Friday, December 9, 2022

Holiday Jazz 2022: Where did everybody go?

[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.]


Pickings were slim last year, for an abundance of reasons: Covid concerns, supply-chain issues, the lack of performance venues with patrons willing to attend in sufficient numbers, and the closure of studios unable to sufficiently staff the recording and engineering.


Alas, my annual round-up is even more sparse this year, and I can’t imagine why. Has the world abandoned holiday jazz?


I’ve focused primarily on instrumental ensembles, during the past couple of decades — purely a personal preference, no indictment of vocalists intended — but “needs must” forces a slightly broader sweep this time.


Onward, then…




Learning that chanteuse Lyn Stanley was “discovered” by the late, great jazz pianist Paul Smith — whom I’ve admired since first hearing him back in my teen years — immediately moved her debut holiday release to the top of the stack. (Check out her terrific handling of “Makin’ Whoopee,” backed by Smith’s trio in February 2011, at Alva’s Showroom in San Pedro, California.)

Novel Noël is an excellent showcase for Stanley, particularly when backed by the full-blown fury of Tom Kubis’ big band. (My reviews of his 2002 and 2015 holiday jazz albums can be found here and here.)


Her album opens with a whimsical, mildly ookie-spooky arrangement of “ ’Zat You, Santa Claus,” made famous by Louis Armstrong, whose distinctive voice Stanley cleverly imitates during the initial bars. Kubis’ band lends swinging support, with cool solos on sax and guitar, and a cute walking bass finale. An atypically jaunty handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is even better, with Stanley generously yielding to a terrific keyboard solo; she returns as the tune builds to a socko finale.


“The Little Drummer Boy” gets a clever 5/4 arrangement with familiar “Take Five” percussion elements; the keyboard comping is particularly nice behind Stanley’s vocal. A peppy blast of big band fury opens “The Christmas Waltz,” with Stanley’s vocal chops yielding to tasty guitar and piano solos, before the tune builds to another vibrant finish.


Not all of this album’s tracks are holiday-specific. Stanley’s saucy vocal highlights a tango-flavored reading of Sammy Cahn’s “Come Dance with Me,” which builds to a come-hither, cha-cha-cha climax. The Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields standard, “The Way You Look Tonight,” begins playfully, before charging into swing time with a wild big band bridge; soft solo piano backs Stanley when she brings the tune to a close.


The instrumentation for a sweet arrangement of John Blackburn/Karl Suessdorf’s “Moonlight in Vermont” is more orchestral than jazz; Stanley’s approach is soft and sexy, and the track is punctuated by a fine trumpet solo.


A clever handling of “Merry Christmas Darling” begins in a similarly gentle vein, until Kubis’ band explodes in double-time fury while Stanley’s vocal maintains a conventional tempo; the juxtaposition is quite distinctive.


The album concludes with two quiet orchestral “bonus tracks” that must’ve been recorded at a different time, with a different configuration: mostly piano and soft strings. A clever arrangement of “Holy Night” includes quotes from “Carol of the Bells,” while Stanley’s breathy handling of “Mary Did You Know” is achingly poignant.


This album is a true seasonal highlight.