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.



It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes — just a few tracks into an album — I think Goodness, but it would be nice to see these folks live.

That’s absolutely the case with the 3D(ivas) Jazz Trio’s Christmas in 3D, which is the most holiday jazz fun I’ve had in years. These gals — Jackie Warren, piano; Amy Shook, bass and fiddle; and Sherrie Maricle, drums — aren’t merely an awesome trio; they’re also a highly entertaining stage act. And let it be said: It’s refreshing to see a jazz trio comprised entirely of women.


Every track on this album is faster than one would expect, including traditionally somber carols such as “Silent Night” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” And as for the tunes that already are known to be peppy — say, “Winter Wonderland” — I’m not sure, but I think these ladies exceed the speed of sound.


This album is almost too much fun, all at once; you’ll be breathless just three tracks in. Several of the arrangements display a touch of Appalachia, particularly when Shook swaps her upright bass for fiddle, during a jug-band swing arrangement of “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas”), a mildly obscure tune that Alan Jackson introduced on his 1993 album, Honky Tonk Christmas. The lyrics’ bleak narrative is buried completely beneath Maricle’s heavy 4/4 beat and Warren’s explosive keyboard work.


Warren doesn’t merely have awesome chops; she’s a veritable force of nature. This is amply demonstrated in the album opener: the aforementioned “Winter Wonderland,” which Marcile backs with an aggressive 4/4 oom-pah beat. Warren doesn’t merely play the song; she devours it, segueing from the familiar melody to a lengthy improv solo that’s all over the keyboard, and laden with runs, trills, rolls, shimmers, block chords and every other touch of razzle-dazzle one could imagine.


In lesser hands, the result likely would be little more than chaotic noise … but Warren keeps it melodic, quirky and clever. I defy anybody to get through that track without grinning, ear to ear.


“Up on the Housetop” is an equally hot toe-tapper, backed with surf-rock percussion; it’s highlighted by a “call and response” duel between Warren and Maricle, and I swear the latter makes her drums sound just like the keyboard riffs.


Shook’s sassy walking bass is equally ubiquitous throughout, and she trades delightful solos with Maricle during the bridges on “Greensleeves,” “O Christmas Tree” and “White Christmas.” The latter is another swinging finger-snapper, with Warren’s keyboard bridge once again all over the place. You’d think she’s playing on a piano with 11 or 12 octaves, rather than the usual seven.


Shook’s bass gently begins the melody on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and the impulse is to think, Ah, at last, ballad tempo. But no; Maricle picks up the pace, as Warren barrels into a mildly mysterious — but still ferocious — keyboard solo. “Silent Night” is similar; Warren opens with a delicate keyboard solo, and then the others join for what remains a comparatively tender arrangement, with a lovely bowed bass solo by Shook during the bridge.


The album concludes with a lengthy (seven minutes!) arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which grants ample space for all three to solo; the intensity increases in what feels like a race to the finish against another of Maricle’s powerful 4/4 beats. Cue a quick, cute finale … and done. 


And we collapse on the couch, thoroughly exhausted.


(As for watching them almost live, that’s easy; their December 20, 2020, concert at the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania — where Vince Guaraldi’s Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass was memorably re-created, during a 50th anniversary presentation in 2015 — is readily available via YouTube. Prepare to be gob-smacked.)



Speaking of music in the church, Christmas-themed jazz worship services seem to be gaining traction across the country. The Rev. Bill Carter, who holds forth at the aforementioned First Presbyterian Church of Clark’s Summit, has led his Presbybop combo in a Christmas Eve jazz concert for many years now. (Check out their swinging holiday album here.)

A few states west, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, famed jazz bassist Rodney Whitaker and his sextet have made a tradition of joining the Christ Church Cranbrook Choir, shortly before December 25 each year, for a Christmas jazz performance. The collaboration proved popular enough to generate an album, Cranbrook Christmas Jazz.


This is a extensive album — more than 70 minutes — with most tracks granted long arrangements that allow plenty of time for solo showcases. Many are forceful and challenging; this is jazz in the purest sense, far removed from a supper club vibe.


Although the album’s 14 tracks are dominated by vocals, two are instrumental, including the opener: “Personent Hodie,” an obscure Medieval chant that became a popular processional hymn when arranged by Gustav Holst in 1916. It’s a showcase here for all the players in the combo, with Whitaker and drummer Michael Reed providing a polyrhythmic foundation that grants a solid backdrop for solos by Timothy Blackmon (trumpet), Len’I McKinney (sax), Chris Glassman (bass trombone) and Rick Roe (piano). 


Roe’s solos, shading and deft comping are a highlight throughout the entire album. He opens “Winter Wonderland” — the second instrumental — with a deliciously clever deconstruction of the melody, in a solo that runs almost three minutes before the arrangement switches to swing time when he’s joined by Whitaker and Reed.


Guest artist Vanessa Rubin’s warm, earthy vocals highlight five tracks, starting with her heartfelt handling of “The Christmas Song,” which grants Glassman a lovely solo on bass trombone. Rudin’s wistful reading of “Christmas Time Is Here” is equally sweet; she pauses long enough for brief solos by everybody, with Blackmon’s muted trumpet adding a contemplative touch. Her approach to Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born” is positively reverential, with Whitaker’s bass and the horns supplying gentle shading.


Rudin shifts into sassy jazz mode for a Calypso-hued arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy,” fueled by Reed and Whitaker’s infectious beat. Toward the end, Rudin and McKinney enjoy a delightful “call and response” via scat and sax.


The choir enhances the album’s three liturgical songs: “Silent Night,” with some lovely shading by Whitaker; “O Holy Night,” which grants all the musicians brief solos; and “In the Bleak Midwinter,” backed solo by piano and drums, and featuring a solemn vocal by Tom Shilakes.


Christopher McDole’s melancholy vocal on “It’s Easy to Blame the Weather” — which Billie Holiday recorded back in 1939 — is somewhat ill-served by the playful swing arrangement and Blackmon’s cheerful trumpet solo. Rubin tackles “My Favorite Things” with feisty panache, and its arrangement sneaks in a slight touch of Coltrane.


But there’s nothing “slight” about the album closer — a sassy reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — with its “Killer Joe” ambiance. Rubin leaves no doubt when she name-checks that jazz classic, following Glassman’s killer trombone solo … after which she warbles a line or two from almost a dozen other Christmas carols, before everybody brings the tune — and the album — to a rousing finale.



The original Nat King Cole Trio featured piano, guitar and bass, with the latter two deftly “filling” for the absent drummer: a configuration that Vince Guaraldi also employed, with his initial name trio. The Iowa-based trio Roots of Rhythm takes this an unusual step further, with the piano replaced by Lynne Hart’s clarinet, alongside guitarist Pat Smith and bassist Richard Wagor. Their recent album, Winter Jazz, is a gentle addition to the holiday jazz scene.

Wagor and Smith are inventive, in terms of the variety of percussive stylings they supply for these 13 tracks. The set list also is a bit more imaginative than most, with space given to lesser-known carols and songs such as “Sing We Now of Christmas,” “Still, Still, Still,” “Huron Christmas Carol” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.” 


Style and syncopation aside, the arrangements are classic jazz-traditional. The album opens with a mid-tempo bossa nova arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with Hart introducing the melody and then comping while Smith and Wagor take solos; Hart then grants herself a solo, reprises the melody, and brings the tune home. This approach is repeated, with very little variation, throughout the entire album.


Wagor switches to bowed bass for the delicate reading of “Midwinter,” and Smith’s cheerful folk guitar strum adds a bit of pizzazz to “Still, Still, Still.” Bass and guitar establish a droll and deliberately heavy beat for a mid-tempo handling of “Jolly Old St. Nick,” while much gentler percussion turns “Silver and Gold” into an unexpectedly wistful ballad.


The album highlight is a playful, finger-snapping run at “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which features a bouncy “call and response” duel between Hart and Smith. “Sing We Now of Christmas” is another peppy swinger, powered by Wagor’s walking bass.


Although each track is pleasant on its own, the melody-solo-solo-solo-melody format eventually becomes redundant; the style shifts and (mild) tempo variations notwithstanding, everything soon sounds the same. This album therefore is best used in rotation with several others, to add variation to the overall listening experience.



The Ku Il Oh Trio’s Holiday Songs Volume One is misleading on several counts. For starters, it’s actually a cover album of Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts themes; while “Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Thanksgiving Theme” can be considered “holiday songs” alongside several tunes from A Charlie Brown Christmas, that can’t be said of tracks such as “Happiness Theme” and “Charlie Brown Theme.” Second, this combo is a quartet, not a trio.

Finally, you could be forgiven the assumption that it’s actually alto saxman Dan Lipsitz’s combo, since he gets the lion’s share of attention … which is a serious problem, because his work is passable at best, and downright obnoxious at worst. He’s usually restrained while introducing and concluding a melody, but his so-called improv solos sound more like the bleating of a badly injured animal. On top of which, his sax is recorded/mixed louder than the other instruments. (To which I say, why?)


Oh’s willingness to tolerate such dreadful playing is bizarre, since his bass work — alongside that of pianist Anthony Pocetti and drummer John Bishop — is quite tasty. Indeed, they’d be an enjoyable combo if they were simply a trio.


Pocetti’s lively improv solos on “The Christmas Song” and “Charlie Brown Theme” are pleasantly melodic in a way that Lipsitz never gets close to imitating. Oh’s cool walking bass touches highlight “O Christmas Tree” and “Charlie Brown Theme,” while Bishop lays down a sassy bossa nova beat for “Greensleeves” and “Linus and Lucy.” Actually, the latter is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the entire album; Pocetti’s solo on the first bridge is delightful, and then Lipsitz totally butchers the second bridge.


Oh may have seen the light in hindsight, because Holiday Songs Volume Two is a completely different experience. Lipsitz is vastly subdued; he’s still an average player at best, but at least his work is palatable on this five-track EP sequel (which definitely is a Christmas jazz effort). Oh shifted the remaining personnel, this time working alongside Chul-soo Kim (piano) and Jung-hoon Kim (drums). The result more frequently sounds like a combo performing in unison, rather than an excuse for Lipsitz to hog the spotlight.


Jung-hoon Kim establishes a peppy beat for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features a solid keyboard solo against Oh’s walking bass. Oh dominates a slow, gentle take on “Silent Night,” as his bass trades the melody with sax. “Let It Snow,” also uncharacteristically mellow, includes some lovely piano work by Chul-soo Kim. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” are similarly low-key and pleasant; this is by no means aggressive jazz.


Unfortunately, Lipsitz is back to his dreadful self on Holiday Songs Volume Three, which finds Andy Kim and Seonghwa Kim taking over, respectively, on piano and drums. 


This six-track EP does have a few bright spots. Andy Kim’s lovely solo piano intro to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” yields to some pleasantly restrained sax on melody, backed by Oh’s cool walking bass; brief sax and piano improv bridges segue to a final hint of melody. Andy Kim’s piano also highlights a gentle, dreamy arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which captures the tune’s wistful topic; unfortunately, Lipsitz spoils an otherwise lovely track with a bizarre sax filigree at the end.


And it’s all downhill from there. Andy Kim’s soft approach to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is ruined by a needlessly shrill sax solo; Lipsitz is even worse on “Sleigh Ride,” when his piercing, squawky sax overwhelms yet another sparkling piano solo. The up-tempo reading of “Auld Lang Syne” boasts more of Oh’s sassy walking bass, but the ghastly sax finale shrieks into the stratosphere … and then Lipsitz absolutely destroys “We Three Kings.” 


Honestly, what makes this guy think he can play? And why did Oh tolerate it over the course of three releases? 


Volume 2 is worth a listen, but it’s best to ignore the others.



As the saying goes, when life hands you lemons … make lemonade. Or, as the folks at the non-profit organization/label Jazz at the Ballroom cheekily explained: “What happens when a pandemic shuts down any and every place that can present, record and produce live music? Naturally, you reach out to some of the most enterprising, creative jazz artists.

“The only way to describe [how this album was made] is to say it was like a progressive dinner party circa 1970. One artist recorded however they could, another artist took the track and added their part.”


The result: the thoroughly delightful compilation album Holiday “In” (clever title, that). The 14 tracks are divided between vocals and instrumentals, with contributions coming from eight different sets of musicians. Most performers are backed by the piano/bass/drums trio of Konrad Paszkudzki, Dylan Shamat and Alex Raderman.


Jazz trumpeter/vocalist Benny Benack croons a solemn reading of “The Christmas Song,” then switches to muted trumpet for a lengthy improv bridge against Shamut’s walking bass; Paszkudzki’s lively cascading keyboard work backs Benack when he sings the final verse. His droll, peppy arrangement of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” has a slight Dixieland vibe; his muted trumpet solo opens with what you’d swear is the whinny of a horse.


Veteran jazz vocalist Freddie Cole takes a fresh crack at “Jack Frost Snow,” one of the many tunes included on his 1995 album, I Want a Smile for Christmas. That earlier arrangement was peppy and laden with lengthy instrumental solos; this new reading is slower and more contemplative, with tasty backing by Randy Napoleon (guitar), Elias Bailey (bass) and Henry Conerway (drums).


Australian bassist/vocalist Nicki Parrott handles two of the season’s most wistful ballads. Her soft, yearning voice is perfect for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and she backs herself with subtle bass shading; a brief piano solo yields to her return for the final verse. She’s equally poignant on “Christmas Time Is Here,” with her solemn vocal bookending lovely solos on piano and bass.


The New York City-based vocal trio Duchess — Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou — is famed for its tight harmonies and nods to famed groups such as the Andrews Sisters. Their frisky reading of “Mele Kalikimaka” is backed by an energetic combo that evokes Hot Club de France: Anat Cohen (clarinet), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet), Nick Finzer (trombone),Michael Cabe (piano), Jesse Lewis (guitar) and Matt Aronoff (bass). The result is a hoot.


Pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton, also hailing from New York City, opens with a feisty arrangement of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”; she’s backed by Shamat’s terrific bass work, and grants herself a vigorous keyboard solo in between verses. Her tone becomes playfully imploring during a sultry handling of “Santa Baby,” which features a delectable swing bridge.


Moving on to the instrumentals, veteran saxman Harry Allen offers a trio of seasonal classics. “Sleigh Ride” opens deceptively unrushed, then roars into finger-snapping double time, with his tasty sax backed by Paszkudzki’s deft keyboard comping; the improv bridge offers more of Aronoff’s tasty walking bass, cool keyboard work and Allen’s lively solo.


“Winter Wonderland” includes a particularly playful sax bridge by Allen, again backed by Aronoff’s cool walking bass. Allen’s sax becomes positively sexy during a bluesy reading of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, which also features a choice improv bridge.


Georgia-based trombonist Wycliffe “Pinecone” Gordon roars through an energetic, New Orleans strut-style arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” which barely touches the familiar melody before yielding to sassy improvs by both Gordon and Paszkudzki. 


Paszkudzki’s Trio delivers an intriguing interpretation of “Let It Snow,” which cleverly messes with the melody while bouncing back and forth between swing and a choppier time signature.


Paszkudzki then solos on the album closer: an equally creative reading of “White Christmas” that gets percussive bounce from a ferocious left hand vamp, while his right handles the melody with simple single notes. That said, there’s nothing “simple” about the lightning-quick improv solo at the bridge: an exhilarating way to conclude an album which is — to quote Spencer Tracy — “pure cherce.”



Moving now to this season’s new releases…


Drummer extraordinaire Jeff Hamilton has been ubiquitous on the jazz scene for more than four decades, so it’s impossible to do justice to his stellar career in a few sentences; that said, he’s possibly best known as co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and for his albums and concert tours with Diana Krall. Indeed, he blended the two when the Clayton-Hamilton ensemble backed her 2005 holiday album, Christmas Songs. (As a sideman, he also backed Natalie Cole’s 1994 Christmas album, Holly & Ivy.)

Merry & Bright is his first Christmas album as leader of his own trio, joined by pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Jon Hamar. In a word, it’s spectacular.


These guys aren’t merely tight; they’re just this side of mind readers. Their interplay is vibrant, enthralling and — at times — even breathtaking. The arrangements are clever, with numerous tracks weaving in and out of different time signatures and key changes, and it’s clear the musicians are having a ball. All three are sensational, but Hamilton’s drumming stands out for its depth and inventiveness; it’s rare to find a drummer with this much personality.


His rolling rhythm is matched by Hamar’s heavy walking bass on the album opener: a lively reading of “It’s the Holiday Season,” which also boasts Hendelman’s deft keyboard work. The pianist weaves a playful riff on “Caroling, Caroling,” deconstructing the familiar melody against Hamilton’s droll percussion.


“The Little Drummer Boy” is powered by Hamilton’s impressively busy drum work, with Hendelman delivering a minor key arrangement of the melody; the result makes this classic tune more solemn and contemplative than usual. A bold, lusty reading of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” opens with heavy 4/4 swing and Hamar’s marvelous walking bass; the latter also takes a tasty solo during the bridge.


Hamar’s walking bass also is front and center during an impudent handling of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” which features clever interplay between piano and drums. “Santa Baby” is similarly impish, with brief drum and bass solos sandwiched between Hendelman’s sparkling keyboard work.


Hamilton charges into a forceful Brazilian vibe with a “Calypso swing” version of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” which features a positively ferocious improv keyboard bridge, before all three build to an exciting finale. (It’s hard to avoid applauding.)


After all this intensity, the album concludes with much gentler readings of “O Tannenbaum” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The former finds Hendelman’s simple keyboard work honoring the melody in its traditional form, backed by Hamar’s gentle comping; some thoughtful piano improv yields to Hamar, as he resumes the melody on bowed bass.


Quiet bass introduces a leisurely, swing-time handling of “Have Yourself,” with Hamar again comping quietly behind Hendelman’s soothing melody; the arrangement’s intensity builds slightly during the bridge, but then retreats for a delicate finale.


I don’t often re-play an album, immediately after hearing it the first time; this was one of the few. Utterly marvelous.



The Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet has been a fixture in Washington, D.C., for three decades; no less than sax luminary Richie Cole, who worked for years with The Manhattan Transfer, has favorably compared Uptown to that iconic group. Indeed, Uptown’s tight harmonies and scat-inflected arrangements are a true pleasure, and they’re backed by a tight combo that most frequently features Frank Russo (drums), Max Murray (bass) and either Chuck Redd (vibes) or Alan Blackman (piano).

Their new holiday release, Fools for Yule, is a blend of familiar holiday chestnuts and four original compositions by group leader Ginny Carr Goldberg, who also arranges most of the other selections. Most readings make room for generous improv solos by Redd or Blackman, and the stylings shift from up-tempo to gentle ballads, with a couple of hymns along the way.


The album opens with a sprightly reading of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” with Goldberg and Holly Shockey taking the melodic lead, while Robert McBride and Lane Stowe insert droll sidebar remarks between lyrics: somewhat like vocal comping.  The unison quartet makes “Christmas Time Is Here” even more poignant than usual, and the song’s slight lyrics leave space for a lengthy piano solo backed by Murray’s soft comping.


A mid-tempo approach to “Winter Wonderland” features a nice division of voices, and is laden with vocalese and a bit of shoobie-doo scat; the backing combo switches to swing time when the singers return to the lyrics.


Most of Goldberg’s originals aren’t likely to set the world on fire. The reverential “Whisper” is a gentle reminder of why we celebrate the season; “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas,” a gentle ballad that brackets tasty vibes and bass solos, is a wistful recognition that adults often have trouble re-capturing the Christmas magic they remember experiencing as children. The bossa-inflected “L’Amour Nous Entoure Ce Soir (Love Is Surrounding Us Tonight)” is lovely, and boasts a lengthy guitar solo by guest artist Donato Soviero, but it’s sung entirely in French; listeners not adept at that language are at an obvious disadvantage.


Goldberg’s title song, however, deserves to become a seasonal hit. The playful “Fool for Yule” is built upon flirty boy/girl call-and-response, and clearly evokes “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Goldberg’s lyrics are a bit spicier however, as typified by this eyebrow-lifting line: “I’ve got a seat for you here, on Santa’s gentle lap.”


The chorus handles “The Christmas Song” as a purely a cappella affair; the result is truly gorgeous. The album closes with a solemn a cappella reading of “Silent Night,” although the vocalists bracket an Irish bousouki solo by guest artist Keith Carr.


It’s clearly worth seeking Uptown’s four previous albums; check ’em out here.



Jazz trumpeter and singer Till Brönner is a phenomenon in his native Germany, with numerous best-selling albums in every genre from swing and bossa nova to movie standards, in every configuration from duos to the RIAS Big Band Berlin.

Till Christmas is his second holiday-themed album, following 2007’s The Christmas Album. But whereas that early album is laden with vocals, guest artists and even orchestral touches, this new one is a purely instrumental trio: Brönner (trumpet and flugelhorn), Frank Chastenier (piano) and Christian von Kaphengst (bass).


The dozen tracks are primarily thoughtful and reverential, each showcasing Brönner’s beautifully pure horn work. This isn’t a party album; it’s better suited to late in the evening, after everybody else has gone home, and you and a preferred companion quietly enjoy a final glass of port or egg nog.


Brönner tends to wander around the outskirts of a given melody, returning to a couple of familiar measures just often enough to identify the tune. Chastenier and von Kaphengst primarily shade and comp quietly in the background, although both shine during improv bridges on several tracks.


Half the tracks could be considered hymns or spirituals, such as the delicate arrangement of George Michael’s “Jesus to a Child,” which opens the album; Brönner’s muted trumpet is quietly backed by Chastenier’s keyboard work. The latter takes the melody during the bridge on an equally soft “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging (Mary Walked Through a Wood of Thorn),” a contemplative German Advent song.


A relaxed arrangement of “Stille Nacht (Silent Night)” emerges without a detectable beat or time signature; following a speculative horn bridge, the tempo increases slightly as Brönner brings the melody home. Bach’s “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier (I Stand by Your Manger Here),” an equally elegant German Christmas hymn, is a duet of horn and piano. 


Brönner’s playful side emerges with a perky, mid-tempo handling of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which features some lively piano improv against tasty bass; von Kaphengst’s sleek walking bass also is a highlight during a whimsical, slightly deconstructed arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” All three musicians mosey their way through “O Tannenbaum” quite inventively; the melody emerges only rarely.


Conversely, a tender arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is faithfully traditional, without any improv; Brönner and Chastenier trade the melody back and forth, the result so poignant that one pictures young Margaret O’Brien listening intently, even without Judy Garland singing the lyrics.


The album closes with a contemplative reading of “La-Le-Lu (Only the Man in the Moon Is Watching),” a German lullaby made famous in the 1955 film Wenn der Vater mit dem Sohne (When Father with Son). Brönner takes the initial melody, pauses during another improv piano bridge against thoughtful bass, and then brings the tune home. Chastenier’s concluding keyboard touches sound like the pealing of a clock tower, as he and von Kaphengst fade to finish: a quietly charming finale to a truly lovely album.



Listening to this next album — which I’ve done three times already — makes me want to hop a plane to Chicago, to catch this outfit on stage; they must be dynamite in person. That’s an apt descriptor for the Pete Ellman Big Band’s The Twelve Grooves of Christmas (which actually has 13 tracks, but who’s counting). The arrangements are clever, the unison playing is beyond tight, the solos are well integrated within each melody, and the comping frequently includes a droll touch or two.

The album roars out of the gate with ferocious, double-time percussion (Matt Plaskota and Rich Trelease) and piano (Larry Harris), which introduces guest vocalist Katie Ernst as she swings into “Mister Santa.” The full band kicks in, Andy Schlinder takes a frantic sax solo, Ernst returns for the final lyric and a bit of scat, and then fade: the fastest 2 minutes and 53 seconds you’ll likely ever experience.


Ernst contributes vocals on two more tracks. The band supplies soft backing for her sultry, poignant reading of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” which grants Jim Gailloreto a tasty sax solo before she returns, backed solely by Harris’ piano, to finish the tune. Finally, her handling of “Mack the Halls” — “Deck the Halls,” by way of Bobby Daren’s “Mack the Knife” — is quite amusing; the band gets more vibrant with each successive verse.


A mid-tempo swing approach to “Jingle Bells” boasts gorgeous unison horn work, along with tasty solos on sax (Chris Werve) and muted trumpet (David Katz). The toe-tapping “O’Schwingenbaum” is the feistiest version of “O Tannenbaum” I’ve ever heard, with bouncy solos on sax and trumpet (Werve and Katz again). Playful unison horns and Keith Pitner’s trombone solo highlight a sassy, bossa-inflected medley of “Gesu Bambino” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”; a gentle, leisurely arrangement of “O Little Town” offers Keith Pitner’s sparkling trombone solo and Ian Letts’ lively sax solo.


A totally delightful handling of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is dominated by tuba (John Blane) and bass sax (Ted Hogarth), until Katz’s shrill trumpet mimics the verbal smack-down of the tune’s final verse. 


Grammy-winning vocalist Kurt Elling is joined by members of the Young Naperville Singers for a bouncy, mid-tempo delivery of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The children blend nicely with Elling, but the arrangement is a bit too sugary. And while Harris’ gorgeous solo piano opens an initially sentimental arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” it’s the one time a tenor sax solo (Andy Schlinder) overstays its welcome.


Given the way the band concludes that latter tune, you’d think the album was over. But no, the best is yet to come: a lengthy arrangement of “The 12 Grooves of Christmas” that turns the song into a veritable jazz symphony. Each verse is performed in a different style, from Dixieland and classical, to Latin and World War II-era swing. And of course the fifth verse is an homage to the iconic “Take Five.” Like, wow.


I can’t get enough of this album. Neither will you.



That likely won’t be the case with the Jeff Steinberg Jazz Ensemble’s Cocktail Lounge: Easy Jazz Christmas. Green Hill Productions has made a cottage industry of holiday music for several decades; the various genres include jazz, the most notable starring pianist Beegie Adair as a soloist or combo leader. She’s about as aggressive, swing-wise, as the label allows; most of Green Hill’s output falls under the heading of “soft” jazz.


Well, there’s soft … and there’s somnambulant. For starters, Steinberg is this album’s arranger/producer, not one of the players; ergo, calling this “his” combo is rather cheeky, if not tacky, particularly since the actual musicians are identified only within the sparse liner notes. The core trio — Chris Walters, piano; Jim Ferguson, bass; and Marcus Finnie, drums — backs different guest artists in three different quartet configurations on these 12 tunes.


The approach to each song is identical: an opening verse or two of the familiar melody, followed by one or two brief improv solos, then a concluding return to the melody; Walters and the guest soloist take turns leading and comping behind each other. The solos are pleasant but unremarkable; one gets the impression these guys just aren’t trying very hard (which, in fairness, may have been Steinberg’s brief).


Saxophonist Sam Levine gets the lion’s share of attention, with half a dozen tracks. He and Walters are droll on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with the piano and tenor sax standing in for the patter song’s two vocalists; Levine switches to soprano sax for a mildly lively run at “The Man with the Bag.” He’s actually best on the more reverential carols, displaying tender expectation on “We Three Kings,” and a wistful tone on “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”


Finnie and Ferguson supply a gentle bossa nova beat for classical guitarist Jack Jezzro’s handling of “Christmas Time Is Here”; the bossa touch is equally evident on Jezzro’s approach to “White Christmas,” which also features a tasty solo piano introduction by Walters.


Electric guitarist Pat Bergeson’s highlight is a cute rendition of “Santa Baby,” which features nice interplay with Walters, and some tasty bass comping by Ferguson. Bergeson also displays a nice touch on the album’s closer, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”


But even with the different instrument configurations, everything soon sounds the same. These tracks are best used in rotation with a lot of other albums.



Seasonal tribute performances of Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas have become quite the cottage industry for regional combos and touring artists, for well over a decade now. The roster of participating groups has grown over time; although Covid slowed things down last December, bookings has returned with a vengeance this year; check out this ever-expanding list.


By total coincidence, three such groups have released their efforts on CDs or downloadable singles this year, starting with the New England-based Eric Byrd Trio. Byrd, a veteran jazz pianist, has performed professionally for more than three decades, and has shared a stage with Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Randy Brecker, Warren Wolf, Charlie Byrd and numerous other jazz luminaries. He and his longtime trio — acoustic bassist Bhagwan Khalsa, and drummer/percussionist Alphonso Young Jr. — got into the Guaraldi holiday gig quite early; their first cover album came out back in 2009.

That was a studio production; their new release — Charlie Brown Live — was recorded last December 18 and 19 at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, Maryland. The seven-track compilation is a solid, mainstream jazz affair, with the familiar melodies peppered with plenty of aggressive improv solos. Happily, audience applause and ambient noise never intrude (as often is the case with live recordings).


Byrd opens the album with Guaraldi’s signature solo keyboard introduction to “O Tannenbaum”; the arrangement slides into gentle mid-tempo jazz as the sidemen join the fun. Byrd’s forceful keyboard solo is followed by a contemplative bass solo and a few tasty drum solos, before the trio slides back into the melody; it’s a nice showcase for all three players.


“Linus and Lucy” boasts sassy keyboard work on the first bridge, and a truly wild ride up and down the keyboard during the second; Khalsa’s walking bass comping is equally solid. Noodly solo piano eventually slides into a bold reading of “What Child Is This,” which trades off between the familiar melody and heavy chord improv and hard-hitting drum work. “My Little Drum” opens with a lengthy quote from the hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter,” after which Byrd slides into an upper-octave arrangement of the melody; he pauses for Khalsa’s tasty bass solo, which yields to (of course!) some powerful drum work.


The album closer, “Christmas Is Coming,” is a lot of fun; it opens with a heavy beat, sashays into a swing-time bridge and then a raucous piano solo and equally tasty improv on bass and drums. The tune concludes with some playoff music, as Byrd introduces his band mates: a playful finale to a brief but impressively dynamic set. Both this and the 2009 album are available via his website.



The Chicago-based Michael “Mich” Shirey is a relative newcomer; I began tracking his activities in 2018. Imitation being the death of freshness, over time I’ve been drawn to musicians who treat Guaraldi’s beloved arrangements as a springboard, rather than a stencil … and I’ve been particularly impressed by those who do so with a different instrumental configuration.

Mich’s lead instrument is a guitar, rather than a piano. Adapting the sound and swing of 88-note keyboard jazz to a stringed instrument is no small task, and the results aren’t always pleasant to the ear. (I speak from listening experience.) I’m pleased to say that Mich’s efforts oGuitar for Guaraldi are lovely. Hes ably accompanied by Nick Fane (upright bass) and Dave Brandwein (drums). Their interplay is solid, and I’m particularly impressed by Nick’s comping and counterpoint throughout the entire album. Dave never indulges in flash, like so many drummers; he’s content to supply the mellow backdrop these songs demand. And his timing is tight


As with the original soundtrack, this album opens with a lovely reading of “O Tannenbaum”: the one track with strong echoes of Guaraldi’s arrangement. Mich solos the meditative introduction; the tempo picks up as his mates enter after close to a minute. Mich and Nick take cool solos at the bridge, and then bring the tune home. Nick’s thoughtful bass improv highlights the sweetly sensitive reading of “Christmas Time Is Here,” and Mich’s hard-charging improv bridge adds plenty of spice to “Great Pumpkin Waltz” (long one of my favorite Guaraldi melodies).


Mich’s talent shines on his handling of “Linus and Lucy,” where you’ll notice he simultaneously plays the bass vamp and melody: no small feat! He’s equally adept with the Mount Olympus of Guaraldi challenges: the opening descent of “Skating,” which is every bit as effervescent here (and Mich impishly tosses in a brief quote from “Frosty, the Snowman”).


Dave sets a sassy bossa beat for “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which is a showcase for Nick; he takes the melody and also offers a sleek improv bridge, with Mich deftly comping alongside. The mood remains feisty during a bossa/rock handling of “Christmas Is Coming,” which boasts plenty of lively walking bass. 


The trio closes with a traditional reading of “The Christmas Song”: no solos, no improv, just a quietly sentimental blend of guitar and bass, backed by Dave’s soft brushes. A lovely way to conclude a lovely album. It can be purchased via Bandcamp.



Moving now across the pond, pianist/composer Jason Frederick is quite the busy fellow. He’s heavily involved in film and television scoring, with credits that include 101 Dalmatians 2Bela Lugosi: The Forgotten King and Slacker Cats. As head of the aptly named Jason Frederick Cinematic Sound, he issued Mods and Coppers, a way-cool 2015 album that features inventive covers of title themes from crime, spy and secret agent films and TV shows such as The Thomas Crown AffairIronsideBullittDirty Harry and many more. (He has long promised a sequel to that album, but other projects keep getting in the way.)

At this time of each year, he also fronts a smaller combo — the Jason Frederick Cinematic Trio, with Greg Hagger (bass) and Dan Mullins (drums) — for concerts devoted to Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. In that vein, Frederick has just issued the first three tracks from an ongoing project cheekily dubbed The Charlie Brown Experiment. Get ready, because his approach is completely unique.


“The real charm of Guaraldi’s music for me, apart from its obvious brilliance in composition and playing,” he explains, “is the lovely sort of ‘lo-fi’ quality of it. So our tribute to him is in the spirit of the great 1960s arrangers such as Roland Shaw, Geoff Love, Billy May and others who did ‘sort of faithful’ but slightly ‘alternative’ versions of music from the James Bond films, Mission: Impossible, and so forth. We used good mics, cheap mics and old mics, in an effort to make something as vintage-sounding as possible.”


Indeed, “Linus and Lucy” opens with audience applause and an echo effect that makes Frederick’s keyboard attack unexpectedly dynamic. Percussive clapping backs the first bridge, and bits of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” are woven into the tune, as the band slides into the second, swing bridge. The melody returns via a key change, and draws to a breathless finale after a false stop.


“Skating” begins with the simulated needle drop and “fuzz” one would expect of a 45 single; the melody emerges faintly in a distant “tinny” mode, as though we’re listening via the single tiny speaker of a 1960s-era hand-held portable radio. Frederick then kicks the tune into high gear, with his cool keyboard work backed by an aggressive percussion vamp. The melody returns for what one expects will be a finale, but then switches back to the tinny speaker as the band weaves in a brief quote from “Joy to the World.”


The final track, an impish mash-up of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” against the “Linus and Lucy” bass vamp, is totally fun: laden with chimes, inventive keyboard filigrees and more hand-clapping during a lively improv bridge.


The tracks are available via Bandcamp.

Which brings the 2021 round-up to a delightful close. 

No comments: