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.



Although several Louis Armstrong tunes have become standard yuletide fare, he never released a Christmas album during his lifetime (which likely will come as a surprise).

Satchmo’s feistiest (and most iconic) holiday tunes — “ ’Zat You, Santa Claus?” and “Cool Yule” — were issued solely as a Decca single in 1953, although both have since been included in dozens of holiday jazz compilations. “Christmas Night in Harlem” is almost as familiar; it, too, appeared only as a 1955 Decca single, paired with “Christmas in New Orleans.” 


All four were gathered for a 1958 EP titled Armstrong as Santa Claus, but that doesn’t count as an album. But they’re also an essential part of Verve’s new full-album release of Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule.


You’ll also find a pair of charming duets: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” alongside Velma Middleton; and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” with Ella Fitzgerald.


Armstrong was backed by the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra on “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas,” issued as a 1952 Decca single. I’m hard-pressed to call them jazz, since Jenkins’ string-heavy orchestra maintains a gentle pace and ambiance, but Armstrong’s gravelly voice is no less delightful. The former track offers a brief piano solo, the latter (ahem) a sweeping unison strings bridge.


Although the poignant “What a Wonderful World” wasn’t designed as a holiday-themed tune, it became one of Satchmo’s signature hits, and has since been “adopted” by the Christmas jazz fraternity.


Finally, the icing on the cake: Armstrong’s previously unreleased vocal solo on Samuel Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — better known as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” — which he read twice at home on one of his reel-to-reel tapes, on February 26, 1971 … not quite four months before he died. It has been enhanced here by gently lyrical backing from New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner.


A genuine treat of an album.



Norway’s Oddgeir Berg Trio claims to have crafted “the world’s slowest Christmas album,” and I’d hate to encounter a combo that tries to top that boast. The eight tracks on Christmas Came Early sound like an extremely somber Christmas Eve church service.

“Christmas does seem to be a bit darker in Norway,” the group’s website cheekily insists.


Pianist Berg — accompanied by double bassist Karl-Joakim Wisløff, and drummer Lars Berntsen — have, with their previous albums, embraced a moody, melancholy space that feels like breaking dawn or impending twilight. This holiday-themed outing is no different; these are unhurried, thoughtful and even challenging arrangements of carols: most familiar, a few not.


This isn’t “comfortable” background jazz; these arrangements demand one’s full attention. Berg’s keyboard work dominates throughout; the bass and drums are employed primarily as shading, the latter often via gently brushed cymbals.


The album opens with a sweet Swedish carol, “Nå tennes tusen julelys (Now Are Lit a Thousand Christmas Candles),” which features nice bass touches by Wisløff. He subsequently introduces the melody on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” with Berg comping softly alongside; a lovely keyboard bridge segues to unison piano and bass when the melody returns, and the song concludes with a brief quote from “Jingle Bells.”


Mysterious drum work and a contemplative keyboard bridge highlight “Silent Night”; Berg’s piano is reverential, with dramatic chords throughout the German/Latin carol “In Dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing).” Wisløff’s bass handles the melody in a delicate reading of “Mitt hjerte alltid vanker (My Heart Always Wanders),” a Scandinavian carol that builds to a mildly portentous conclusion. The trio’s reading of “O Come All Ye Faithful” is the album’s most upbeat and cheerful track, while a deconstructed “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” spins into the unmelodic stratosphere of free jazz.


Slow, gentle drums introduce the spiritual final track, “Deilig er jorden (Wonderful Is the Earth),” a Norwegian dirge often sung at funerals (!), with Berg’s piano melody bookending a brooding bass solo. Listeners are left with the feeling of having experienced something profound (although attempting to explain why will be a challenge).



Folks expecting the big band pizzazz of Harry Connick Jr.’s previous three Christmas albums, are apt to be disappointed by Make It Merry, which too often sounds like a church service. It also frequently sounds canned, which it is; this album is a Covid project, which he “created” in his home studio. (I don’t care how talented a musician is; programmed percussion always sounds fake.)


The result, at times, is atrociously overproduced, with Connick’s otherwise clean keyboard work overshadowed and even ruined by overlaid strings, mock orchestral filigrees and choral shading. He freely admits to such effort, cheerfully explaining — during a November 18 interview for American Songwriter — that “It was as simple as playing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and adding 30 backing tracks, and thinking, ‘That’s cool.’ ”


Well, no; it isn’t. Most of the album is over-produced and syrupy. This merely reinforces the notion that even if something can be done, it doesn’t follow that it should be done.


Connick also repeats three of his own compositions from those earlier albums, which seems a bit of a cheat: “I Pray on Christmas,” “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus” and “When My Heart Finds Christmas.” The original versions are far superior to those here.


In fairness, the few livelier tracks sound more “open,” and therefore are more fun and enjoyable. A strong two-beat kicks off a Cajun-flavored tune called “Papa Noel,” complete with a peppy fiddle solo; “Go Tell It on the Mountain” emerges as a raucous, revival tent-style spiritual; and the album’s concluding run at “Jingle Bells” is a cheerfully boisterous party number.


Alas, most of the other tracks verge on somber dirges, as with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” (badly marred by background strings), the hymn-like “On This Christmas Morning” and “Christmas Day” (ruined by canned percussion).


Connick’s unusual arrangement of “Christmas Time Is Here” is frankly bizarre, with its lyrics intoned like a somber narration: totally off-putting.


Unlike Connick’s other holiday albums, this one’s available solely via iTunes. That isn’t surprising.



Covering Vince Guaraldi’s iconic soundtrack for 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas has become something of a cottage industry among regional jazz combos, and the first of this year’s two album entries — The Music of A Charlie Brown Christmas — comes from San Antonio-based pianist Doc Watkins, backed by bassist Franklin Skaggs, drummer Ryan Shaw, and an impressively large ensemble.

(For the past several years, Watkins and his orchestra also have presented this program live during most of December, at San Antonio’s JazzTX. Makes me want to take a quick trip to Texas!)


I’m hard-pressed to call most of this album’s 10 tracks jazz, as the often string-enhanced arrangements hue more closely to what you’d expect from the Boston Pops or a lavish Broadway musical. That’s particularly true with mellow readings of “The Christmas Song,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Skating,” the latter blended with “The Christmas Waltz” (which gives Watkins a chance to demonstrate his vocal chops).


That said, the exceptions are choice. Watkins opens “Fur Elise” with Beethoven-esque solo piano, and then the tune kicks into high gear with Shaw’s jump jazz drums and tasty big band swing. Mike Cottone delivers a sassy trumpet solo, backed by Skaggs’ cool walking bass.


“Linus and Lucy” also opens quietly, before erupting into big band swing; Watkins’ feisty piano bridge yields to unison horns that take the melody, with some cool counterpoint by Cottone’s muted trumpet. “Greensleeves” is slow, reverential and mildly mysterious; it’s highlighted by Jason Goldman’s wistful alto sax bridge, which segues to Watkins’ Guaraldi-esque keyboard finale.


The album concludes with a lively reading of “Christmas Is Coming,” which boasts lovely unison horns and a droll alto sax bridge from Goldman; Skaggs’ walking bass then is backed by Watkins’ tasty keyboard comping, after which the tune builds to a rousing big band finale. 


This album is a good choice when hosting guests who may not be totally jazz-oriented.



Those seeking more of the swing that Guaraldi put into that iconic Peanuts TV special will love the Nate Hance Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas NHanced. (Cute title, that.) Hance, on piano, is a generous leader; several of these 11 tracks run long enough to grant tasty solos by bassist Keith Yanes and drummer Lars Johnson.

The album opens (as it should) with “O Tannenbaum”; Hance’s solo introduction hearkens back to Guaraldi’s tasty arrangement, but with a bit more “sauce.” The tune quickly kicks into swing time, and Hance’s lyrical improv bridge is backed by tasty walking bass. Yanes then takes a solo with echoes of the familiar melody, after which Hance and Johnson indulge in some playful drums/piano call and response.


Johnson sets up “My Little Drum” with a cute march cadence, backed by Hance’s deft keyboard filigree; the tune gradually becomes more dramatic, at which point Hance includes a brief quote from “Jingle Bells” (a clever reference to Schroeder’s attempt to perform that tune to Lucy’s satisfaction, in the TV special). Bowed bass introduces “Christmas Time Is Here,” which proceeds softly, even reverentially; the bass is barely discernable, and the improv bridge sparkles.


Hance nails the opening keyboard cascade in “Skating,” which delivers some feisty, toe-tapping improv work during the bridge. “Christmas Is Coming” is a lively romp that boasts another dazzling keyboard bridge. “What Child Is This” begins mysteriously, with Johnson supplying clever syncopation while Hance relies on lovely full chords for the melody; Yanes delivers a tasty bass solo midway through the tune.


The TV special’s iconic tunes are supplemented by several other Peanuts themes. Hance solos on both a slightly deconstructed arrangement of “Peppermint Patty,” and an initially gentle reading of “Schroeder,” which turns majestic as it rolls into an upper-octave finale.


The trio’s larkish handling of “Charlie Brown Theme” makes it sound like ol’ Chuck is much happier than usual, thanks to a cheerful improv piano bridge backed by more of Yanes’ sleek walking bass. “Oh, Good Grief” is equally buoyant; Hance and Yanes truly go to town with their respective solos, and the tune builds to a rousing finale.


The album concludes with a delightfully funky run at “Linus and Lucy,” which Johnson sets up with a captivating beat. Hance doesn’t mess with the main theme, but his first keyboard bridge is positively sassy; the second is even more ferocious, after which the trio brings the tune home. All in all, a job well done.


Check out some of their work in these videos.



Pianist/arranger Richard Williams’ Hollywood Christmas is an unusual album.

The title is accurate, given that only half of these tracks qualify as jazz; the rest are best described as orchestral pop. Between that, and Williams’ fondness for medleys, this feels more like a family-friendly Las Vegas show, with just enough jazz to keep Grandpa happy. A dozen different vocalists are featured, along with an Andrews Sisters-style trio dubbed “Company B.”


The album opens with a lively version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” followed by a similarly up-tempo medley of “The Holiday Season” and “Happy Holidays.” Both boast plenty of big band swing, and are a lot of fun. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is equally playful; the big band backdrop is highlighted by a sparkling (if brief) unison horn bridge.


A tasty sax solo augments the mild country twang of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” while bright unison horns turn “Winter Wonderland” into a spirited finger-snapper. A medley of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Jingle Bells” — with Company B’s fleeting quote from “Frosty, the Snowman” — boasts plenty of big band sass, and a medley of “Let It Snow” and “Up on the Housetop” sports some double-time big band backing.


On the other hand…


Most of the remaining tracks — notably “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” — are slow, string-heavy orchestral numbers, with both arrangements and vocalists verging on overwrought. Matters aren’t helped by shading from a six-member women’s choir, which adds a superfluous religious touch. 


Then, following a concluding instrumental medley of “Somewhere in My Memory” and some brief Williams originals, things get downright odd.


The album’s second half features all of the same tracks, in the same sequence, but absent the vocals … but with no featured instruments inserted to “fill” the missing melody line. As you’d expect, the listening experience is both unsatisfying and baffling; does Williams expect folks to sing along?


I’ve never before encountered such a bizarre stunt, and I can’t imagine why Williams felt it was a good idea.



Japanese drummer Go Nakazawa founded the Mr. Jazz Quartet in late 2019, with Seiji Endo (piano), Yoshiyuki Takuma (vibes) and Kenji Shimada (bass) at his side. They produced their first holiday album a year later, with others following annually. Their first release remains elusive, but the two later albums are readily available here in the States, so I’ll begin with the quite enjoyable Christmas Time Vol. 2. Guest artist Michihiro Hanebuchi (flute) joins the combo on several songs.

All 10 tracks feature inventive and lengthy arrangements that allow generous solos, usually on piano and/or vibes. The opening reading of “Jingle Bells,” at 6:25, is a perfect example; the melody kicks off on vibes and piano, followed by lively solo bridges on both, with Shimada and Nakazawa lending finger-snapping support. (That said, I could have lived without the oft-repeated chant of “Jingle bells … jingle bells.”)


Fleeting quotes from several familiar holiday tunes cleverly signal that “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which opens with Hanebuchi’s sparkling flute. Occasional party sound effects drift through this whimsical arrangement, as flute and piano trade the melody back and forth. A lively reading of “Bella Notte” — still best remembered as the romantic dinner ballad from 1955’s Lady and the Tramp — also tosses the melody between piano and flute, against Shimada’s sassy walking bass.


A reverential handling of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” begins quietly, with the piano melody backed by gentle percussion; the intensity slowly builds, with Shimada granted a sleek bass solo, after which piano and vibes join for a dramatic finale. Shimada’s bass solo also is a highlight of the sparkling “Carol of the Bells,” which concludes with a furious drum solo against repeated bars of the key melody.


“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is slightly deconstructed following a clever solo piano introduction, with just enough notes to suggest the familiar melody; Endo and Takuma again trade solos in between refrains of the core melody.


“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” the album’s highlight, opens with Nakazawa’s snappy drums, after which the tune kicks into lively double-time swing; subsequent drum solos alternate with vibrant piano and vibes interludes. The combo then builds to what we expect will be a dynamic finish, but no; we’re surprised instead by a softly delicate final few bars.


Unfortunately, the album concludes with an ill-advised group vocal on “White Christmas,” with the singers backed by gentle piano, vibes and bass. Stick to instrumentals, guys; that’s where you all shine.



Volume 3 maintains the quartet’s intriguing tendency to shift styles midway through a given tune. The album opens with a bouncy reading of “Deck the Halls,” with Takuma’s vibes introducing the melody; Shimada’s walking bass brings the tune into swing time. Endo and Takuma shadow each other during an improv bridge; everybody then takes a solo, after which the melody concludes on piano.

Nakazawa’s cute drum work turns “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” into a finger-snapping cha-cha; a tinkly “music box” effect precedes a lengthy bridge dominated by Endo’s piano and Nakazawa’s hard-charging drumming. Droll piano and bass open “Jingle Bell Rock,” which kicks into a New Orleans-style shuffle backed by a driving bass/drum vamp. A ferocious improv bridge segues to a delicate reprise of the tune’s melody; the tempo and “attitude” intensify … and then everybody comes to a dramatically abrupt stop.


The album’s highlight is a three-part arrangement of themes from The Nutcracker Ballet. The playfully choppy “March” is charming, with gentle violin backing the melody on piano; the percussion ramps the tempo into double-time for Takuma’s vibrant vibes solo, backed by violin filigrees. Ethereal vibes then introduce “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” which shifts into a feisty oom-pah beat as vibes and piano share the melody. Sassy drums signal a free jazz bridge that’s a terrific showcase for all four musicians. Soft piano and vibes then open “Waltz of the Flowers,” with the melody initially so subtle as to be nearly indistinguishable. The tempo accelerates into double-time, with Shimada’s walking bass shadowing a nifty vibes solo. An echo of the previous track’s oom-pah beat yields to vibes and violin, which bring the melody home.


The combo’s handling of “The Little Drummer Boy” is unexpectedly unhurried, and slightly deconstructed; thoughtful vibes and piano anticipate a lengthy drum solo backed by vibrant piano chords, after which Takuma returns to the familiar melody.


The album concludes with an initially gentle arrangement of “When a Child Is Born,” with Takuma’s vibes introducing the somber melody. The tone becomes more dramatic when — surprise! — the melody shifts to a whistled duet, which intensifies and crescendos until Endo’s sparkling piano enters, and then fades into silence: a lovely finish to an engaging set.



Portions of Christmas with Chris Ruggiero feature the vocalist accompanied by plenty of big band jazz swing … but, alas, only portions. Most of the album leans more toward orchestral pop, with backing strings eliminating any possibility of pizzazz.

That said, the album-opening “This Christmas” is one of the tasty exceptions. The tune opens leisurely, but soon kicks into big band sass, highlighted by Christian Tamburr’s cool keyboard solo. The next track, a vibrant arrangement of “Sleigh Ride,” is a hard-charging romp with cheeky key changes, and an energetic unison horn bridge. Ruggiero has a lot of fun with both.


You’ll detect some country twang in a peppy reading of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” highlighted by Mike Harvey’s dynamic drumming, cheerful unison horn backing, and a full band fanfare. Ruggiero adds a touch of poignant blues to “Please Come Home for Christmas,” which features a deliciously dirty sax solo.


The mood shifts when Ruggiero is accompanied solely by Tamburr’s solo piano and a touch of strings, on a gentle reading of “The Christmas Song”; the instrumental backing is similarly restrained during a gentle handling of “It’s Christmas Once Again,” which grants Tamburr an unexpectedly lengthy piano solo. (I say “unexpectedly,” because very few of the instrumental solos on this album are more than fleeting.)


“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” sounds very much like its early 1960s pop origins, with backing chorus and a brief sax solo; Lindsey Blair’s sweet guitar work stands out in a leisurely arrangement of “Merry Christmas Darling.” None of these four tracks can be considered jazz, and the latter is marred by a surfeit of frills.


That tendency hits overload during an overwrought run at “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with Ruggiero’s Frankie Valli-style falsetto backed by a Beach Boys-style chorus. The intention may have been another homage to the 1960s, but the result is wincing. Matters are even worse in “Silent Night,” which initially is quite pleasant — Ruggiero’s tender vocal backed mostly by harp — but then the full orchestra swells, the intensity builds, and Ruggiero seems to channel Michael Bolton while belting toward the stratosphere of the upper balcony’s final row. 


It’s a shame more tracks aren’t akin to Ruggiero’s calmer handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” backed solely by a piano/bass/drums trio, along with Wayne Bergeron’s soft muted trumpet work. It’s a refreshing change from the aforementioned bombast. You’ll likely cherry-pick which of this album’s tracks to include in your holiday playlist.



Halfway through the first track of Jay Rowe’s Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas, I thought it would be one of this season’s hits.

A few tracks later, doubts began to rise.


Halfway through the album, the problem became obvious:


Rowe doesn’t share.


He’s an aggressive, hard-charging keyboardist, with arrangements that favor half-tone key changes, but you’d barely know his sidemen were alive. With the exception of a cute reading of “O Tannenbaum,” which grants fleeting solos to bassist Dave Anderson and drummer Trevor Somerville, they’re otherwise relegated to the way-way-background. Guitarist Andy Abel, supposedly present on five of these 10 tracks, can’t be heard at all.


More egregiously, everything soon sounds the same.


Granted, Somerville’s rock ’n’ roll beat on “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “Joy to the World” distinguishes those arrangements to a degree, and the concluding reading of “Auld Lang Syne” is a peaceful bit of calm after the ferocious runs at the preceding nine tracks. And yes, Anderson’s cool walking bass is a highlight on “Deck the Halls.” 


But this album mostly is Rowe, Rowe, Rowe … and he does himself no favors by overdubbing many of the tracks with violin-style synth “shading.”

The Connecticut-based jazzer obviously is quite popular, and I’ve no doubt he’s a phenomenally entertaining live performer: a total keyboard monster. If that’s sufficient, this album will be quite enjoyable. But my taste in jazz relies more on nuance, and the engaging “conversations” between combo members: neither of which is in much evidence here. It would have been more honest if Rowe had made this a solo project. 

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