Ho Ho Hum: Holiday Jazz Albums of 2010

Lee Mergner reviews this year’s batch of holiday music albums with jazz connections

For those readers not familiar with my curious obsession with Christmas music, let me just say that you are in the sure and steady hands of a holiday music connoisseur—a man who every year sends out an eclectic CD sampler in lieu of a card or boasting newsletter. However, I can boast here that in narcissistic preparation for this column, I counted my collection of Xmas CDs and it came to just under 800 albums. What that really means is that I can start playing holiday music on November 22 and go 24/7 until Christmas morning without repeating one cut. So I got that going for me, which is nice. But enough about me and my collection. The holiday season is about giving and today I give you a rundown of holiday CDs released this year, adding another two dozen to the aforementioned total. Oops, not about me. Right. And since we can’t go in reverse order of age like at the Mergner house, we’ll stick to alphabetical order here. One at a time, kids.

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Dan Hicks
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Matt Wilson by Jimmy Katz
By Jimmy Katz
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Izzy Chait's Live for the Holidays album
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Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O
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Greta Matassa & Chipper Anderson: And to All a Good Night

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Emilie-Claire Barlow
Winter Wonderland
Compress Music Group
This glamorous chanteuse from Canada has a soft willowy voice with a slight edge, almost like Diana Krall in a higher register. And that’s a good thing. The arrangements here are straight from the jazz singer playbook. She has great pitch control and simply sings beautifully. However, Ms. Barlow clearly did not read my previous reviews of Christmas albums or she wouldn’t have attempted YET ANOTHER remake of Ray Charles-Betty Carter classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Her duet partner is Marc Jordan and, well, Ray Charles he isn’t. I know, I know, who is? Still, Barlow is a fine singer and likely has a great future as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook and hopefully some more modern material as well. If you’re looking for holiday music sung in a sultry and romantic jazz style, add this one to your collection.

Berlin Voices
About Christmas
Hanssler
This young vocal quartet is certainly influenced by Manhattan Transfer, but their almost squeaky clean sound owes as much to choral music traditions of European classical music, and maybe a few glee clubs, Euro style. Like an artful Ray Conniff singers album. The chipper foursome from Germany is backed by an able jazz group of Hendrik Soll on piano and keyboards, Bruno Muller on guitar, Christian von Kaphengst on bass and Martijn Vink, with the arranging done by some stalwarts in that field, including Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge of the outstanding vocal group, New York Voices. The arrangements are very original and help to make the album imminently listenable. The music is by no means progressive jazz. More like jazzy classical crossover music. Nonetheless, the music has a sublime quality in spots, particularly with ballads and hymns such as “The First Noel/A Child Is Born” and “Stille Nacht,” the latter done a cappella. And ethnocentric Americans wondering if the singers handle English lyrics without awkward accents needn’t concern themselves with trifling matters, because the four sing equally well in English and German. Regardless of your native language, this one is recommended for lovers of pure vocal music.

Izzy Chait
Live for the Holidays
Izzy Chait
Izzy Chait apparently likes to keep things moving. Chait is a good old swingin’ jazz singer in the tradition of Mel Torme or Tony Bennett, with a touch of the Beat poet. In this live recording from the Jazz Bakery in 2005, the deep-voiced Chait leads an acoustic jazz quartet through a set of holiday classics, with a few curveballs thrown in, such as “If I Only Had a Brain” and two Chait originals, “If You Believe All That” and “Calling All Angels.” He does his best to make the usual Xmas chestnuts his own. One way he does that is by shifting in mid-song not only his vocal approach, but also the time signature and mood, so the listener may be surprised by the twists and turns. For example, he opens “Silent Night” solemnly singing it like a jazz ballad in the mode of Johnny Hartman and after the opening verse, he shifts to a rollicking N’awlins style version more in the manner of Dr. John. Similarly his “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” begins in a Nat King Cole vein, with even the piano, guitar and bass backing often associated with that iconic singer, but then heats up with the entry of the saxophonist Louis Van Taylor, as the group shift gears into more a Sinatra swing thing. Of course, as is often the case, it’s the curveballs to which you may find yourself attracted. In Chait’s own “If You Believe All That,” the singer recalls a late ‘70s era Tom Waits as he comically goes through all the crazy things that people end up believing for better or worse, accompanied by a soul-jazz arrangement. And, on “Calling All Angels,” Chait preaches his music with a message like a jazz version of Screaming Jay Hawkins, as he implores his audience to “Someone save a life tonight,” and shifts it into a spoken-word piece briefly. Well, again, he does like to keep things moving. Harmonica player Linda Moss makes a stirring cameo appearance on “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” which the band takes out at one point in a fast hardbop style. Intent on demonstrating his own considerable musicality and stagecraft, Chait keeps things interesting by paying tribute to the songs and some of their most famous interpreters without getting swallowed up by their legacy.

Bing Crosby
The Crosby Christmas Sessions
Collectors Choice
There’s no shortage of holiday music from Bing Crosby. This is, after all, the guy who turned “White Christmas” into a holiday standard. And the same guy who hosted countless Christmas program on the radio, later moving to television, and all that implied. In short, he had a veritable lifelong relationship with Christmas music thanks to those high-profile programs. This album, recently released along with a batch of reissues with his estate’s blessing, is a representative sampler of songs from Bing’s radio and television shows, nicely remastered to give them a more modern sheen. One of the great things about Crosby’s holiday shows was the special guest appearance by a fellow singer or celebrity. Among the artists making cameo appearances on this collection are Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and of course David Bowie, in a collaboration that once seemed like a put-on until its unique magic outlasted the irony. Through it all, there’s Bing, one of the 20th century’s most distinctive and compelling voices, in any genre.

Lea DeLaria
Be a Santa
Warner Classics & Jazz
DeLaria comes to jazz from the world of Broadway and comedy clubs and therefore brings a certain panache to this collection of Christmas songs backed by a solid band of British jazz musicians and produced by pianist Janette Mason. DeLaria and Mason did all the arrangements themselves and elected to go with a mainstream jazz approach throughout. As DeLaria says in the press materials, “I’ve always wanted to make a Christmas album. All the greats did it; Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme—I wanted mine out there too!” The problem facing her, and so many modern singers of classic material, is that Ella she’s not. In fact, she has limited range and occasionally wobbly intonation, most apparent in the uptempo songs. Nonetheless, DeLaria scats well on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “White Christmas.” And her comic flair helps with songs like “The Man With the Bag” and “Be a Santa.” Interestingly, the cuts that resonate for me are the ballads—“Christmas Time is Here” and “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas”—in which DeLaria is backed by a basic piano trio plus vibes. Her simple and direct approach on those songs gets the job done nicely.

Allan Harris
Sings a Nat King Cole Christmas: Dedicated to You
Allan Harris Productions
A dusky-voiced jazz crooner very much in debt stylistically to Nat King Cole, Allan Harris doesn’t run from that influence in this set of traditional Christmas songs, including some made popular by Cole, as well as others he never touched. The session was recorded live at KUVO radio station in Denver and, backed by a piano trio, Harris sounds like he is having fun revisiting this classic holiday repertoire. He even does “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth),” not exactly a standard in the Cole canon. The same goes for “Blue Christmas.” And although I have grown weary of remakes of the Ray Charles-Betty Carter duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the combination of Harris doing Nat (not Ray) and the soulful and tuneful singer Rene Marie doing, well, Rene Marie produce a version that’s respectful of the original but with plenty of its own flair. They get a pass for breaking my hardfast, but seemingly pointless, rule of never redoing that song. All in all, a nice change of pace for Nat King Cole fans who may have already worn out his successful holiday album.

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
Crazy for Christmas
Surfdog
You get the feeling that Dan Hicks digs Christmas. Or maybe it’s just the way his loosey-goosey scoobie-doobie [damn spell-check] vintage swing style meshes so well with the holiday material. Leading his longtime group, the Hot Licks, who had several hits in the late ‘70s, Hicks is the rare case of a rock era musician whose jazz influence comes almost entirely from the era before bebop. He mixes Texas and Hot Club sounds into his swing, plus a good bit of Slim Galliard. He turns “Run Rudolph Run,” a rocker made famous by Chuck Berry, into an uptempo acoustic romp, like something from an early Sam Phillips-produced Sun Studio session. And “Cool Yule” a song written by Steve Allen and popularized by Louis Armstrong, has a gentle country swing feel. In a recent interview with JT, the wry Hicks confessed to strong ambivalence about the kazoo, but on more than one song he lets his two backup singers—Daria and Roberta Donnay, the Lickettes—loose on that often maligned instrument. And it works, because it gives their scatting just the right vibe for this often tongue-in-cheek material. Hicks also earns considerable points for refashioning old tunes into Hot Licks style Xmas songs, such as “Santa Gotta Choo-Choo” (from “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”) and “Somebody Stole My Santa Suit” (from Leo Wood’s “Somebody Stole My Gal”). He even remakes his own “Where’s the Money” into “Christmas Mornin’” which opens the album. Hicks accrues more credits from the Christmas music judges by writing a few of his own, including “Old Fashioned Christmas” and “I’ve Got Christmas By the Tail,” both of which are likely to appear on a Mergner family Christmas CD in the next few years. (Sorry, Dan, no mechanical fees.) Hicks has a laconic vocal style that is both droll and expressive. No Pavarotti or Al Jarreau, Hicks never overreaches and the end result sounds like a convivial party in a living room, which is an excellent goal for any Xmas record, in my less than humble opinion.

Cindy Horstman/Michael Medina
2Tone Christmas
Seahorse
Horstman, a Texas-based harpist, favors highly melodic renditions of Christmas music staples, accompanied by bassist Michael Medina (who also produced the album), along with various special guests including guitarist Andy Timmons, vocalist Jimi Tunnell and smooth jazz saxophonists Tom Braxton and Ron Jones. Horstman plays her harp almost as if an electronic keyboard and the result is a slightly New Age-ish sound not unlike one of those great Windham Hill records of the 80s. Indeed, Medina’s fretless bass sound recalls Michael Manring, who was a ubiquitous presence on those old Windham Hill records. Timmons is a modern electric guitarist with a melodic bent via processor ala Pat Metheny. Drums are used sporadically and a bit too often of the electronic variety for my taste. And if they’re not electronic, then why do they sound like it? Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly listenable Xmas album, well suited for a quiet Sunday morning, while recovering from a night of hard holiday drinking (see Sheldon, Jack).

Wynton Marsalis
Christmas Jazz Jam
Somerset
Although Wynton is listed alone as the artist, this album is very much a group effort, featuring several of his longtime bandmates, including saxophonists Walter Blanding, Wessel Anderson, Victor Goines, trombonists Wycliffe Gordon and Vincent Gardner, banjo player Don Vappie (who also sings “Blue Christmas”), with a rhythm section of Dan Nimmer, Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley. No question, this is a swinging session, albeit with a Crescent City accent, and it’s hard to think of any group working now that can swing quite like Marsalis and company. The ten-piece band really kicks on the spiritual “Mary Had a Little Baby” which features the operatic Roberta Gumbel on vocals. The milieu here is steadfastly New Orleans, and often, such as on “Jingle Bells” or “Blue Christmas” the arrangements go straight to Bourbon Street or even the second line parades of the Ninth Ward. Marsalis wears his influences on his sleeve—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Doc Cheatham—and he’s developed a band sound that moves comfortably in that style. And, as he would say himself, these guys can really play. Throughout, whether it’s a corny song like “Rudoph the Rednosed Reindeer” or a gospel number like “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” the group stays faithful to its New Orleans roots. Jazz fans expecting to hear Wynton Marsalis, the virtuoso soloist, may be a little disappointed that he doesn’t hog the spotlight. In fact, you have to wait until cut number eleven before Wynton holds forth on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with a small ensemble and even then he plays with taste and restraint, rather than showing off all that virtuosity. It seems that sometimes leading the band has nothing to do with solos and chops.

Greta Matassa & Clipper Anderson
And to All a Good Night
Origin
In this beautifully recorded and produced album from the underrated Origin label, holiday music is given a set of exquisite and precise arrangements. The Seattle-based Matassa is the chief lead singer, although co-leader and bassist Anderson takes a turn in the spotlight on a few songs. The music could perhaps be described as West Coast cool jazz, but they mix up the rhythms pretty well. Matassa’s voice has a purity something like June Christy or Chris Connor and accordingly carries off the ballads with an austere beauty. In fact, austere beauty would be a good way to describe the entire session. The repertoire is not your usual group of songs, thanks to tunes like “November in the Snow” by Bill Mays and Mark Murphy, “Christmas Day” by Bacharach/David, and “Where Can I Find Christmas” by Doug Goodwin. This one may have to make an annual appearance in my household.

Irene Nachreiter with her Latin Jazz Band
A Hot and Spicy Christmas
Turquoise Water Music
Hot and spicy? Well, not really. “Her Latin Jazz Band” is simply not the fiery Latin jazz of, say, Poncho Sanchez or Tito Puente. The album does have an engaging and light Latin flavor, utilizing a variety of South American styles. And the repertoire and arrangements are very different from the usual holiday fare. Many of the songs feature lesser-known traditional songs done in a sort of acoustic world fusion style that is warm and appealing. Nachreiter’s voice is restrained and very European, with a sing-song quality somewhat out of step with the music’s south of the border feel. The playing, though not as hot and spicy as billed, is often beautiful and expressive.

Grant Osborne/Peter Innocenti/Jeff Crouse
Little Town: Carols for Christmas
Little Town
This relatively unknown piano trio from Cary, North Carolina has made a solid self-produced album of holiday favorites. With Grant Osborne on piano, Peter Innocenti on bass and Jeff Crouse on drums, this understated trio deftly performs a cross-section of tunes familiar and less so. Singer Jeanne Jolly (what a great name for an appearance on a holiday music album!) joins in on two songs, also in understated fashion. The group came together after meeting at their local church for late night sessions and the music sounds like something that would be acceptable at a Jazz Vespers service. Not that it’s particularly spiritual in theme and tone. After all, they open the album with a lyrical version of “The Chipmunk Song,” and also take on modern classics like “White Christmas” and “Christmas Time is Here,” done here even slower than usual. Elsewhere the focus is indeed on carols and the lyrical quality of the trio fits those like a glove. After an upbeat “Auld Lang Syne” with a New Orleans second line backbeat, the trio closes the album with a Pat Metheny song “Always and Forever,” dedicating it to their wives and families. All in all, a restful and enjoyable piano trio album.

Martin Sasse
Still Still Still: A Christmas Collection
Nagel Heyer
Imagine if Bill Evans had recorded a Christmas album with his trio. Pianist Martin Sasse is his own man musically, but the effect of a piano trio taking the air out of holiday classics is much like what we would imagine Evans doing in 2010. No question, Sasse has considerable touch and taste. His rhythm section of Henning Gailing on bass and Hans Dekker on drums acquit themselves well. I love a jazz Christmas CD in which the artists treat the songs the same way as standards, as something to take off from. We have enough crooning singers to handle the requisite melodicism and faithful renditions. Also, the German pianist isn’t married to the American canon, thankfully, and covers Deutsche holiday songs like, “Leise Rieselt der Schnee,” and “Susser die Glocken nie Klingen.” Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut these days, but I think those are Christmas songs. In any case, Sasse and his trio treat every song as a point of departure for their modernist explorations and that makes this a Christmas record tailor-made for jazz fans.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Christmas Comes Alive
Surfdog
The former Stray Cats leader has remained faithful to that rockabilly and jump-swing sound and now fronts an 18-piece band that does indeed rock, jump and swing. Pounding out rapid-fire licks on his classic Gretsch guitar, Setzer has chops and shows them off throughout this live recording of holiday material performed during the group’s 2009 Christmas Extravaganza Tour. Setzer does his best to turn every tune into a rockabilly rave, perhaps most successfully with “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Blue Christmas.” If you like your jump-swing with a rockin’ edge, Setzer is your man and his orchestra is your band. Clear the living room for dancing if that’s your Santa bag.

Jack Sheldon
Ho Ho Ho
Mightycore
Do you like to have a little drink during the holidays? Me too, although my Grinch of a doctor has recently ordered yours truly to stick to eggnog from the grocery store—the one without alcohol and with Vitamin D. Apparently 40 years of moderate drinking can take its toll on a man’s liver. But now I can still experience a boozy Christmas vicariously thanks to this EP (that’s an album of less than 30 minutes, kids) from trumpeter and singer Jack Sheldon. Like a character straight out of Man Men, Sheldon belts down a few (well, maybe more than a few) stiff drinks, then dons a Santa suit, picks up his trumpet and records multiple versions of “Jack’s in the House” and “Christmas in My Hometown.” Think the Mad Men reference is gratuitous? In the former tune, big Jack sings/intones/slurs his spur-of-the-moment Christmas list of “One blonde, one brunette, some bourbon and some gin.” He jokes about women of all sizes sitting on his lap and, well, he’s having a helluva Christmas, and I, for one, am not going to stop him. For one thing, the music matches the ethos. They’re having a schwingingly good time and although you only get basically two tunes, the outtakes and alternate versions provide plenty of vicarious pleasure for those seeking such things. My loving feminist spouse aside, Jack is indeed in my house this holiday season, at least for these two uproarious tunes.

John Sheridan’s Dream Band
Hooray for Christmas
Arbors Jazz
This recording has two very special things going for it. First, it is a mainstream jazz record from the first note to the last, with no pretension of cross-genre experimentation. Enlisting the help of many of the mainstays of the Arbors Jazz record label, pianist John Sheridan did in fact recruit his dream band of mainstream and swing players including Warren Vache, Dan Barrett, Scott Robinson, Eddie Erickson, Phil Flanigan, Joe Ascione and other standouts. Rebecca Kilgore handles most of the vocal chores and acquits herself nicely, never oversinging and always blending well with the band. The second asset of this holiday recording is that it focuses on often-overlooked songs, such as “A Song for Christmas,” “Hooray for Christmas,” and “The Holiday Season.” On Dave Frishberg’s rarely-performed “The Difficult Season,” Sheridan and company play the sad ballad straightforwardly, allowing Kilgore to wrest the odd combination of wit and melancholy from the lyrics and backing Randy Reinhardt in an expressive cornet solo. A great addition to the mainstream jazz holiday music catalog.

Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr.
Christmas with the Rat Pack
Capitol
If your idea of a holiday party is hanging at a 60s era casino with cool cats and showgirls, this album might seem right up your alley. However, to be fair, each of these guys have much to offer beyond that cooler-than-thou persona. For instance, the album opens with Martin’s classic version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and that’s a staple in this household and many others. It’s followed by a Sinatra in peak form kicking “Mistletoe and Holly.” Then Davis doing “Christmas Time All Over the World,” displaying the sadly frequent pairing of his great talent with somewhat hokey arrangements. Then it goes round again, with more classics by Sinatra and Martin and the occasional show tune version with Davis, an underrated vocalist. In short, this is not a boozy party on stage at some Vegas nightspot. Nearly every song in this compilation reflects three great American entertainers performing in the studio at the top of their game. And one of them is one of America’s most iconic vocalists. The breakdown of the 16 tunes: Sinatra gets seven, Martin six and Davis three. Fair enough. It’s pretty seamless thanks to arrangements by Billy May and other orchestral masters. And there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. This album is an essential addition to the collection of any serious fan of great Christmas music.

Take 6
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Heads Up
If you know Take 6, then you know exactly what this record sounds like. From the very first note of the title tune to the end of the ballad “Christmas Time Is Here” that closes the album, their vocal virtuosity and intricate a cappella arrangements are on full display here. Given the popularity of Glee and its unabashed regard for a cappella music, you’d hope that these six guys from Tennessee would get their due. Somehow all those boy bands of the ‘90s seemed to erase their visibility as one of the pre-eminent vocal groups of their time, along with Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, and yes, the Four Freshmen. However, what’s separated Take 6 from those groups is the way they’ve always balanced R&B elements (particularly with its bass and rhythm parts) with classic vocal jazz. Their beat boxing, for want of a better term, is singular and provides a unique foundation for their complex harmonies. The entire album has an upbeat feel-good vibe, no matter the tempo. They even do a funny tip of the hat to the Chipmunks with their talk-in-the-studio intro on “The Grinch,” as two of the members argue over who gets the lead and best of all, one of them is named Alvin. The takeaway with Take 6 is that you don’t have to be an a cappella vocal nut to appreciate their considerable talent and verve.

Matt Wilson’s
Christmas Tree-O
Palmetto
Matt Wilson is a unique figure in jazz. The drummer/bandleader has a great sense of humor and invests even the most serious challenging music with a certain mischievous glee. His band’s live performances always have an air of mirth and mayhem that is refreshing in the sometimes overly analytical world of creative jazz. Christmas music then, with its odd mix of novelty and devotion, is made to order for Wilson and his compatriots. For this holiday album, the drummer uses a stripped down version of his band with Jeff Lederer on saxophones and Paul Sikivie on bass. This trio powers its way through tunes traditional (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High”) and contemporary (“Happy Xmas - War Is Over” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”). A loving father of four kids, Wilson’s populist nature allows him to take a hokey tune like “The Chipmunk Song” and treat it like an Ornette Coleman standard. This is, in short, serious fun and possibly the most creative holiday jazz album to come out this year.

Charles Xavier
Xmas Vibe
Happy Note
This year’s winner of the annual JazzTimes “Christmas in August” award, for sending the first holiday album to the JazzTimes office, Xavier is a vibist with new age roots and jazz expressionism. Originally from New England, Xavier settled in the Bay area where he’s done plenty of TV and film soundtrack work. It shows. His approach is something like In A Silent Way meets electronica, which is to say that the tunes often float in a hazy sonic ether. At one point, I had to check the album cover to figure out that the song they were doing was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” I kinda like that. I wouldn’t say that the group is on the level of Miles’ Bitches Brew crew, but they have a very similar sensibility. And that counts for plenty in my book.

Various Artists
World Christmas Party
Putumayo
Leave it to Putumayo to bring Xmas music around the world. Or bring us around the world through Xmas music. This excellent compilation includes a broad swath of music styles—reggae, Latin, African, Brazilian, Hawaiian and even some good old American R&B and country. If your taste is eclectic, you’re likely to find plenty of interesting material on this set. Among my favorites are: Jamaican legend Jacob Miller doing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”; Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros performing “Deck the Halls” as a Brazilian samba; and Hawaiian uke duo Keahiwai swinging an island version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” There’s even a few chestnuts for the traditional jazz and blues fan, including the late Charles Brown’s “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” and the Heritage Hall Jazz Band’s “Barra de Navidad Blues.” Best of all no one from another country tries to remake “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” It makes you root for Putumayo to do a worldly holiday collection every year.

The Year Without a Santa Claus
By Phyllis McGinley, as told by Boris Karloff
Capitol
A Christmas tale narrated by Boris Karloff? Count me in. What does it have to do with jazz? I have no idea. It arrived with the Rat Pack album, but this one, a reissue from 1968, is for kids, not hipsters. Oh well. Many people may forget that, back in the day, Karloff narrated The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. He’s actually a masterful reader and perfect for this charming cautionary tale by Phyllis McGinley. There are also six Christmas songs added from everyone from Alvin & the Chipmunks to Peggy Lee. Nonetheless, for my Christmas list next year, I’m asking for a vampire Xmas tale read by Bela Lugosi. Forget True Blood. I roll old school.

Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble
Celebrations
MEH Enterprises
As Garrison Keillor once said, being Jewish at Christmas is a little like being downstairs from neighbors having a loud and raucous party. You really want to tell them to turn it down a notch, but you know you neither can nor will do so. And the same goes for the music, which is dominated by either traditional Christian imagery or modern commercialization. However, there are plenty of great Hanukah songs, from Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song,” to “Can I Interest You in Hanukah?” by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Yes, I know, more like comic relief from that noisy party than classics from a traditional songbook. That’s why this album has special merit. As described in the album’s subtitle, Eugene Marlow and his ethnically-diverse Heritage Ensemble interpret festive melodies from the Hebraic songbook. From the very first tune, a hard-driving Afro-Cuban version of “Chanukah, O Chanukah,” you know this is not someone’s Jewish grandmother’s music, at least in its performance. Marlow has assembled an interesting and tight quintet of Latin and American jazz players, including Bobby Sanabria on drums, Michael Hashim on saxophones, Frank Wagner on bass, Cristian Rivera on percussion and Marlow on keyboards. The result is a churning Afro-Cuban brew, with Hashim’s phrasing providing just the right Middle-Eastern touch to remind you of the music’s origins. Inspired by Latin jazz, the music of Hebraic culture and classic American jazz, Marlow has been working out this cross-cultural band sound for many years and the preparation shows in the music, which is both engaging and interesting. It is a record that holds up well regardless of the season. There’s even a final cut in which Marlow explains the group’s origins, methodology and goals. However, the music speaks for itself loud and clear.

That's all, folks. Let us know what your favorite holiday jazz albums are. Comment below. You must be logged in as a user to comment.

2 Comments

  • Dec 22, 2010 at 05:20PM Matt Merewitz

    How did you make the time to listen to all these and write such a thorough report on each? My hat is off to you. You must have driven yourself a little crazy. What is the most covered Christmas song?

  • Dec 22, 2010 at 08:28PM Carl David Farley

    Great review of the new xmas Jazz releases. I used to visit Tower Records this time of year to see what was new and available for the holidays. Now it's more difficult to know what released. We do Christmas Jazz on our program the day after Thanksgiving and increase it weekly until its the complete music selection the week leading up to the holiday. Check it out at www.jazzradiodc.com and let us know what you think. We have about a 1,000 tracks to work with but are always looking for more. The only one we received this year is the John Sheridan release on Arbors. Thanks,
    Carl David

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