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December 2001

Have Yourself a Merry Bleepin’ Xmas

After a relative drought last year, the JazzTimes offices were burried in a snowfall of holiday CD releases. Whoopee. While I, Herbie the Crabby Drunken Elf, am a stuffed-green shirt when it comes to Christmas music (sorry, no other religions were represented in the batch of releases JT received), and will fight fiercely to hear Nat Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” in my pointed ears over anything else, I recognize there is some poor soul out there who would like to hear Kirk Whalum’s “The Little (Ghetto) Drummer Boy.” So, in the spirit of holiday giving, I donate to you, the reader, a not unbiased guide to new Christmas CDs. As a free added bonus, Herbie often speaks in the third person.

The Classical Jazz Quartet
Tchaikovsky’s the Nutcracker
Vertical Jazz 5507-2 (51:45)

Like a light beer, this CD goes down easy. Taking its cues from the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Classical Jazz Quartet—vibist Stefon Harris, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Lewis Nash—plays classically influenced jazz, and it tackles Tchaikovksy’s “Nutcracker” with the MJQ’s subtle flair. Producer Bob Belden has arranged the songs so that the “Nutcracker”’s themes are mere blips before the improvisation and group interplay take over. Unlike most holiday CDs, CJQ’s Tchaikovsky’s the Nutcracker is something that could be listened to year-round. Why you’d want to listen to the “Nutcracker” year-round, though, is beyond this tiny elf’s admittedly limited comprehension.

Phil Kline
Unsilent Night
Cantaloupe CA21005 (43:14)

Herbie the Crabby Drunken Elf almost doesn’t have anything bad to say about this. That’s because not enough happens for it to be bad! Minimalism disguised as Christmas caroling, anyone? For nearly 10 years composer Phil Kline has assembled over 50 cassette tapes filled with various bell sounds and voices and has handed them out to friends armed with boom boxes. The boom-box choir plays the tapes and mixes the music through movement as it walks through Greenwich Village during the holiday season. The shimmering music is beautiful, the camaraderie commendable—so why does Herbie just wish the Unsilent Night CD would live up to its name? Because Herbie has a wicked-bad hangover, this hair or the dog isn’t working and those bells are driving him mad!

Various Artists
Groovin’ Jazz Christmas
Gold Circle GC-50007-2 (43:21)

Making Spirits Bright:
A Smooth Jazz Christmas
GRP 314 549 839-2 (50:02)

If you are the sort who likes to curl up on your white-leather couch in front of your gas-log fireplace, sipping hundred-dollar glasses of wine and nibbling on caviar as perfectly rendered snowflakes fall outside your all-glass-and-steel ski chalet in the mountains—and who isn’t?—I suggest you slip one of these perfectly rendered smooth-jazz comps into your $10,000 stereo system to enhance the already perfect mood. For Herbie, even a giant jug of Boone’s Farm doesn’t help this pap.

Groovin’ Jazz Christmas features contemporary-jazz favorites Jeff Lorber (“Winter Wonderland”), Doc Powell (“Let It Snow”), Eddie M (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) and eight other sultry smoothers; Making Spirits Bright ups the star factor and features Lee Ritenour (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), Diana Krall (“Jingle Bells”), Dave Grusin (“Suite de Nuestra Navidad”) and nine more mood-music makers. More like bad-mood music to Herbie.

Dave Koz
A Smooth Jazz Christmas
Capitol 33837 (60:34)

The logical outgrowth of his popular Christmastime tours, saxophonist Dave Koz puts all the heartwarming spirit of those concerts into A Smooth Jazz Christmas. For fans of Koz and the concerts, the CD is a nice keepsake; for those who like their Xmas music like their drinks—straight—A Smooth Jazz Christmas is just another chilled-out collection of revamped classics, from the truly jazz-inspired version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to the delicate, radio-ready take on “Christmas Song” to the neoswinging “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.” That last song is as false as a Hollywood starlet’s chest, though: I’ve seen Santa dance at the office Xmas party and there’s more woogie than boogie in the old boy’s legs.

Michael McDonald
In the Spirit: A Christmas Album
MCA 088 170 230-2 (46:17)

Herbie does not like Michael McDonald and his Michael Bolton-like, faux-emotional grandiosity and aggressively bland adult-contemporary pop. Yes, Herbie’s hate may have something to do with a difficult late ’70s evening spent with a doe-eyed, pointy-eared beauty melting igloos with a pipe packed with some of the stuff that McDonald and the Doobie Brothers would have approved of. What started off as a harmless prank—I took two puffs to her every one—began to catch up with me. I soon fell asleep as the Doobies’ “What a Fool Believes” played on the 8-track, seduced to slumber by the maryjane and McDonald’s soothing, Muppetlike voice. When I woke up I realized the elf-chick made off with all my silverware, my North Pole credit card and my autographed photo of Kris Kringle.

Kirk Whalum
The Christmas Message
Warner Bros. 9 48158-2 (64:52)

Hymns in the Garden
Warner Bros. 9 48139-2 (63:07)

Kirk Whalum contributes two new CDs to the ever-growing smooth-jazz wing of the Xmas music pantheon. The Christmas Message is the true holiday release, with covers of Christmas staples like “We Three Kings” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The gospelized NAC release Hymns in the Garden might as well be a Christmas CD, since the holiday is all about shopping and gorging oneself on fatty foods and—I mean, since the holiday is about the birth of Christ.

The Christmas Message features a reggae version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and a hip-hop version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” These are not good things to an elf, especially one who has two left feet—no, really; I’m a medical oddity—and the inability to get down (unless we’re talking depression). Hymns in the Garden is a reflective meditation on the devoted Whalum’s Christianity. The last time Herbie was reflective he broke two mirrors and had to call an ambulance.

The December People
Sounds Like Christmas
Magna Carta MA-9025-2 (69:12)

The December People, featuring members of Kansas, King Crimson and Magna Carta chief Robert Berry among others, waste no time getting to the lighter-ballad chorus on the Yes-influenced version of “Carol of the Bells” that begins Sounds Like Christmas—which should be titled Sounds Like Christmas in 1974. This progressive-rock Xmas CD will appeal to fans of Emerson, Lake and Palmer—if there are in fact any ELP fans left besides Herbie. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” run through a holiday blender, and if that scares the good cheer out of you wait until you hear the December People take “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” into Led Zep’s “Kashmir.” Fun and ridiculous, Sounds Like Christmas wins the award for taking Xmas music farther than it has ever deserved to go.

Various Artists
MaxJazz Holiday
MaxJazz MXJ 301 (55:23)

In its brief lifespan MaxJazz has released some remarkable vocal-jazz CDs by newcomers like Carla Cook and returning veterans like Mary Stallings. And if Herbie liked anything besides Nat Cole when it comes to Christmas music he would certainly fall for this excellent collection of MaxJazz royalty interpreting the Xmas songbook: René Marie’s slow and sublimely swinging version of “Let It Snow,” Laverne Butler’s bubbly take on “Sleigh Ride” and Christine Hitt’s brisk version of “We’ll Dress This House” all go down like a glass of Maker’s Mark. But Herbie is a crabby elf, prone to fits of despair when he can’t have his way and hear his Nat, so he will pass this CD onto someone who would truly appreciate it: the lovely Mrs. Kringle.

Various Artists
Playboy’s Latin Jazz Christmas
Playboy Jazz PBD-7501-2 (57:00)

Herbie thinks he played this CD of Latinized Xmas classics like “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus Is Coming Town” by some of the biggest names in Afro-Cuban music: Pete Escovdeo, Poncho Sanchez, Caribbean Jazz Project, Sheila E. and Ed Calle. But a daydreaming Herb couldn’t take his eyes off the babe on the CD cover long enough to concentrate on the music. Is she looking back at me? I think she’s smiling at me. What does “Ho Ho Ho” sound like chanted against a rumba? Herbie likes this CD best of all. He thinks.

Nancy Wilson
A Nancy Wilson Christmas
Telarc MCGJ1008 (57:34)

This is vocalist Nancy Wilson’s first Xmas collection despite a 40-plus-year career that has traversed pop, R&B and especially jazz. Herbie wonders, What made her give in now? Wilson is an expert chef, having published a cookbook and everything, and she simmers on “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and boils on “Let It Snow” and spices up 11 other holiday faves, but Herbie would prefer some of her home cooking over another Christmas collection. That’s because Herbie needs something to soak up some of this gin.

Frankie Condon
Orchestra
Mistletoe Swing
North Star NS134 (44:38)

Music in search of a Bing Crosby holiday movie, anyone? Doesn’t Frankie Condon know der Bingle hasn’t been of this earth for at least a few years and hasn’t made a movie in about a decade [Herbie does not have the Internet and reading was not fundamental in his childhood igloo so he’s not up on current events.—Distressed Editor]. Everything is rah-rah-rah on this CD, from the Rockettes-kick-ready “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to the Rockettes-kick-ready “White Christmas.” If I could focus long enough on the CD player’s stop button to hit it, I would. Instead, I drink to ignore.

Harry Allen
Christmas in Swingtime
Koch KOC-CD-51409 (68:30)

Tenor saxophonist Harry Allen plays with such a smooth tone, guitarist Peter Bernstein picks with such gentle suavity, Jake Hanna’s drumming is so tight and organist Larry Goldings has such a butter-soft touch that Christmas in Swingtime almost lulled Herbie the Crabby Drunken Elf into thinking he liked Xmas music. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is rescued from Bruce Springsteen in a supremely lyrical reading, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is Lee Morgan-funky. Get this off before I begin to like it! And pour me another Tom Collins!

Otis Read
Deck the Halls
North Star NS151 (51:35)

Like Harry Allen, acoustic guitarist Otis Read and his four bandmates play so lyrically that it’s hard to dislike their winsome approach. But Herbie is full of bile, and liquor, and has decided that even though he tapped his green curled-toe shoe to “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “The First Noel” he would never admit to such unconscious enjoyment except for in the court of law—and even then it would depend on how much of the alcohol was still in effect as Herbie took the stand.

Oliver Lake
Steel Quartet
Have Yourself a Merry…
Passin’ Thru 41216 (53:50)

Just as I was beginning to enjoy—or tolerate—saxophonist Oliver Lake’s steel-pan-drums-with-martial-beats-and-funky-bass version of “O’ Come All Ye Faithful” a co-worker elf came in and screeched something that sounded like a giant baby bird falling out of its nest. Seems a full day of untraditional Xmas songs, culminating with this freewheeling CD, was too much for him to handle. Lake’s piercing tone is ill-suited to such ingrained-in-the-DNA-melodies as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but even avant-garde funk-jazz fans need some holiday cheer. Or maybe not.

[Editor’s note: There were dozens more Christmas CD received but, thankfully for all of us, Herbie passed out in his egg nog before hearing them.]

Originally published in December 2001
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