Put some swing in your step with this year’s collection of holiday jazz
By Derrick Bang
Special to The Enterprise
Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey and the Carpenters have their place during the holiday season, but if you really want to impress your mistletoe-smooching friends, dig into the Christmas jazz.
Although jazz stars have recorded seasonal classics going back to the swing era of Glenn Miller and Lionel Hampton, the pickings remained quite small up through the early 1960s, despite marvelous albums such as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” (1960), Kenny Burrell’s “Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas” (1966) and Duke Pearson’s “Merry Ole Soul” (1969).
Things finally picked up in the 1980s, and I began covering the scene in 1997, when the avalanche of new releases made it necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. I continue to be delighted by the wealth of albums, whether from established stars or newcomers doing their best to be noticed via Internet outlets such as CD Baby and iTunes. As always is true in the music world, fame is no guarantor of quality; a couple of this year’s best albums come from folks you’ve never heard of.
A handful of selections from the following list can’t help making you the hit of your own holiday party. As the lyrics insist, you gotta dig that crazy Santa Claus!
Nnenna Freelon gallops out of the gate, with a swinging assist from the John Brown Big Band, on “Christmas” (Brown Boulevard Records), the best blend of chanteuse and full-blown jazz orchestra we’ve heard since Diana Krall teamed with the Clayton-Hamilton ensemble back in 2005.
Freelon is a belter, often going for the back row in the second balcony; she clearly could deliver a smashing rendition of the National Anthem. She and the band get off to a great start with a lively (and appropriately re-titled) arrangement of “Swingle Jingle Bells,” which displays the obvious joy she gets from performing this material.
Brown’s ensemble is a truly big band; he leads on bass and is joined by five saxes, five trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, drums and percussion. The arrangements leave plenty of space for the band to roar, as they do during a march-oriented handling (Adonis Rose on drums) of “Little Drummer Boy” and a swinging medley of spirituals that climaxes with a heartfelt “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
Freelon often seems to have a give-and-take conversation with the band, as she does during a contemplative handling of “Let It Snow.” And she has a genuine story-song chat with Brown, when they share vocals on a deliciously sultry reading of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Rarely has this holiday standard been so sexy.
The mood turns gentle and sweet for a rarely heard lullaby: Duke Ellington’s “I Love the Sunrise,” which in Freelon’s hands reflects the excited delight of little children bursting with joy over the arrival of Christmas morning.
The album concludes with Dan Cavanagh’s great arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which emerges as a droll New Orleans stomp: a great send-off for an album certain to become a seasonal favorite.
Some years before I started this annual roundup of holiday jazz, a vocal ensemble known as the New York Voices supplied a single track to the 1991 anthology album, “A GRP Christmas Collection, Volume II.” The group’s contribution was a bluesy reading of “I Wonder As I Wander”: definitely one of that album’s highlights, thanks both to the tight vocal harmonies and some smokin’ instrumental solos on tenor sax and piano.
Flash-forward two decades and change. The New York Voices are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a holiday album, which includes a fresh take on that same song. The personnel have changed a bit: Original members Darmon Meader, Kim Nazarian and Peter Eldridge remain, but Sara Krieger and Caprice Fox have moved on, replaced solely by Lauren Kinhan.
“Let It Snow” (Five Cent Records FCR-0001) covers a range of settings, with the singers backed at times by a raucous big band, a smaller but equally swingin’ jazz combo, a studio orchestra or merely themselves. A cappella purists will be drawn to the group’s sweet, haunting covers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “O Come Emmanuel” and “Silent Night,” the latter sung in both German and English, and serving as the album’s gentle closer.
That’s the antithesis of how things begin, with the big band backing their handling of “Let It Snow,” which features every vocal treat from delicious harmonizing to droll scatting. Along the way, Meader also contributes a deft tenor sax solo. The other big band highlights are “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” presented as a mid-tempo finger-snapper that includes a lovely guitar solo from Bob Mann; a lively medley that blends “The Man with the Bag,” “I’d Like You for Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”; and a show-stopping handling of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which offers clever key changes with each verse.
Back-up combos associated with vocalists have a long tradition of “moonlighting” with a few albums of their own, and that’s the case with a trio that dubs itself Tri-Fi. By day, these guys — Matthew Fries, piano; Phil Palombi, bass; and Keith Hall, drums — are the rhythm section behind rock/pop singer-turned-jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers. By night, they fund genuinely terrific instrumental albums via Kickstarter campaigns; during a quick 20 days in the summer of 2011, they raised the scratch needed to produce “A Tri-Fi Christmas” (Tri-Fi TR309).
And, in the process, they delivered what is guaranteed to be one of my all-time favorite piano trio holiday albums.
The reasons are varied, starting with the fact that these guys are tight. The combo passages are arranged inventively, with a nod toward various keyboard masters from Errol Garner to Marcus Roberts; the solos interweave beautifully, with the melody lines sliding gracefully between Fries and Palombi. Hall, as well, is much more inventive than most drummers; you’ll love the way he turns “Joy to the World” into a droll, New Orleans-style marching band strut.
The album kicks up with a peppy 4/4 rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” which features lively bass work and grants solos to each performer. Fries cleverly deconstructs the melody line during an intriguing cover of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and Palombi uncorks a marvelous walking bass during a droll rendition of “Let It Snow,” performed against the percussive line from “Killer Joe.”
My favorite track is the fiendishly clever arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which opens with a fascinating time signature — alternating 3/4 and 5/4, if I’m not mistaken — and then roars into a fast 4/4.
The trio concludes with a sweet, gentle version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which features Palombi’s bowed bass on the melody line: a lyrical finish to a truly excellent album.
Speaking of back-up musicians, pianist Ted Rosenthal is the accompanist of choice for jazz vocalists such as Ann Hampton Callaway, Barbara Cook and Helen Merrill. He’s also a deft keyboardist and arranger in his own right, and he definitely “has his way” — to employ his own phrase — with the holiday chestnuts selected for the Ted Rosenthal Trio’s “Wonderland” (Playscape Recordings PSR 062713).
This swinging, extremely tasty album teams Rosenthal with the equally talented Noriko Ueda (bass) and Tim Horner (drums). The album opens with a hard-swingin’ arrangement of “Winter Wonderland” that offers choice solos from both Rosenthal and Ueda: an excellent indication of great things to come. The arrangements slide from slow and sweet, to up-tempo barn-burners, the latter best represented by a roaring, bebop-ish interpretation of “Angels We Have Heard on High” that’ll forever banish any notion of this being a solemn church carol.
“Sleigh Ride” is granted a similarly energetic reading at an up-tempo 2/2 — Rosenthal acknowledges a touch of Ahmad Jamal in the liner notes — and builds to a strong finish that features deft bass and drum work. Horner lays down a heavy 4/4 for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and all I can say is that this Santa arrives with a swagger, accompanied by a particularly bluesy solo from Ueda.
The trio also can be achingly tender, as with a poignant handling of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a cheery cover of “The Christmas Song,” and a gentle waltz arrangement of “Silent Night” that opens with a nod toward Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born.”
You’ll love this album. Buy it.
Back in 2005, the Canadian Cellar Live label released a nifty holiday jazz disc that featured alternating tracks by the Bruno Hubert Trio and the B3 Kings, the latter a quartet starring Cory Weeds (alto sax), Bill Coon (guitar), Chris Gestrin (Hammond B3) and Denzal Sinclaire (drums and occasional vocals). I liked that CD a lot, and therefore was pleased to learn that the B3 Kings had recorded their own album, “You Better Watch Out” (Cellar Live CL082511).
The good news is that this disc’s 12 tracks do not duplicate any of the holiday favorites covered on the 2005 disc. The additional good news is that most of this album’s arrangements are just as clever, the interplay between instruments just as lively, as the quartet’s earlier work.
The album opens with the energetic title track, actually a version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” that borrows from the lively arrangement employed by the Jackson Five’s 1970 Motown hit. The B3 Kings’ name notwithstanding, Weeds and Coon dominate on sax and guitar, with Gestrin’s keyboard relegated mostly to comping and background shading. It’s a good mix, and Gestrin knows how to extract genuine rhythm from his 400-pound beast.
I love the strong 2/2 arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and an up-tempo reading of “The Holly and the Ivy” is equally inventive. Coon tackles a difficult assignment with “Skating,” a Vince Guaraldi classic that pretty much demands to be dominated by keyboard; to his credit, Coon delivers the melody with equal panache on his guitar.
Two tracks — “Ave Maria” and Frederich H. Heider and Carl Kress’ “There’s a Train Out for Dreamland” — are needlessly syrupy and sentimental, but things improve again with “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” cast here as a mid-tempo swinger. Even the album’s final track, a gentle 2/2 handling of “Silent Night,” is a toe-tapper.
For the most part, with a few tracks rotated out, this album is an engaging listen.
Eric Wangensteen’s lovely, lyrical horn work — alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn — is the highlight of his self-produced “Blue Christmas,” a mildly bebop-hued collection of holiday standards. He’s also a generous leader, granting ample exposure to keyboardist Chris Lomheim, who works tasty solos into most of these cuts. These are unhurried arrangements, most granting plenty of time for tuneful improvs.
The album opens with a frisky cover of “Winter Wonderland,” which grants bassist Gordon Johnson a melodic solo, while displaying Wangensteen’s impish delight at messing with time signatures. Indeed, his arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” emerges in a fast 7/8, which can’t help raising a smile.
Drummer Phil Hey moves smoothly between languid and mid-tempo arrangements — nothing on this album could be called a burner — and deftly maintains a presence while never overpowering the other players. He’s more noticeable on Wangensteen’s one original composition, “(Christmas) Afternoon,” a lively tune that doesn’t sound terribly seasonal to me, but is no less enjoyable.
One artistic decision remains puzzling: Considering how good Lomheim sounds on a traditional (acoustic) keyboard, I can’t imagine why he switches to Hammond B3 for a few cuts … or why Wangensteen encouraged this. Getting a B3 to groove requires a LOT of skill (see previous review), but Lomheim’s electronic flourishes are clumsy and ill-prepared on “White Christmas,” and his work on the aforementioned “Christmas Time Is Here” sounds like it came from a drum machine.
For the most part, though, this engaging album delivers plenty of mid-tempo swing. The stand-out arrangements — a finger-snapping “Let It Snow” is another highlight — more than compensate for the few lesser tracks.
Scott Brookins belongs to a small but enthusiastic subset of musicians I’ll call “jazz worship artists,” who frequently share their craft in a church setting. Brookins, a trumpeter and former session musician who worked with Glen Campbell, the Platters, the Mills Brothers and other notables, was ordained in 1998 and since then has blended his jazz talents with full-time service in his own international faith ministry. He has five albums to his credit, the most recent of which is “A Little Christmas Jazz” (Scott Brookins SBM06).
This is a lovely, lyrical release, highlighted both by Brookins’ smooth horn work — on trumpet and flugelhorn — and his inventive arrangements, with an assist on the latter by drummer/percussionist Francis Wyatt. Keyboardist Bob Sutter and bassist Tim Fox round out the combo. This album’s eight tracks run long, granting plenty of time for lively solos; the ensemble work is equally crisp.
The album kicks off with a percussive, quite bouncy arrangement of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” in 5/4 time: a vibrant introduction that features guest pianist Paul Mutzabaugh (his only effort on this album). Wyatt’s touch also shines on a mambo-style reading of “The Christmas Song,” a fast 2/2 that truly cooks and features great bass work and a swingin’ keyboard solo from Sutter.
Fox’s bass work also dominates the album’s two gentler arrangements: a moody handling of “What Child Is This” — which finds Brookins taking lead with a muted trumpet — and a hymn-like cover of “Silent Night” that features gorgeous interplay between bass and piano.
The combo concludes with an up-tempo “Angels We Have Heard on High” that highlights Fox’s cool walking bass: another ferocious 4/4 arrangement that can’t help raising a smile of appreciation. Brookins & Co. can visit my church any time.
Those who prefer their jazz more improvisational will enjoy the Kash Wright Trio’s self-published “In the City of David.” These bluesy arrangements build on strong percussive foundations by Prakash Wright (keyboards), Mike Montgomery (bass) and Bobby Beall (drums). Most of the 10 tracks are leisurely, slow to mid-tempo, although the trio does cook during “Joy to the World” and the album’s opener, a lively cover of “The Little Drummer Boy” that starts quietly, with a military-style drum roll, and then kicks into ferocious double-time.
Those two tracks are atypical, though. Most of Wright’s arrangements are gentle, groove-heavy 4/4, with sweet prologues on piano or bass. A given song’s familiar melody is introduced briefly, and sometimes only barely — as with “Go Tell It on the Mountain” — before the track is dominated by captivating improvisational solos that only hint at melody.
Wright and Montgomery switch back and forth between solo duties, one deftly comping behind the other, as on “O Christmas Tree” and a particularly lovely handling of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.” Montgomery employs a bow on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the aforementioned “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and the resulting sound adds considerable solemnity to these vintage church carols.
The trio turns electric for the album’s final track, a funkified “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that gets plenty of finger-snapping sparkle from Montgomery’s bass solo.
* Vince Guaraldi never recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “The First Noel,” but if he had, the results would have sounded very much like what pianist David Ian delivers on his new EP, “Vintage Christmas Wonderland” (Prescott Records PR0002). He and his combo — Jon Estes, upright bass; Josh Hunt, drums and percussion; and Elizabeth Estes, violins and cellos — achieve a similarly smooth and gentle style, and I particularly like the contemplative arrangement of “The First Noel,” with Estes’ string shading.
The five-track disc also includes the combo’s backing on three vocals, starting with Acacia’s wistful handling of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and Andre Miguel Mayo’s approach to “Winter Wonderland” is similarly charming. The entire group’s cover of “Jingle Bells” is a bit too pop-ish for my taste, but there’s no denying the smile it’ll bring to every listener.
* You’ll have buckets of fun with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “It Feels Like Christmas Time” (Savoy Jazz SVY 17921), which is an equally delightful follow-up to this raucous group’s 2004 holiday release, “Everything You Want for Christmas.” This new disc offers the same blend of stompin’ jump jazz and big band-era vocal stylings, with lead singer Scotty Morris — who also plays guitar and banjo — often backed by the harmonic shading of “girl group” She, Her & I (Corrie Shenigo, Alisa Burket and Francesca Vannucci).
You’ll hop ’n’ bop during pianist Joshua Levy’s fast-paced arrangements of chestnuts such as “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The program is augmented by the Chuck Berry classic “Run, Rudolph, Run,” while bassist Dirk Shumaker’s deep, booming basso profundo is perfect on a droll cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” And where else will you hear a cover of Disney Channel animated icons Phineas and Ferb’s “Christmas Is Starting Now”?
* Unfavorable production values have compromised numerous albums, and — sadly — that’s the case with the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra’s “A Bohemian Christmas” (Bleebop Records #1203). The disc was recorded live at Maryland’s Mansion at Strathmore, and the microphone placement didn’t do this 17-piece ensemble any favors. Amy K. Bormet’s engaging piano solos can barely be heard — it sounds like she was in the basement — and the mixing irritatingly favors the audience applause.
The solo work is much stronger than any effort at unison horns — often an issue with large ensembles — and, as a result, the band does much better with slower, quieter numbers such as “A Child Is Born” and “Snowfall.” The showpiece is a nine-part reading of the Ellington/Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” and the result is uneven at best. Better rehearsed, and granted the fine-tuning that comes with a studio recording, I’m sure leader Brad Linde’s band could shine … but this recording doesn’t serve them well.
* “Nutcracker” fans will be much happier with The New York Harmonie Ensemble’s “The Nutcracker Suites” (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907493), which offers a double dose of Tchaikovsky’s classic: first as the eight-part orchestral suite the Russian composer debuted in December 1892, and then as the nine-part jazz re-imagining unleashed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1960. The latter features plenty of captivating solos by Lew Tabackin (tenor sax), George Cables (piano), Lew Soloff (trumpet) and Bill Easley (clarinet), with a swingin’ rhythm established by Hassan Shakur (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums).
You’ll love Cables’ driving keyboard work in the “Peanut Butter Brigade,” while Easley’s central clarinet is positively droll in “Chinoiserie” (the re-titled “Chinese Dance”). Lewis lays down a funky, bluesy beat for “Sugar Rum Cherry,” and Tabackin answers the call with a sultry, almost dirty sax solo. The entire ensemble goes to town with the climactic, hard-driving “Danse of the Floreadores,” and you’ll immediately want to play the whole album again.
— Derrick Bang is wearing a different hat today. A longer version of this article can be found at jazzscan.com, and be sure to check out his film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this feature at www.davisenterprise.com