Swing Ye Noel: Santa must be a cool cat, with all this jazz to fuel his annual journey

By From page A11 | December 11, 2012


It’s getting harder to find this stuff.

Time was, I’d start haunting the holiday section at music stores shortly before Thanksgiving; the better brick-and-mortar outlets would be laden, with some even giving holiday jazz its own sub-category. Berkeley’s marvelous Amoeba Music continues that practice to this day, and therefore remains an essential part of my annual December rituals.

Closer to home, alas, the options aren’t nearly as diverse. Or rewarding.

Which brings us to the ever-more-ubiquitous online alternative. Although Amazon’s search engines continue to improve, one still can’t get reliable results from the phrases “Christmas jazz,” “holiday jazz” or similar choices. CDBaby is a bit better, although I still wade through a lot of non-jazz while hunting for the good stuff. Sadly, EJazzlines.com, once a great source for hard-to-find holiday jazz, no longer sells CDs.

On the other hand, being able to hear samples — at both Amazon and CDBaby — is a treasure.

Take comfort, then, from the fact that I’ve done the legwork and returned with tidings of jazzy comfort and joy. Patience may have been required, but it turned out to be a good year. Nog those eggs, don a Santa hat and prepare to swing!


The season’s prize is a 2011 release that arrived too late for last year’s column: the Marcus Roberts Trio’s “Celebrating Christmas” (J-Master Records). This is what jazz is all about: a tightly arranged melodic dance between Roberts, on piano; Rodney Jordan, bass; and Jason Marsalis, drums.

I’m hard-pressed to cite a favorite track, although this group’s inventive approach to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is first among equals: The tune, often redundant as an instrumental, is delivered here in 12 different styles, and with each day represented by one of the 12 major keys. That’s simply brilliant.

The trio’s handling of “Little Drummer Boy” is equally clever, with Marsalis establishing a peppy march beat that Roberts initially refuses to follow, choosing instead to play “behind” the beat at a much slower tempo. Roberts gradually picks up speed as the song continues, until finally all three musicians are in synch.

Three tracks are solo piano: “We Three Kings,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.” Each is slow, deliberate and lyrical: a bit extemporaneous, with a touch of ragtime on “Joy to the World.” Stylistically, these evoke memories of Roberts’ earlier Christmas release, 1991’s “Prayer for Peace,” a solo keyboard album that was far more solemn.

“Celebrating Christmas,” in great contrast, is lively, vibrant and fun: an album that demands close attention because it’s so creative and joyous.

I’ve been covering this holiday-themed beat for many years now, and I’ve come to admire artists and combos that blend solid jazz chops with inventive arrangements. One such highlight came in 2005, with the ACME Brass Company’s “X-Mas X-ing,” which interpolated familiar Christmas themes in the manner of different jazz classics, or in the style of well-known jazz icons.

The San Francisco-based Octobop ensemble’s “West Coast Christmas” (Mystic Lane CD 050 100), which hit my eager hands mere days before this column was put to bed, borrows from that same playbook, and with equally delightful results. The musicians claim to have been inspired by “two of the greatest Christmas albums ever made” — by The Ventures and Dr. Demento — and while that statement may raise eyebrows, we can’t argue with the highly enjoyable results.

Thus, Octobop’s album opens with the cleverly titled “Line for Santa,” a reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” flavored by Gerry Mulligan’s iconic “Line for Lyons.” Along (ahem) the same line, “Bernie’s Bells” is a mash-up of “Jingle Bells” by way of Mulligan’s “Bernie’s Tune,” with a hint of Tadd Dameron and, yes, The Ventures.

The musicianship is grand throughout; I particularly like the melody work and solos by guitarist Jack Conway and guest vibists Rick Gray and Dave Casini. And I’m enchanted by Conway’s 3/4-time waltz arrangement of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which highlights Matt Kesner on sax.

The session comes to a grand conclusion with trumpeter Randy Smith’s totally cookin’ arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” which has a distinct echo of the Jazz Crusaders. Fun, fun, fun.

For a decade between 1995 and 2004, Canada’s Justin Time label released four entries in its “Justin Time for Christmas” series. Each album showcased holiday carols and hymns covered by a potpourri of Canadian jazz, gospel and blues artists; the results could be uneven, but each album featured some stand-out gems.

A few of the latter are revived for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Justin Time Records JUST 245-2), a collection that offers something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue(sy). The vintage material is highlighted by two very early tracks from Diana Krall, recorded back in 1993, years before she became a superstar on both sides of the border. She offers “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells,” backed in both cases only by her own piano; it’s a rare opportunity to hear her sultry vocal and keyboard chops in a solo setting.

The new material includes the Oliver Jones Trio’s handling of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” which begins as a solo piano piece and then segues to a bluesy, mid-tempo combo piece; and pianist Taurey Butler’s percussive cover of “Little Drummer Boy.” The latter includes some slick bass work, and I’d love to credit the musician in question; alas, this CD’s sparse liner notes don’t list any of the sidemen.

I’d have preferred more instrumentals, and Quartango’s “Minuit Chrétien/O Holy Night” didn’t need resurrecting; that combo’s blend of piano, bass, violin and accordion is too weird by half. Otherwise, this is a tasty package with some memorable treats.

Smooth jazz trumpeter Rick Braun’s first holiday-themed album dates all the way back to 1994, so he probably figured it was time for a new one. When the result is as much fun as “Swingin’ in the Snow” (Brauntosoarus Music BRN 1001-2), it’s a shame he waited so long. Armed with guest stars such as David Benoit, Kirk Whalum, Dave Koz and Peter White, Braun and his quartet — David Finck, bass; Richard Freemont, flute; and Joe LaBarbera, drums — uncork a finger-snapping, foot-stomping party that evokes a lively dance band concert at a tony Manhattan supper club.

Aside from switching between trumpet and flugelhorn, Braun also sings most tracks, and does a respectable job at it. The album roars out of the gate with up-tempo covers of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”; other swingers includes “No Place Like Home for the Holidays” and a salsa-inflected “Sleigh Ride,” the latter featuring Peter White’s guitar and some boppin’ percussion work from LaBarbera.

I could have lived without the string quartet that adds a superfluous layer of melodramatic sugar to four tracks, and the concluding arrangement of “Silent Night” — complete with gospel choir — is much too overwrought … and, stylistically, not at all like the rest of the album. But these are minor complaints; for the most part, Braun’s album will bring plenty of sparkle to any holiday gathering.

Veteran jazz pianist/composer/arranger Bill Cunliffe has headed his own combos and performed with heavyweights such as James Moody, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. “That Time of Year” (Metre Records M-1002), however, finds him all by his lonesome in a solo reading of 13 familiar Christmas carols. For the most part, these aren’t traditional jazz arrangements, although a few selections swing a bit; most are deconstructed renditions that defy standard time signatures … or, in a few cases, any time signatures at all.

Cunliffe opens with a slow, simple and yet haunting reading of “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” which beautifully showcases his gorgeous keyboard technique; the song concludes with a charming music-box effect that I imagine must have made him smile. (I certainly did.)

A few cuts are too thoughtful and “pretty” to be considered jazz, such as his gentle covers of “Coventry Carol” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (the latter running close to seven enchanting minutes). Other tracks display a bit more spunk, as with “On Christmas Day” and (of course!) “Jingle Bells.” His right hand is all over the keyboard during “Carol of the Bells” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the cascades, runs and trills somehow magically blending into something truly dazzling.

In a sense, this album is mildly frustrating, because it makes me want to experience Cunliffe’s impressive keyboard chops in person!

Guitarist Drew Davidsen’s “We 3 Strings” (Creative Soul Jazz CSJ-DD10) offers some enjoyable moments, but on the whole suffers from the affectations that plague numerous smooth jazz releases: heavy two-beats with loud drum pops; repetitious arrangements that evoke unpleasant memories of disco monotony; and a tendency to play every song at the same tempo, as if getting through the CD were a race. Even traditionally gentler numbers such as “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” have the pace of a race car.

No surprise, then, that two of my favorite tracks are Davidsen’s quieter solos: “O Holy Night” and an original titled “Christmas by the Cement Pond.”

That said, the up-tempo approach works well on a few other cuts. Davidsen’s handling of “Little Drummer Boy” shows some imagination, with an arrangement that has the lively momentum of a train. Bassist Brian Fullen establishes a mildly mysterious mood in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and also takes a nifty solo; he and keyboardist Pat Coil also get engaging solos in “Carol of the Bells.”

Listening to this CD all at once is exhausting; I recommend resorting to shuffle play amid several other albums.

Jazz guitar fans will be happier with the Gaetano Letizia Jazz Trio’s “Christmas Jazz Jam” (Tom Letizia Records), a thoroughly engaging display of string wizardry that you’ll want to play all year. You’ll probably get away with it, too; Letizia’s arrangements may open and close with the well-loved melodies of 10 classic Christmas carols, but the bulk of each track is devoted to his inventive, bluesy improvs.

“ ’Twas the week after Christmas, and we jammed through the night,” Letizia quips, in the album’s liner notes. That’s a true understatement; his delicate fingerstyle guitar chops are matched by Kevin Muhammad’s equally skillful support on acoustic bass. Indeed, Letizia generously allows Muhammad to shine during lengthy solos on most of these tracks.

The album kicks off with a smooth, mid-tempo handling of “Jingle Bells,” highlighted by lyrical solos from Letizia and Muhammad; that sets the stage for plenty more of the same. “Frosty the Snowman” ambles along to an energetic, New Orleans-style strut; elsewhere, Muhammad gives a walking bass backdrop to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Drummer Vernon Jones establishes a driving two-beat for a bluesy cover of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and he takes a few brief percussion solos while trading licks throughout a gentle handling of “Silent Night.”

The album concludes with a short, larkish reading of “Winter Wonderland”: an exit that definitely leaves us wanting more.

Plenty of musicians take a fairly ordinary approach to a holiday album, putting their stamp on favorite hymns and carols. The Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship has done something more ambitious with “Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey” (Willis I Music): no less than a “programmatic suite in two parts,” to quote the press notes.

That’s a bit of a mouthful; I’d rather call it a Jazz Mass.

The result is provocative, challenging and — at times — a bit Out There. The arrangements tend to be heavily rhythmic, with strong beats and tempos established by Tommy Sauter (bass), Marlon Patton (drums) and Kinah Boto Ayah (percussion). Foreground melodies and solos are divided between Will Scruggs (tenor and soprano sax), Brian Hogans (piano) and Dan Baraszu (guitar), with guest Joe Gransden (trumpet) swinging like mad during a rousing arrangement of “Go Down, Moses.”

The album opens with a sweet, gentle reading of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but don’t let this understated arrangement fool you; much of what follows is challenging and quite complex. Highlights include “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” an up-tempo swinger with smokin’ solos from Scruggs, Hogans and Baraszu; “We Three Kings,” which offers Hogans another chance to show off his keyboard chops; and “Joy to the World,” which grants everybody solos and brings the program to a rousing finale.

On the other hand, the interstitial movements between these familiar hymns sometimes slide into atonal, free jazz weirdness. Even acknowledging the desire to incorporate ancient canticles, hymns and folk melodies, a few of these tracks are hard on the ears. As a result, I suspect this album will be enjoyed best by listeners willing to work a bit, with liner notes in one hand and Bible in the other.

Trumpeter/flugelhorner Nathan Eklund organized the recording sessions that produced “Crafty Christmas” (OA2 Records OA2 22096) as a holiday gift to his parents; I’m pleased that he elected to grant the project mainstream distribution.

Eklund leads a quartet — joined by Oscar Perez, Fender Rhodes and piano; Tom DiCarlo, bass; and Shawn Baltazor, drums — in a sweet collection of straight-ahead, mostly gentle arrangements. These nine tracks run long, granting plenty of opportunities for improv; several open with Eklund’s soulful lead on horn, followed by bass and keyboard solos.

Eklund’s horn work is particularly sweet, almost contemplative, on expressive readings of “Silent Night” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” both of which also afford Perez nice solos on Fender Rhodes. The musical dynamic switches a bit for “Greensleeves,” which finds Eklund on flugelhorn and Perez on piano; the result is tender, almost melancholy at times.

The moody, slightly mysterious arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” opens with a gorgeous bass solo from DiCarlo, but things get a bit stratospheric when Eklund’s horn turns uncharacteristically squawky; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” despite guest singer Kevin-Anthony’s gentle vocal, also is a trifle overwrought. But these are minor quibbles; the overall package is tasty and tight, reflecting the sort of smooth melodic bond that results when four well-rehearsed musicians get together.

Briefly noted:

* Back in the early 1960s, the Ramsey Lewis Trio released two holiday albums now considered classics: “Sounds of Christmas” and “More Sounds of Christmas.” The former has been available on CD for years; for some inexplicable reason, the latter still hasn’t made that transition. You therefore might be tempted by the Master Classics Records release of “Christmas Piano Jazz,” which gathers both albums onto a single disc. Resist the impulse. This is, without question, the worst-mastered CD I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience; the music sounds like it was over-compressed and then mixed in a tiny cupboard in the sub-sub-sub-basement of the Batcave. Lewis deserves far, far better than this ghastly reissue.

* Nashville-based jazz pianist Beegie Adair has released many holiday albums over the years, and 1999’s “Jazz Piano Christmas” continues to get considerable play in our home. But Adair also dabbles in quiet “mood” albums that stray pretty far from jazz, which is the case with this year’s “Christmas Elegance” (Green Hill GHD5853). She’s paired here with violinist David Davidson; the result is extremely pretty — if a trifle unusual — but it sure ain’t jazz. Adair occasionally slides in a few gently swinging keyboard riffs — notably on “Home for the Holidays,” “The Christmas Waltz” and “Let It Snow” — but for the most part this duet delivers only quiet background music.

* Vocalist Halie Loren has a sweet, mildly sultry voice, and she’s paired well with pianist Matt Treder on “Many Times, Many Ways” (Justin Time Records JTR 8553-2). But despite the label’s attempt to market this album as jazz, that simply isn’t so; the duo’s approach is folk/pop. Loren delivers a winsome cover of “Grown Up Christmas List” and chestnuts such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Home for the Holidays,” but she lacks the range and sass to effectively dig into the likes of “Santa Baby” and “Blue Holiday.” Similarly, Treder’s two instrumental originals — “Sugar Cookies” and “From the Mouths of Babes” — would have been right at home on one of the old Windham Hill “Winter’s Solstice” albums … but they weren’t jazz either.

— Derrick Bang is wearing a different hat today. Check out his film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this feature at www.davisenterprise.com

Derrick Bang

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