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.



I’ve followed pianist David Ian since his first holiday album, 2011’s Vintage ChristmasVintage Christmas Trio Melody is his fourth, following 2013’s Vintage Christmas Wonderland and 2017’s Vintage Christmas Trio. (He seems determined to deliver every possible permutation of those five words.) They’re all worth investigating, and his newest entry is one of my favorites among this year’s roster.

Ian’s approach is playful; it often seems as though he’s “discovering” a song for the first time. And then he doesn’t merely perform it; he explores it, as if seeking some hitherto undiscovered nugget of emotional intensity. He also doesn’t adhere to conventional time signatures, often wandering all over the place: not quite free jazz, but certainly meditations on a given tune. Longtime drummer Josh Hunt rarely sets a beat, instead merely suggesting one, as he shadows Ian’s changing moods.


They’re joined by bassist Jon Estes; the trio has been together for at least a decade, as proven by the tightness of their interplay.


The album opens with an initially introspective handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which kicks into swing time as Ian gently deconstructs the melody. He similarly noodles his way into “We Three Kings,” enjoys some lyrical interplay with Estes, then returns to the melody and builds to a dramatic finale. Estes’ bass counterpoint, against Ian’s keyboard work, is particularly lovely during their handling of “Angels We Have Heard on High.”


“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is somewhat friskier, becoming dramatic before granting Estes a tasty walking bass solo. “The First Noel” is reverential, with gentle chimes heard while Ian deconstructs the melody; Estes takes another choice walking bass bridge, after which Ian wanders back to the melody and concludes with a simple solo piano flourish.


The album concludes with an ethereal, almost solo keyboard reading of “Silent Night.” Estes’ bass finally enters, along with quiet chimes, as Ian builds this soothing classic to a lovely finale.


Put this album at the top of your wish list. Fer shur.



New York-born George Gee and his Swing Orchestra have been in residence at Times Square’s Swing 46 Club for 26 years. It’s easy to see why; this nine-piece unit swings like mad, drawing its oomph from the tight-tight-tight six-piece horn section, and solos that often scream into the stratosphere.

A holiday album was long overdue, and the just-released Winter Wonderland certainly fills that bill. The aptly titled opening track, “Winter Wonderland Mambo,” is an energetic indication of things to come, with energetic solos by Freddie Hendrix (trumpet) and Anthony Nelson Jr. (also sax). The latter veers toward excess, though, which is particularly true of his solo on an otherwise reverential handling of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” That track’s alto solo is painfully shrill.


A unexpectedly up-tempo, hard bop reading of “What Child Is This” is fueled by a feisty trumpet solo (Hendrix again), a lyrical tenor sax solo (Michael Hashim) and a playful trombone solo (music director/arranger David Gibson).


Half of these 10 tracks are vocals, starting with John Dokes’ poignant handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” backed by Andy Gravish’s sweet horn work. Dokes sounds equally nostalgic during a gentle arrangement of “The Christmas Song,” against Hashim’s tenor sax and Steve Einerson’s lyrical piano touches.


Patience Higgins’ cute baritone sax touches echo the title question posed by Dokes during a contemplative “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” and Gibson’s playful trombone solo highlights “O Tannenbaum.” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” recorded during an earlier 2014 session, opens with a unison horn vamp that sets up the seductive give-and-take vocals by Dokes and Hilary Gardner.


The album’s enjoyable features notwithstanding, it suffers from two flaws: one stylistic, the other technical. Gibson’s arrangements too frequently separate solos with redundant two- and three-note unison horn vamps, which get old. More critically, Einerson’s piano is badly mic’d or mixed; his solos, particularly when they follow a screaming horn, sound like he’s playing from the rear of a different room.


The album concludes with a lively, New Orleans-style reading of “Jingle Bells” that finds Nelson Jr.’s alto sax in a more agreeable solo mode, while the entire unit comps behind him. One pictures the band then strutting off the stage: for the most part, a buoyant job well done.



Multi-instrumentalist/arranger Ted Nash and vocalist Kristen Lee Sergeant aren’t merely jazz collaborators; they bonded over a mutual passion for wine. She’s certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers and worked for years at New York City’s Gotham Bar & Grill. This “sidebar” interest prompted them to establish Two Notes Winery in Santa Barbara, California, where their 2015 Triola blends “three notes” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Musically, their newest collaboration is Holidays, a nine-track jazz smorgasbord that finds them backed by a 15-piece big band. The album opens with a contemplative reading of “Snowbound,” an excellent showcase for Stewart’s sparkling vocal and the band’s tight unison horns. “My Favorite Things” is a veritable jazz feast: an ambitious, 7-minute arrangement that showcases Jay Anderson’s smooth bass work, Adam Birnbaum’s vibrant piano bridge, Nash’s sax and (of course) Stewart’s lyrical vocal stylings. (I particularly like the cute unison horn “pops” when the dog bites and the bee stings.)


A clever introductory vamp opens a vibrant handling of “Sleigh Ride,” which finds Stewart in a sassier mood; she and the band build to what seems a climax, but then they pull back, yielding to Birnbaum’s ferocious keyboard solo. Nash’s subsequent sax solo is backed by Birnbaum’s comping and Anderson’s walking bass; the full band returns, and builds to another climax as Stewart returns.


Alas, a few corked selections intrude. Although Stewart gives it a game effort, nobody can sing “Blue Xmas” the way Bob Dorough did; she simply doesn’t sound cynical enough. That said, the track boasts a sassy trombone duel between James Burton, Jennifer Krupa and Matthew McDonald, along with a really dirty trumpet solo by James Zollar. Sergeant’s sweet vocal on “A Child Is Born” is similarly compromised by a rather strange arrangement that begins as the full band seemingly struggles to find its way into the tune.


The menu concludes with another stand-out track: a feisty reading of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which grants the band a lengthy intro — more terrific work by the unison horns — before Stewart enters against more of Anderson’s terrific walking bass. Paul Nedzela’s sassy sax bridge is followed by Marcus Printup’s joyous trumpet solo, after which Stewart and the full band bring the tune — and the album — to a climactic finale.


A (mostly) tasty vintage, indeed!



As its title suggests, rising jazz pianist Isaiah J. Thompson’s A Guaraldi Holiday isn’t entirely devoted to Christmas; Halloween and Thanksgiving also are acknowledged by this album’s 12 tracks. But half either are seasonal classics or drawn from A Charlie Brown Christmas, so I deem it close enough for inclusion here.

Thompson is joined here by Anthony Hervey, trumpet; Julian Lee, tenor sax; Alexa Tarantino, alto sax and flute; John Pizzarelli, guitar; Philip Norris, bass; and Kyle Poole, drums and percussion. The liner notes make a point of mentioning that — aside from Pizzarelli  — all the musicians are under 30. Remarkable, isn’t it, that so many young jazz artists are captivated by Guaraldi?


Thompson’s approach is varied. At times his arrangements definitely evoke Guaraldi’s touch and spirit; other tracks employ brief bits of a familiar melody merely as a springboard for complex jazz more in the hard bop vein of Thompson’s previous album, The Power of the Spirit


The latter is particularly true of Guaraldi’s “Thanksgiving Theme,” which begins with gentle piano against Hervey’s brass touches, followed by a thoughtful sax solo. But then Thompson sprints all over the keyboard during a lengthy bridge, the arrangement getting more aggressive with brass filigrees and vibrant sax and Poole’s drum work. A propulsive bossa rhythm fuels an atypically muscular handling of “What Child Is This,” with dueling trumpet and sax solos suddenly yielding to double-time rhythm work against another ferocious keyboard bridge, which finally slides into a slightly deconstructed handling of the familiar melody, before everybody joins for a unison finale.


Guaraldi’s lesser-known “Heartburn Waltz” — actually part of the score for 1975’s Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown — is given a delicate reading, with piano and flute trading the melody against gentle percussion. Guaraldi’s rock-inflected “Christmas Is Coming” initially sounds very much like Vince, then blossoms into a burner highlighted by cute percussion and feisty piano bridges; the tune concludes as the combo members clap and cheer (which reminded me of the similarly rowdy touches in Ramsey Lewis’ Goin’ Latin album).


The melody in “O Christmas Tree” is delivered by Hervey’s muted trumpet, clearly sounding like the wah-wahvocalizing of Charlie Brown’s school teachers. Norris’ cool walking bass and Thompson’s lyrical keyboard bridge highlight “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” while the pianist’s solo on “Auld Lang Syne” backs the combo members’ unison humming and lu-lu-lu vocalese delivery of the melody (much the way the Peanuts gang sings the first verse of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” at the end of Charlie Brown Christmas).


The album concludes with a kick-ass reading of “Linus and Lucy,” which begins as sax handles the core melody, with Thompson adding an ascending four-chord run at the end of each line. The first bridge is a spirited blend of sax and piano; a lengthy sax solo segues to the second bridge, which shifts to swing time and boasts more of Norris’ cool walking bass: a great finale to a truly pleasurable album.



Several years passed before I finally caught up with German jazz pianist Christoph Spendel’s first holiday album, 1999’s Silent Night. (International commerce wasn’t nearly as easy back then.) I was pleased; Spendel’s trio was a tight unit, and his arrangements were imaginative; it has remained one of my favorite seasonal albums.

I’m therefore delighted to call attention to X-Mas Streaming, which — among its many virtues — is the year’s best bargain: two full hours of music, for just $7.99.


Spendel is joined by Claudio Zanghieri, bass; and Jens Biehl, drums. All 17 tracks run long — between 5 and slightly north of 8 minutes — which grants the musicians plenty of space for solos during numerous bridges. Spendel is known for his signature blend of bebop and crossover fusion, often with unexpected touches of classical. The result is always satisfying.


Although capable of slow and sweet — as is the case with “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — Spendel gets more exercise on the faster tracks; he’s adept at lightning-fast runs up and down the keyboard, both with chords and single notes. He demonstrates this with the album-opening “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which will leave listeners breathless.


Biehl’s samba-style percussion highlights a full-blooded handling of “Feliz Navidad,” which boasts a lengthy keyboard solo and strong drum work, when the tune approaches its conclusion. A calypso-hued “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is highlighted by Zanghieri’s droll bass solo; the lengthy “Angels We Have Heard on High” also gets a calypso treatment, concluding with an aggressive trio vamp that brings the melody home.


A few tunes have German titles. We know “Morgen Kommt Der Weihnachtsmann” as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (which also was a highlight of Spendel’s 1999 album). The dramatic “Herbei Oh Ihr Gläubigen,” recognized as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” features deft interplay between piano and bass. Finally, “Leise Rieselt Der Schnee” (“The Snow Falls Softly”), one of the German language’s most famous Christmas songs, emerges as a thoughtful, meditative tone poem (although, not being familiar with the tune, I found it hard to separate the melody from the solos).


The set concludes with “Auld Lang Syne,” which opens forcefully and turns celebratory, with more of Spendel’s dexterous keyboard work and a dynamic solo from Zanghieri, after which the tune concludes quite abruptly.


This album demands a listener’s attention: probably not a good choice as cocktail party background music. But swing fans will find much to love!



Saxman/composer Walt Weiskopf began his New York career when he joined the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1981, at the youthful age of 21. Weiskopf subsequently earned numerous accolades for his playing and original compositions, and his European Quartet — Carl Winther, piano; Andreas Lang, bass; and Anders Mogensen, drums — has released roughly an album per year, since coming together in 2018.

The just-released A Little Christmas Music, a seven-track EP, finds the quartet in a relaxed mode. Mogensen’s percussion is quiet throughout, the pacing ranging from leisurely to mid-tempo. The style is supper-club standard: one or two verses of melody by Weiskopf — on alto sax throughout — followed by one or more improv bridges, and concluding with a return to the melody. Weiskopf’s improv bridges are thoughtful, sometimes “noodly,” often hinting at the given melody before wandering elsewhere.


The opening arrangement of “Let It Snow” is typical of this approach. Mogensen establishes a gentle, mid-tempo vibe while Weiskopf introduces the melody, then grants improv bridges to himself, Winther and Lang. Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is a bit slower, perhaps even wistful; Weiskopf’s improv bridge is backed by Lang’s tasty bass comping.


“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is atypically unhurried, and the lengthy arrangement grants Winther a particularly lovely keyboard bridge. Mogensen kicks “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” into a higher gear, giving Weiskopf’s inventively syncopated arrangement a droll boost that adds spice to his lengthy sax solo, backed by Winther’s tasty comped chords. 


The album concludes with a lengthy, thoughtful handling of “Moonlight in Vermont” — probably the only time I’ve seen this standard on a holiday jazz album! — that finds piano and bass “shadowing” the melody during Weiskopf’s lengthy improv sax bridge. A sparkling keyboard solo is followed by Lang’s return to the melody; he yields to Weiskopf as the tune concludes.


I’m mildly surprised to hear several of these tracks fade out, rather than conclude neatly; that seems oddly old-school, as if Weiskopf couldn’t figure out how to resolve the finale (which I highly doubt). But that’s a minor quibble about a thoroughly enjoyable 36 minutes of music.



The 17-piece Amazing Keystone Big Band, devoted equally to swing era stylings and the “bold virtuosity” of today’s jazz, comes to us from France. The arrangements come from pianist/artistic director Fred Nardin, joined by saxman Jon Boutellier, trombonist Bastien Ballaz, and trumpet player David Enhco, who’ve collaborated since they attended the Conservatoire de Paris together.

The arrangements, solo and unison playing are terrific, and well showcased on their album Christmas Celebration. Alas, the weak links are vocalist Célia Kameni and Pablo Campos; they’re fine on some tracks, but wholly unsuited to others. (One wishes at least a few of these dozen tracks were instrumentals, to showcase just the band.)


The album opens with a sensational run at “Let It Snow,” with the band delivering a lively swing arrangement matched by Campos’ equally energetic vocal. Pierre Desassis contributes a sweet alto sax solo, and the unison horn work is choice during an instrumental bridge. Vincent Labarre’s screaming trumpet solo opens an equally energetic “Frosty the Snowman,” powered by a rowdy, New Orleans swing arrangement, more unison horns and Campos’ appropriately frisky vocal.


On the softer end, Ballaz’s gentle arrangement of “The Christmas Song” is the perfect showcase for Kameni’s wistful vocal, backed by softly comping horn touches and  lovely trombone filigrees. 


On the less successful end, Campos’ attempt on “ ‘Zat You, Santa Claus” doesn’t work at all; he isn’t nearly feisty enough, and one wishes Louis Armstrong could have been paired with the appropriately impertinent instrumental work. Kameni similarly spoils the cute, childlike arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” — highlighted by Patrick Maradan’s slick walking bass — and ultimately makes the song sound more like a threat, than a promise.


Some tracks simply wear out their welcome. Nardin’s organ-style keyboard work opens an initially hymn-like reading of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” with Kameni’s voice suitably worshipful. The first bridge shifts into an instrumental jazz waltz, with more sweet keyboard touches; the intensity builds, then retreats; Kameni continues with far more verses than normally are heard, going on and on and on, during an arrangement that runs nearly seven minutes.


Fortunately, things improve with the dirty trombone and trumpet solos that highlight a raucous reading of “At the Christmas Ball,” delivered as a Dixieland strut; Campos’ vocal is well suited to this mood. The album concludes with a burning run at “Jingle Bells,” boasting great horn pops and a raging tenor sax battle between Prost and Fred Couderc; Campos and Kameni duet on the vocal, with everybody clearly having a great time. So will you (for the most part).



Connecticut-born Christian Sands’ Christmas Stories is a bewildering case of diminishing returns.

The Grammy-nominated jazz pianist is a monster on the keyboard, capable of a ferocity that occasionally makes listeners think they’re hearing two players. That’s amply evident in his roaring, Afro-Cuban arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” wherein his working quartet — Marvin Sewell, guitar; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; and Ryan Sands, drums — is complemented by guest percussionist Keita Ogawa. The result is a veritable jazz symphony within this single song, with constantly shifting tempos, moods and piano bridges that range from thoughtful to full-tilt boogie.


The album-opening run at “Jingle Bells” is flat-out sensational, with the familiar tune’s slightly deconstructed melody placed against a rhythm line lifted from Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” and highlighted further by tricky time signatures and sleek interplay between Sands’ piano and Sewell’s guitar. 




Five of the album’s six final tracks are Sands originals, and — his 2021 Grammy nomination for best instrumental composition notwithstanding — most aren’t memorable. “Shoveling” does indeed sound like shoveling snow, with whistling wind and footfalls in deep snow; the track is quiet, mysterious ... and rather dull. The music box-style intro to “The Gift,” which features Stefon Harris on vibes, is even more ethereal and random; its descending 3-3-3-1 motif gets quite old during the track’s 8-minute length.


The sweet, reverential “A Christmas Hymn” — a duet between Sands and Harris — suggests a deconstructed “Silent Night,” but it never develops.


The happy exception is Sands’ lively, surf rock-hued “Snow Dayz,” which opens against Ryan Sands’ intense drumming, and boasts amazing keyboard work. It sounds like a fast-paced accompaniment to a luge run or downhill skiing montage: quite fun.


The album concludes with Sands’ “Last Christmas” — not to be confused with George Michaels’ popular pop tune — a string-laden wallow in melancholia that feels like a dirge: as if this upcoming December will mark somebody’s finalChristmas.


In fairness, the album’s title is honest; many of these tracks are “Christmas stories” … but too many of them aren’t very interesting.



Danish jazz pianist Carl Winther is best know for his Latin, African and Herbie Hancock-style 1970s stylings, which makes his 8-track EP, A Jazzy Christmas Celebration, a gentler outlier in his catalogue. It’s also deceptively titled, unless one accepts the notion that Disney movie standards are holiday music. Only three tracks qualify as actual Christmas tunes — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” and “Mary’s Boy Child” — while Disney is represented by “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

The remaining two tracks — “Isn’t It Romantic” and McCoy Tyner’s “Search for Peace” — belong to neither camp.


Another vexing detail: There’s no indication who handles bass and drums.


For the most part, these are mellow arrangements: soft trio jazz for late-at-night snuggling. The tracks are short: just long enough for Winther to improvise briefly during bridges between the melodies. You’d barely know the drummer is present, aside from very soft touches and occasional brushed cymbals. The exceptions are a lively, up-tempo handling of “Mary’s Boy Child” and the sparkling reading of “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” The latter allows the drummer to shine, and also features nice call-and-response between Winther and his bassist.


The latter individual spends most of his time comping quietly behind Winther’s keyboard work on melody and bridge solos; the bass touches are particularly nice on “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The bassist also gets a noteworthy solo on “Search for Peace,” which concludes the menu.


Ultimately, this one isn’t such a much.



Houston-born Kat Edmonson memorably sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Lyle Lovett on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, back in December 2010. (She toured as Lovett’s opening act that summer.) By that point, Edmonson already was a rising songwriter and jazz chanteuse, with an impish, often soft-spoken, old-style delivery that has made fans of a certain age wonder if she’s the reincarnation of Blossom Dearie.

Beyond their near-identical, little-girl voices, Edmonson has a much broader range, and a helluva lot more personality. She’s by turns coy, feisty, playful and — yes, when an arrangement demands it — gently wistful.


Her 2021 seasonal album, Holiday Swingin’!, eluded my notice until recently, and — based on a subtitle that claims this is “A Kat Edmonson Christmas Vol. 1” — I’ll be among the first in line when its sequel arrives.


Edmonson is backed by a tight quartet: Roy Dunlap, piano; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Bob Hart, bass; and Aaron Thurston, drums. The 10-track album is brief, clocking in at just a few seconds over half an hour; the arrangements run just long enough to allow tasty instrumental bridges during most tunes. Edmonson knows how to get off the stage, leaving the listener wanting more.


She often slides smoothly between singing and patter-style “speaking” the lyrics, which enhances the album’s overall playful atmosphere. She sorta-kinda scats her way into the sassy, album-opening arrangement of “Let It Snow,” which offers the first example of the sympatico vibe Dunlap and Munisteri display on piano and guitar, smoothly trading solos and comping. An atypically lively “White Christmas” finds Edmonson roaring against a double-time beat laid down by Thurston.


“Happy Holiday,” blended playfully with Irving Berlin’s title theme for 1942’s Holiday Inn, becomes a bouncy cha-cha; the usually up-tempo “Jingle Bell Rock,” in contrast, emerges as a swingin’ New Orleans-style strut.


“The Christmas Blues” is appropriately sultry, and Munisteri’s lyrical guitar work adds a nice touch to a contemplative reading of “The Christmas Song.” Everybody has fun with a lively reading of “The Chipmunk Song,” wherein Dunlap switches to an electronic keyboard during a particularly frisky bridge; Edmonson demonstrates her capacity for belting during a final verse that finds her rattling off a wish list that includes far more than a Hula Hoop and a plane that loops the loop.


Dunlap returns to an acoustic keyboard to introduce a gentle handling of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the sole instrument backing Edmonton’s sweet vocal as the hymn begins. He and Munisteri then trade quiet licks when she builds to a solemn finale: a lovely way to conclude a very enjoyable album.



During the past decade, jazz pianist Ron LeGault has turned his Charlie Brown Goes to the Nutcracker show into an annual tradition that sells out performances at the Hotel St. Julien in Boulder, Colorado. An album was an obvious next step, and the just-released Charlie Brown Goes to The Nutcracker finds him alongside Andrew Vogt, tenor and baritone sax, flute and clarinet; Curtis Fox, trombone; Dave Weinand, bass and bass clarinet; and Andreas Schmid, drums.

Based on the first two tracks, I expected to love this album. “Surfin’ Snoopy” is a fast-paced romp with a conventional combo arrangement that grants brief solos to each performer in turn; the whimsical, mid-tempo reading of “Charlie Brown Theme” cleverly trades the melody between keyboard and Fox’s wah-wah trombone, which deliberately sounds like the wordless adults in Peanuts TV specials.


But then things become ... well ... less satisfying. “Troika,” apparently intended to introduce the program’s Nutcrackerportion, is a peculiar mash-up of Tchaikovsky elements and snippits of Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy.” The subsequent Nutcracker “Overture” sounds discordant and “watery,” despite Weinand’s sleek walking bass touches; more crucially, the arrangement simply isn’t sufficiently dynamic.


Vogt’s sax becomes a squawky, intrusive presence in “Dance of the Reed Flutes” ... and also during numerous subsequent tracks. Schmid’s drum solos in “Reed Flutes” and “Pebble Beach” feel superfluous, and they aren’t very interesting. LeGault’s arrangement of “Happiness Theme” is surprisingly slow and mournful: hardly the mood customarily associated with this cheerful little tune. And all five musicians seem to be at odds with each other, during their reading of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”


On a happier note, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is a hoot, with Weinand’s bass clarinet dominating the melody against heavy 2/2 percussion. 


The album’s biggest flaw, however, has nothing to do with the musicians. The entire session sounds like it was recorded in a closet; there’s no sense of depth, and the overall presentation is “muddy,” rather than crisp. That’s quite ironic, given that LeGault’s album is available solely from, a high-falutin’ outfit that “specializes in high-fidelity audio components equipment for audiophiles and the sound recording industry.” Seriously? And this is an example of their “audiophile-quality” work?


The various album purchase options — including an eyebrow-lifting “Austrian gold-pressed dual-layer SACD” —  command audiophile-level prices, rising to $39 (!). That’s ridiculous. Seems like psaudio put all its effort into PR blather, at the expense of recording, mixing and engineering.



John Paul McGee’s A Gospejazzical Christmas is well-named, but that isn’t a compliment; the album suffers from an identity crisis. The billing also is somewhat misleading; although credited to the John Paul McGee Trio, three of the six combo numbers are performed by a quartet. That detail aside, McGee has formidable piano chops; he favors intricate, fast-paced single-note runs that span the entire keyboard.

The album-opening arrangement of Norman Hutchins’ “Emmanuel” — a 2020 tune, not to be confused with the venerable “O Come O Come Emmanuel” — is a sprightly charmer highlighted by McGee’s lively keyboard chops, Patrick Arthur’s peppy guitar bridge and a feisty rhythm established by drummer Larry Wilson and bassist Joel Powell. McGee’s handling of “The Little Drummer Boy” is a hoot, thanks to a rhythmic backing that borrows from Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” and a clever arrangement that gives plenty of space to piano and guitar.


“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” is another standout: an up-tempo arrangement with a great beat and sparkling keyboard work, particularly during the second, double-time bridge, where McGee positively roars. 


The mood turns softer with an extremely slow trio handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas:” a lengthy 7-minute arrangement that grants McGee a chance to demonstrate a rich, expressive singing voice every bit as engaging as his keyboard work. 




“Christmas Time Is Here” (a sweet vocal by Lori Williams), “O Holy Night,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “The Manger Medley” — a mélange of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” — feature only McGee on solo piano. They’re all pretty, but they definitely aren’t jazz. A similarly solo piano reading of “Mary Did You Know” opens with a nod toward Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, before settling into the anticipated melody: more classical in nature, than anything resembling jazz.


Wendi Henderson-Wyatt’s powerful vocal dominates a slow, dynamic arrangement of the gospel tune “Jesus What a Wonderful Child,” which would be right at home during a church revival meeting. (Personally, I prefer the 1994 version by Mariah Carey.) At more than seven minutes, this tune wears out its welcome, despite Henderson-Wyatt’s talk/singing delivery and formidable belting ability.


All told, then, this album’s target audience remains a mystery. Jazz fans will get impatient with the five solo piano tracks, despite the beauty of McGee’s keyboard work; listeners who prefer the delicacy of those solo arrangements likely won’t care for the combo performances.



Further on the subject of misleading advertising...

Samara Joy has a truly gorgeous voice, and it’s well showcased on her new six-track EP, A Joyful Holiday. But calling it a “jazz album,” as so many sources have claimed, is a stretch. Only the album opener, “Warm in December,” gives her backing trio — Sullivan Fortner, piano; David Wong, double bass; and Kenny Washington, drums — an opportunity to swing a bit. Joy “talks” the opening few lines, backed solely by Fortner; the tune then opens into a tasty, mid-tempo finger-snapper highlighted by a sparkling keyboard bridge and Wong’s smooth walking bass.


The trio supplies clever syncopation to a fun reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which shifts to slightly faster swing time during the bridge, and Wong’s bass phrasing shines during a gentle arrangement of “The Christmas Song.” But neither offers an instrumental solo, which is disappointing, because the trio clearly is talented.


Joy is supported solely by Fortner on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me,” a soulful little ballad highlighted by her warmly emotional delivery. Fortner switches to Hammond B3 for a moving rendition of “O Holy Night,” which finds Joy joined by five other singers; the result would be the highlight of a Christmas Eve church service, particularly when Joy holds one high note for an impressively long time. Both these tracks are exquisite, but they ain’t jazz.


The album concludes with a second performance of “The Christmas Song,” this time a live duet with Antonio McLendon ... which seems needlessly redundant in a program that runs just shy of 25 minutes. It’s a lovely half-dozen, but don’t expect anything beyond minimalist jazz.



But let’s conclude with something positive.

In the Key of Chiaroscuro — Holiday Jazz Mix, is the year’s sole new compilation release, as a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America’s Musicians’ Emergency Fund. It’s also something of a sequel to 1995’s A Chiaroscuro Christmas, which I covered here


The label’s history and involvement with holiday jazz are intriguing. It was founded by Hank O’Neal in 1970, who — in this new album’s liner notes — recalls being inspired during a solo recording session by pianist Dave McKenna. In O’Neal’s words:


I don’t remember exactly why, but Dave recorded two Christmas songs at the session. As Christmas 1973 approached, I decided it might be fun to turn the two selections into a 45-RPM single, press up a few hundred, and send them out as Christmas cards.


(And boy, wouldn’t you love to have landed on that mailing list?)


O’Neal continued this tradition until his label was sold in 1979; those “Christmas card” recordings eventually became the bulk of A Chiaroscuro Christmas. The label remained moribund until 1987, when businessman Andrew Sordoni contacted O’Neal and encouraged him to resurrect it. They became partners, and the label endures to this day.


The “unplanned” Christmas tune recordings once again became a frequent part of studio sessions with various jazz artists; additional tracks were extracted from recordings made during the Floating Jazz Festival, a 20-year series of jazz cruises that ran through 2003.


Ten of the 18 tracks in this sumptuous new album were recorded at sea; the rest were Chiaroscuro studio sessions. The result is well over an hour of great music, which I lack the space to describe in sufficient detail.


The Junior Mance/Joe Temperley Quartet delivers a nifty arrangement of “Silent Night,” against a rhythm section lifted from Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Pianist Dorothy Donegan’s trio supplies a cool “Jingle Bells,” while New York Swing — Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar; John Bunch, piano; and Jay Leonhart, bass — heat things up with a sassy run at “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”


Pianist Bill Charlap supplies a soulful solo reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while pianist Mike Jones goes for humor with his solo handling of “Frosty the Snowman.” Tenor saxman Frank Foster and his quartet — Danny Mixon, piano; Earl May, bass; and Dave Gleason, drums — spend well over 6 minutes stretching “The Christmas Song” into a minor jazz symphony, with plenty of cool solo bridges.


Tenor saxman Frank Wess’ quartet — Richard Wyands, piano; Lynn Seaton, bass; and Winard Harper, drums — similarly take plenty of time with “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” which also boasts terrific solos (particularly by Wyands). The Nat Adderley Quintet supplies a jaunty reading of “Jingle Bells” — terrific piano solo by Rob Bargard — and no less than the late Steve Allen headlines a trio for one of his many holiday originals, “Here Comes Another Christmas.”


The album concludes with a terrific reading of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” by Boots Randolph, tenor sax; Tom Cherry, guitar; Steve Willets, piano; Tim Smith, bass; and Ray Von Rotz, drums. After which, I immediately played the album again.


It’s that good.


(Be advised: The album is available solely from the Jazz Foundation of America.)

My earlier fears notwithstanding, this turned out to be a strong year! 

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