Sunday, December 17, 2023

Holiday jazz 2023: Back to basics

[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 more than a quarter century (!). Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]


In early November, this looked like another disappointing year for holiday jazz.


With fewer than half a dozen albums to consider — some still not released, as of that moment — I anticipated a woefully brief column.


Happily, an expanding number of late arrivals — some from quite obscure sources — has turned this annual survey into a joyful occasion akin to the pre-Covid years.


(A passing word, about those aforementioned “obscure sources.” A growing number of musicians are choosing either to distribute solely from their own web sites, or via micro-operations that seem to handle very little else. While I can appreciate an artist’s desire to eliminate the percentage paid to Amazon and its ilk, this decision makes it extremely difficult to find such releases. So ... is it really a better retail scheme?)


As also is a growing trend, several of the following albums are available solely as digital downloads: no physical media.


Back when I began this annual survey, it was fairly common for holiday jazz albums to include covers of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” and sometimes “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating.” More recently, I’m seeing an increased numbers of full albums devoted to Guaraldi’s Peanuts tunes — with emphasis on music from the Christmas TV special — and the following list includes two.






This band, quite simply, is a force of nature.

Big Band Holidays III follows earlier 2015 and ’19 releases by Wynton Marsalis and the 14-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: absolutely the finest, tightest, swingingest unit performing today. (If this quadrennial trend continues, we can expect another release in 2027, and it can’t come quickly enough.)


This new album roars out of the gate with an explosive, double-time reading of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” that boasts sensational unison horn work, screaming sax and horn solos, and a vigorous pace that’ll leave listeners breathless. Marsalis brings down the intensity for a lovely “Christmas Time Is Here,” with the melody taken by sweet muted trumpets and Carlos Henriquez’s bass comping; Victor Goines supplies a tasty clarinet solo, after which the full band brings this venerable tune to a gorgeous conclusion, accompanied by lovely horn filigrees.


Those are the only two instrumentals. Vocalist Denzal Sinclaire trades lyrics with band passages during a buoyant reading of “Caroling, Caroling”; the clever arrangement finds Sinclaire singing in “slow time,” while the band backs him at twice the speed. Sleek solos are inserted by Ted Nash (alto sax) and Dan Nimmer (piano), then Sinclaire returns and noodles a bit of “Silver Bells” to bring the tune to a quiet finale.


Sinclaire has more fun with a playful run at “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” particularly when he pauses a few times, and “tries to whistle.” Henriquez and Marcus Printup (trumpet) supply deft solos, then Sinclaire concludes the tune while backed by a unison male choir.


The full choir delivers a vocalese introduction to “What Child Is This,” after which the rhythm section begins a vamp that introduces vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, who trades verses with the full band; tasty solos comes from Printup and Christopher Crenshaw (trombone). The band goes R&B for a pensive arrangement of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” with Kim Burrell softly crooning the initial lyrics, until she turns into a dynamic belter who gives soloists Vincent Gardner (trombone) and Sherman Irby (alto sax) plenty of competition.


The album’s dramatic finale, “No Room at the Inn,” is a full-blown gospel number with the audience clapping in time as Catherine Russell introduces Mahalia Jackson’s (rather redundant) lyrics, fueled by Nimmer’s lively keyboard work. Russell whips the audience into a frenzy as the full band gets louder; energetic solos come from Printup, Gardner and Walter Blanding (tenor sax). It all feels like part of the most glorious church service ever, and the audience erupts in cheers when the tune concludes.


At which point, all I can say is Whew.