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Lee Mergner’s Holiday CD Roundup

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Krisanthi Pappas
Letters to Santa
Kermit Ruffins
Eddie Allen

As I wrote in a Tangents column back in 2002, I consider myself a connoisseur of Xmas music, for better and often for worse. There may be more erudite and knowledgeable jazz critics out there, but few own more holiday recordings than this writer. And do you think any upstanding jazz critic is going to listen to and analyze nearly 20 holiday CDs? There is something to be said for qualification by default. So the job was mine.

The recordings began arriving in early July, with Ms. Krisanthi Pappas getting the prize for getting her You and Me By the Christmas Tree to us first before any other holiday CD. On the other hand, some artists approach the release of their holiday CDs much like my own family deals with sending out its annual holiday cards, strictly adhering to the “Better Late Than Never” credo. In any case, I listened to these CDs off and on over a period of several months, so you don’t have to. In the end, many of them make worthy additions to the already crowded canon of jazz holiday music. I hope I’ve described more than judged, but when you listen to holiday songs for hours on end, you can get pretty judgmental. Here we go…

Eddie Allen
Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (DBCD)

Allen is a first-rate jazz trumpeter from NYC who decided to do his own arrangements for a brass quintet so he could perform material at schools and community centers around the city. There are more than a few wrinkles though, including the use of a top-notch rhythm section (Kenny Davis and Carl Allen) as well as an occasional and welcome gospel influence. For those of you who associate brass bands doing Xmas music with the music of terrible Salvation Army bands, this aptly named CD should alter that perception, thanks in part to the fine horn section of Allen, Cecil Bridgewater, W. Marshall Sealy and Clark Gayton. (No tuba, though.) Allen said his arrangements were killing tuba players, so Davis plays those parts on bass. Overall, it does help to have a great band in hand, but it’s Allen’s sophisticated yet accessible arrangements that bring the whole project together.

Sylvia Bennett
It’s Christmas Time With Sylvia Bennett (Out of Sight)

Although her credits list associations with artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, I had difficulty hearing much affinity for jazz in this cloying compilation of holiday tunes. With slick arrangements that sound like something from the Mike Curb Congregation catalog, It’s Christmas Time will have you either yearning for a new Andy Williams special or reaching for the eject button. Ms. Bennett can sing, but there is little evidence of any appreciation for jazz. The nicest thing I can say is that my late father, a devoted watcher of the Lawrence Welk Show, would have liked it.

Nate Birkey
Christmas (Household Ink)

With his muted trumpet and hush-a-bye vocal style, Birkey recalls a healthy Chet Baker. His modern-yet-classic-sounding group rolls through tunes like “Silent Night” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The piano chair is split between two very underrated modern players-Jim Ridl and Steve Rudolph-but there’s no shifting of style or momentum, at least in part because they both swing so well with the very tight rhythm section of Tony Marino and Marko Marcinko.

On the instrumental cuts, the band recalls vintage Prestige-era Miles Davis, and even when they shift rhythmic gears to a loping funk on “We Three Kings,” the music still swings mightily. Birkey adds a Hanukkah tune to the mix, and even the Jewish-born and reborn Bob Dylan didn’t do that. Without question, this is one of the gems in this year’s batch of holiday releases.

Carla Bley
Carla’s Christmas Carols (ECM)

Arranging for a brass quintet suits Bley quite well. She brings such interesting harmonies and voicings to the mostly very traditional material, but the melodies remain front and center. Commissioned by Michael Kaufman for the Essen Philharmonic, these renditions are an effective hybrid of jazz and chamber music. It’s not all austere beauty here. Bley’s customary wry wit is in full abundance in a marvelous reworking of “Jingle Bells” that nicely uses the contrasting tones of trumpet and tuba to enliven an all-too-familiar song. And in “Hell’s Bells” she incorporates all sorts of holiday themes into a fluid piece that’s uniquely her own. She augments the traditional brass configurations with her piano and the sublime bass of her husband Steve Swallow, who occasionally takes the lead away from the brass, as on “O Holy Night.” If the music occasionally sounds like it might work well as part of a church service, good: That speaks volumes about Bley’s regard for the traditional musical form. The end result is a holiday recording of timeless beauty and grace.

Alexis Cole With Family & Friends
The Greatest Gift: Songs of the Season (Motéma)

For many artists, holiday recordings can be more like a sampler as much because the material is itself so diverse in style and structure. That can be problematic for some artists, but Alexis Cole and her supporting cast really went with the flow on this excellent recording, using very creative yet distinct arrangements for each song. Cole’s rather straight singing voice belies a fondness for the adventurous here, as she shares the spotlight gracefully and artfully. Listening without seeing the cover, one might not even know that she is the leader among such first-rate jazz musicians as Don Braden, Alan Ferber, Ike Sturm and other noted NYC players. And that’s a good thing.

The music has a warm, organic feel, whether taking “The Call” off on an acoustic jam à la Oregon or doing “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” with an Indian-raga feel. Cole and her supporting cast sound like they’re having fun here. Emphasizing the uplifting side of holiday music throughout, Ms. Cole also deserves style points for donating proceeds from the CD sales to a humanitarian organization (World Bicycle Relief).

Chris Dawson
Stridin’ Through Christmas (Astin)

From the CD’s title, the various testimonials affixed to its cover, and Scott Yanow’s liner notes referencing the stride masters, I expected a CD of holiday tunes deconstructed as if in James P. Johnson’s Harlem parlor. The Los Angeles-based pianist Chris Dawson has made a name for himself as a traditional player and you can certainly hear elements of that training and orientation. But the music lacks that genre’s driving rhythms and colorful voicings. The end result is something much more relaxed and also modern-more Hank Jones than Fats Waller. Dawson has a particularly deft touch and tone on the piano, and the music he creates here is very listenable. Once I got over the disconnect with the promises of ’20s-era stride, I found Dawson’s solo piano arrangements of traditional holiday chestnuts highly enjoyable.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan Christmas (Columbia)

When I get a chance to review a record with so much delicious irony as a Bob Dylan Christmas CD, it’s very, very tough to do it straight. But since the croaking crooner of a singer-songwriter opted to play things relatively straight throughout this one-of-a-kind collection, I will try to do the same. Dylanophiles will likely be parsing this volume for clues about the mysterious one’s motivations and inspirations, particularly given his various religious affiliations. But as any listener to his Theme Time Radio Hour show on satellite radio could confirm, Dylan loves vintage Americana and roots music. And what could be more Americana than Christmas music?

The problem, then, isn’t the material, it’s the delivery.

It’s no secret that Dylan’s nasal singing voice, once an effective instrument for his sneering and wordy folk/rock, has deteriorated in quality, pitch and range. He can still make it work on his own bluesy tunes, but these songs require a range that Dylan doesn’t possess. What was once an acquired taste now seems like no taste at all; his often tuneless croaking on these classic Christmas songs makes Tom Waits sound like Bing Crosby. For those enthralled with the Dylan persona, this recording will likely be required listening, but for the rest of us, the album is more likely to be heard once as a novelty and dismissed, perhaps only to be heard again on Dr. Demento’s radio show or the next Golden Throats collection.

Monika Herzig
Peace on Earth (Owl Studios)

Interestingly, this recording was without question the only CD I could or would readily listen to in March or August. Rather than zipping through jazzy arrangements of Christmas songs and making sure we know exactly what we’re hearing, Monika Herzig and her fellow musicians perform these holiday compositions as if they were jazz standards meant to absorb the players’ personal stamp. Herzig, an Indianapolis-based pianist and educator, sounds highly influenced by Herbie Hancock, and her improvisatory takes on holiday music are greatly enhanced by support from her sidemen-a diverse collection of relatively unknown but accomplished jazz players, including Peter Kienle on guitar contributing some highly modernistic solos. This is the kind of CD you could put on any time of year and most people would likely think it’s simply a solid mainstream jazz record.

Hot Club of San Francisco
Cool Yule (Azica)

As dedicated JT readers learned from Andrew Gilbert’s recent piece on the “Hot Club” phenomenon in the U.S., the influence of Django Reinhardt continues apace across the country with groups like this one. And if there is a reggae Christmas CD, then you know there has to be a swinging Hot Club Christmas CD as well. The Hot Club of San Francisco is certainly one of the more sophisticated of the Gypsy-jazz bunch and seem up to the task. Although the material falls a bit flat whenever there’s a vocal, the album really sings ironically during the instrumentals, particularly the fast-tempo songs, such as “Carol of the Bells/Skating” and “Djingle Bells.” Maybe it’s because of the highly emotive Grappelli violin style, but the ballads have a mournful or even doleful quality that somehow does not feel like Christmas to my ears. I can safely say that until I heard their version of “Don Rodolfo,” I had never considered that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s tale might have tragic implications.

That quality does fit the New Year’s material like a glove, and the Hot Club of San Francisco’s arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” evokes nostalgia and melancholy. As with many of the artists releasing holiday CDs this year, they lose style points for attempting to redo the classic duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in coy fashion. That song is fast becoming like popcorn dripping with butter-impossible to resist but ultimately regrettable. No matter, throughout the album the string playing is excellent, and that’s what you listen to a Hot Club band for anyway. This album does not lack for rapid-fire interplay and acoustic virtuosity.

Typhanie Monique, Neal Alger & Friends
Yuletide Groove (Tymoneal)

This CD is ably anchored by the vocal and guitar duo of Monique and Alger, whose simpatico performances bring a strong consistency to the varying musical approaches to common holiday fare like “We Three Kings,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Monique’s voice has a dusky and gently soulful quality somewhat similar to Norah Jones’, and Alger is a facile guitarist who plays in a variety of styles, all in good taste and timbre. Although they lose some points for doing yet another knock-off of the Ray Charles-Betty Carter classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (when did that become a holiday song?), they more than compensate by doing an inspired Latin-jazz arrangement of the Eartha Kitt chestnut “Santa, Baby.” Remakes can work, but you better remake it into something, as they did with the latter, but not with the former. But from what I heard of new holiday CDs this season, they’re not alone. After all, how do you one-up two of the most distinctive vocalists in American music? The answer, of course, is that you don’t.

Krisanthi Pappas
You and Me By the Christmas Tree (Music Box)

The first holiday CD we received at the JT office this year came in early July from this talented young jazz singer from Boston. Her dusky vocal style and slightly off-kilter phrasing really work great with ballads such as “Christmas Time Is Here Again” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She does a bit of scatting on “Winter Wonderland,” but when she does “White Christmas” as a Brazilian samba, you sense that she knows her comfort zone. The arrangements are sophisticated and yet understated, with just enough room for interplay between Pappas and her band. Particularly noteworthy is saxophonist Bill Vint, who can veer from Getz-like breathiness to Crawford-like funkiness as the tune demands. However, this is a singer’s record, and Pappas carries it off quite well. I was pleased to add one of her songs (yes, a ballad) to my 2009 Christmas mix CD. I love to surprise the folks on my list with a sleeper and that’s what we have here.

Kermit Ruffins
Have a Crazy Cool Christmas (Basin Street)

Since forging his own very successful solo career after leaving the Rebirth Brass Band, the trumpeter, singer, bandleader and all-around bon vivant Kermit Ruffins has become a veritable ambassador of New Orleans music, particularly of the brass-band variety. So it may surprise listeners to hear the opening cut featuring a Kind of Blue-style arrangement of “Silent Night,” with Ruffins sounding great as a cool muted trumpeter. But think of that song as a warm-up for the brass-band party that quickly gets started thereafter. Ruffins doesn’t hide his affinity for Louis Armstrong, who certainly belongs in the Christmas Music Hall of Fame (so far constructed only in my mind), both as a trumpeter and singer, though Ruffins is a lot rougher around the edges on vocals.

But whatever technical limitations Ruffins has in that regard soon get lost in the mix of this very fun holiday CD. From a struttin’ “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to a swinging “Let It Snow,” Ruffins and his NOLA brethren keep things moving from start to finish. The mood is infectious and in no time at all you’ll likely be moving yourself with umbrella in hand right along with the music. And now Ruffins can add sports forecaster to his lengthy resume: His “A Saints Christmas” both predicts and prays for a Super Bowl appearance (not a win, mind you) by the hometown Saints. Right on time, these modern-day Saints come marching into the NFL postseason with an undefeated record and the highest of hopes.

Trio West
Plays Holiday Songs, Volume 2 (Yummyhouse)

There is something to be said for simplicity. The Brooklyn-based Trio West is a piano trio (Eldad Zvulun on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Tobias Gebb on drums) whose influences seem equally split between the Bad Plus and the Bill Evans Trio. Zvulun handles all solos, and it made me wonder if they made this CD for non-jazz fans, who are not necessarily expecting to hear bass or drum solos. According to the liner notes, Gebb did all the arrangements, but there isn’t much innovation in his approach here, beyond the tempo. They even telegraph the arrangements by the song titles, such as “O Tannenbaum Funk,” “Joy to the World Salsa” and “We Three Kings Samba.” Some songs are repeated with different arrangements, something that even I, an amateur compilation producer, would never resort to.

The group sounds very much like a working piano trio who have a regular gig at a lounge somewhere, and they roll though the Christmas songbook as if flipping through pages of the Real Book-not that there’s anything wrong with that. They’re competent and professional, and in reining in their creative ambition, they allow themselves to deliver nice jazzy background music, which may in fact be what the average music fan would want from a jazz holiday album.

United States Air Force Band – The Airmen of Note
Cool Yule (USAF)

The Airmen of Note are perhaps one of the country’s most active big bands, but because of the nature of their affiliation with the US Air Force, they are rarely given recognition for their professionalism and musicianship. The Airmen of Note were originally commissioned way back in 1950 in effect to carry on the tradition of Glenn Miller’s Armed Forces band. They perform at all sorts of public functions, but do not be fooled by the uniforms: This is an excellent big-band ensemble that benefits from a working schedule that allows not only for tight cohesion but also for a variety of arrangements and commissions.

The spirited arrangements of holiday songs on this album owe much to the classic jazz big bands led by Basie, Miller, Dorsey and Ellington. Their high-octane “Jing, Jing, Jing” is a salute to holiday music done in the vein of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Their “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” pays homage to “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” complete with the latter’s intricate vocal arrangements. The average jazz fan is unlikely to recognize any of the musicians here, but they will recognize the music and the musicianship, both of which are top-notch. Any big band aficionado is likely to find much to enjoy on this energetic holiday album. The bad news is that this album is not for sale. The good news is that you can download the album at the Airmen of Note Web site.

Various Artists
Letters to Santa (Concord Jazz)

You may have noticed this compilation sitting on the counter at your local Post Office. The CD was in fact put together by Concord partner and record producer Gregg Field, for distribution exclusively at Postal Service outlets. All but a few of the cuts are reissues, but Field has assembled a veritable greatest-hits package of vocal-jazz recordings with contributions from legends like Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra mingled with selections from modern-day singers like Natalie Cole, Michael Bublé and Diana Krall. Among the previously unreleased cuts are an arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” featuring Monica Mancini and Dave Koz and a sexy “Merry Christmas, Darling” from Ms. Cole. It’s such a cliché to say that a product like this would make a fine gift, but in fact it’s true. Next time you’re waiting in one of those long lines, pick one up and jam it into that Flat Rate box of gifts you’re sending to Uncle Ken and Aunt Madelyn.

Originally Published