beautiful arrangement of John Williams’ “Somewhere in My Memory,” which opens with soothing solo piano, and then blossoms into gentle swing as Embry is joined by bass and drums. (Just in passing, it’s clear — exactly 30 years after the release of Home Alone — that Williams’ tune has become a Christmas standard. So many try to achieve as much; so few succeed.)


Embry concludes with a melancholy, even haunting reading of “What’re You Doing New Year’s Eve,” which sounds as if the person asking the question expects to be turned down. Rinne’s bass again adds a nice touch, and Embry’s piano cleverly riffs the melody during a lengthy bridge: a lovely way to conclude these half-dozen tunes.



To quote Winston Churchill, this one’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.


Amazon (and other sources) offer a 16-track digital album titled A Jazzy Christmas, credited to the Monterey Jazz Ensemble and Tommy Eyre Quintet … but the tracks are woefully mislabeled, and tracks 12-15 are identical to tracks 1, 3, 5 and 6. The only known “Monterey Jazz Ensemble” belongs to the University of Central Oklahoma, and that’s a much larger unit than any of this album’s small-combo arrangements. 


Tommy Eyre was a well-respected British session keyboardist known for his work with Joe Cocker, B.B. King and many, many others; Eyre also worked jazz circuits — he died in 2001 — and released his own 1995 Christmas jazz album (Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas) in a quintet format … but his sound isn’t remotely similar to what’s on this disc.


Amazon (and others) also offer a 12-track digital album titled Jingle Bell Jazz, credited solely to the same Monterey Jazz Ensemble. Although it lacks the repeats cited above, most of the tracks are mislabeled in exactly the same way.


That said, this doesn’t sound like Frankenmusic; it’s a tasty quartet or quintet that features sax, trumpet, keyboards, vibes, bass and drums (although the latter are almost invisible on most tracks). The approach is mellow throughout: gentle and leisurely arrangements with melodies generally taken by sax or muted trumpet, with comping via vibes or a pianist who favors chords over single-note runs. You won’t hear any burners.


The mildly whimsical “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is typical: a leisurely reading with vibes backing muted trumpet, against a smooth descending percussion ostinato. “Silent Night” arrives as a gentle swing waltz initially dominated by piano, bass and drums, with sax taking the melody and contributing a lyrical solo. The pianist sets up a similarly calm tempo for a cute 3/4 handling of “The Holly and the Ivy.” The reading of “The 12 Days of Christmas” is quite unique: It merely repeats the first five days on either side of piano and synth solos, paying no mind to the remaining seven.


The album includes two originals, neither of which can be identified accurately. The first is a catchy ear-worm dominated by vibes, with a cheeky bass solo; the second is a soft sax and piano lament, with the two trading melody and comping.


The set concludes with a saucy reading of “Merry Christmas Baby,” which sounds completely unlike everything else, and easily could have come from an entirely different combo. A deliciously dirty sax handles the melody, against heavy 2/2 percussion; both sax and electric keyboard take raucous solos.


Curious listeners are directed to the 12-track package, although you’ll need to change most titles. As for the musicians’ identities … who the heck knows?



The Stardust Swing Band is typical of the outfits hired to provide categorized music for the interactive audio kiosks that popped up in high-end gift stores, most of which didn’t survive the turn of the century: the Museum Store, Suncoast, Sharper Image and their numerous brethren. The ensemble put out a holiday CD titled A Big Band Christmas, originally released in 1993 on Metacom’s Listener’s Choice sub-label. That album has been digitally resurrected under the slightly different title of Christmas Swings: Big Band Favorites.


As also was typical of most such albums, the band personnel remained anonymous aside from — usually — the executive producer (in this case, David Milner). In this era of digital-only releases, even his name has been omitted.


These 10 tracks are a pleasant collection of holiday chestnuts, presented in user-friendly arrangements that won’t challenge folks who don’t naturally gravitate toward jazz: in other words, a good choice for party hosts looking for something a bit more ambitious than so-called “smooth jazz.” The ensemble work is pleasant, in the mid-tempo swing mode; solos are lyrical, and never too long.


“Good King Wenceslas” benefits from a cute arrangement against a heavy rock ’n’ roll beat; the melody yields to a bridge with pleasant trumpet and trombone solos. Engaging call-and-response between piano and trombone highlights “Deck the Halls,” while “Go Tell It on the Mountain” offers touch of electronic keyboard while building to a majestic finale.


“Silent Night” is slow and reverential, with a contemplative sax bridge; “The Holly and the Ivy” boasts a lovely flute solo. The album concludes with a feisty swing version of “Carol of the Bells,” highlighted by walking bass and a solid trombone solo.


Alas, the musicality — despite rarely rising above average — is superior to the engineering. The album isn’t mixed well; the brass and piano are badly under-miked at times, and the latter occasionally sounds out of tune. The unison horns, at times, are a bit too bright and “watery.” Jazz purists are advised to look elsewhere.



And, to conclude, a few warnings:



It’s getting harder to recognize Frankenmusic, during a casual listening experience. Musically adept programmers have advanced beyond the simplistic and insufferably repetitive bass and drum loops; these superior “parts” also are better balanced against melodic leads on keyboards or horns. (Early-gen programmers tended to focus solely on the “lead” instruments, and lacked the harmonic skill to pay similar attention to bass and drums.)


As a result, it’s no longer as easy to distinguish a single “faux” track stuck amid dozens of “real” tracks in (for example) Pandora or Spotify playlists.


Packaging, though, frequently remains a red flag. A digital album titled Christmas Swing: Big Band Favorites— with absolutely no indication of individual musicians — almost certainly was fabricated on a computer. (That said, exceptions exist: See “library music” above.)


Then, too, an isolated track that seems legit may reveal its programmed origins when placed alongside a dozen tracks on an album. That’s definitely the case with Christmas Is Coming!, a production credited to the “North Pole Jazz Band.” I find no evidence that such an outfit exists, even though somebody put more thought into the jacket art, than is customary for such projects.


The “band” is a quartet: sax, piano, bass and drums. Any one of these 12 tracks is reasonably enjoyable, following the frequent tendency to introduce the melody via sax or piano, transition to improv on one or both instruments during the bridge, and then reprise the melody for the concluding fade-out. The walking bass work on many of these tracks is reasonably complex; the double-time percussion (on “Here We Come a-Wassailing” and “Deck the Halls”) and Latin touches (on “Ding Dong, Merrily on High”) also lend a bit of variety.


But four or five tracks in, the listener will notice the absence of shading; everything is relentlessly at the same volume and intensity. There are no highs, no lows: no soft spots, no dramatic crescendos. The result quickly feels “mechanical,” as also is the case with the sax solos, all of which soon begin to sound the same.


Ironically, the album concludes with its closest thing to a legitimate track: a sweet solo piano reading of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”


The rest, alas, is product … not music.



The Stockholm Jazz Quartet’s Christmas Jazz Music 2019 is a flat-out lie in every respect: This isn’t a quartet, it isn’t jazz, and it isn’t even Christmas music … and I rather doubt anybody involved hails from Stockholm. This is unimaginatively programmed swill, with supposed input from players on sax, trumpet, keyboards, electric guitar, bass and drums … when, in fact, everything is cooked up on a synth.


Many of the tracks are originals, with mood-suggestive titles such as “Very Soft & Easy,” “Jazz Lounge,” “Christmas Eve: Piano Music” and “Christmas Jazz Piano.” Every one sounds like an incomplete gentle lullaby or music box theme: haphazard noodling on a supposed piano and child’s xylophone.


Even the tracks with familiar titles — “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” and so forth — offer no more than a measure or two of the appropriate melody, before soaring off into random dissonant directions. That would be acceptable, if the result were pleasant to the ear … but it isn’t. The proverbial chimpanzee at a keyboard could do better.


The faux instrumentation and arrangements vary a bit — “sax” and “trumpet” trading off during “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a fitful attempt at swing time in “O Holy Night” — but the result, each time, always sounds the same. On top of which, all the tracks just trail off or stop abruptly, rather than concluding in any reasonable manner.


This is the worst sort of junk. Stay well away.


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