Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Holiday Jazz 2021: The lockdown edition

[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 a quarter century (!), with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]

The pickings are slim this year, no doubt prompted by Covid fears, the lack of open performance venues with patrons willing to attend in sufficient numbers, the closure of studios unable to sufficiently staff the recording and engineering, and probably even supply-chain issues that have stalled all manner of retail goods … including, yes, recorded music.


Small combos still could have recorded material in isolation, of course, and then issued the results via social media. But it’s tough (impossible?) for most artists to generate a revenue stream that way, and musicians are like everybody else: They need to eat.


I hope the brevity of the following list is merely a temporary aberration. I’d hate to think holiday jazz was falling out of favor!


Onward, then…




A few releases always arrive late each year, sometimes into January, and therefore get saved until the following season. Let’s start with a few of those, and they’re corkers.


British pianist Gabriel Latchin has become quite a fixture across the pond, appearing regularly at premier London jazz venues such as Ronnie Scott’s, Pizza Express Jazz Club and the 606. He gets excellent support on I’ll Be Home for Christmas — his third album — from Dario Di Lecce (double bass) and Josh Morrison (drums). 

Latchin’s touch is both dynamic and tasty; his lengthy improvisational bridges are melodic, lyrical and fun. I suspect he spends a lot of time smiling, during live performances; his keyboard work positively sparkles. The set list is dominated by 1930s and ’40s titles from Great American Songbook composers, but Latchin’s arrangements have a clever twist: They’re interpreted through the eyes (and fingers) of his musical idols.


Thus, Latchin’s gentle, leisurely approach to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with its thoughtful bridge, is straight out of Bill Evans: all the way up to its effervescent finish. Latchin’s reverential introduction to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” slides into traditional swing, and then explodes with a lengthy, forcefully sassy piano solo that reminds me of Herbie Hancock.


Latchin channels Ahhad Jamal for a peppy run at “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” backed by Morrison’s rapid-fire, double-time percussion. The latter also takes a vibrant drum solo, which totally cooks. Other idols cited in the album’s liner notes include Thelonious Monk, Cedar Walton, Phineas Newborn and Barry Harris. 


I detect Monk in “Winter Wonderland,” with its mildly mysterious atmosphere. The arrangement also cleverly messes with time signatures, and Di Lecce’s walking bass is particularly choice. As for Walton and the others … I’m not sure.


Di Lecce opens the melody on “Jingle Bells,” and also has a cool solo following another of Latchin’s fiery bridges. He begins “The Christmas Song” with a slow, delicate keyboard intro, and then Morrison kicks things into double-time, and the tune takes on a bossa nova ambiance. “White Christmas” is simply gorgeous, with another soft keyboard intro, after which Latchin gives the tune a contemplative atmosphere, backed by Di Lecce’s lovely walking bass.


“A Toast to Friends,” a Latchin original, is a charming ballad that genuine sounds like its title; Di Lecce is granted another of his sleek solos. The album concludes with a mid-tempo, rolling waltz reading of “Silent Night”: a bit peppier than this perennial carol usually warrants, with Morrison’s drums setting a cheerful mood.


As you’ve likely realized by now, yes: This one’s a keeper. It’s lush.