How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
In any major artist's discography are some stock entries besides the usual studio releases. There's also the live album, the greatest hits album (even if the artist only had one or none) and the inevitable Christmas album.
Why Spyro Gyra felt the urge to release A Night Before Christmas, their album of Christmas songs, is a question best answered by Jay Beckenstein, the saxophonist and original member who's been the guiding light of the band for over 30 years. Maybe they just felt like after all this time, why the heck not?
Throughout the years of personnel changes, the current edition of Spyro Gyra features a group of musicians whose professionalism and skills give them the ability to play pretty much anything they like and those traits serve them well here as is evident from the lead-off track, "O Tannenbaum."
Who would have ever thought out of a Charlie Brown animated cartoon, a Christmas song would have emerged that has become a standard for jazz musicians? But then Vince Guaraldi (along with co-writer Lee Mendelson) had roots in jazz as well and "Christmas Time Is Here" is a nice showpiece for Tom Schuman's piano and Beckenstein's laconic soprano sax.
Guest vocalist Christine Ebersole provides a wistful interpretation for "It Won't Feel Like Christmas," the lone original song here. Drummer Bonny B duets with Janis Siegel for a slightly lecherous "Baby, It's Cold Outside," as he apparently has plans to snuggle up beside the fireplace for more than some hot cocoa. It's all in good fun, though, like the entire album.
Other standouts include "Carol of the Bells," featuring the vibraphone work of frequent guest contributor Dave Samuels and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," getting strong support from guitarist Julio Fernandez and bassist Scott Ambush.
The only misstep is Bonny B's overwrought scat and lead vocals on "The Christmas Song," which are almost redeemed by a Schuman piano solo and Beckenstein, but not quite.
Christmas music doesn't hold much of a challenge to musicians of the caliber of Spryo Gyra. Any decent high school band can crank out an okay version of "Silent Night." So while A Night Before Christmas isn't essential for anyone besides completists and people who really dig holiday tunes, it is a pleasant album with Beckenstein and the band sounding loose, relaxed and enjoying themselves.
To be sure, it's got a lot more heart and soul than 90 percent of the bland background Muzak buzzing overhead at the local mega mall.
Track Listing: O Tannebaum; It Won't Feel Like Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time Is Here; Baby It's Cold Outside; Carol of the Bells; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; The First Noel; Silent Night; This Christmas; The Christmas Song.
Personnel: Jay Beckenstein: saxophones; Tom Schuman: piano; Julio Fernandez: guitar; Scott Ambush: bass; Bonny B: drums, vocals (5, 11); Christine Ebersole: vocal (2); Janis Siegel: vocal (5); Dave Samuels: vibraphone (3, 6).