Carla's Christmas Carols? For many, the idea of their favorite jazz artist releasing an album of seasonal songs usually smells of crass commercialism or pure pandering, but leave it to pianist/composer/arranger Carla Bley to produce an album that's as reverentially in the spirit of the season as it gets, while being musically deep enough to fit within her substantial discography with complete relevance.
And it is reverential. Accompanied by longtime partner, bassist Steve Swallow
, and the German Partyka Brass Quintet, Bley's contrapuntal arrangement of the opening "O Tannenbaum" begins literally and beautifully; if ever there was music to evoke images of sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire, on a cold, snowy winter's night, this is it. Yet, as it nears its end, a series of cascading lines gradually coalesce to an augury, jazz-centric harmonic close. "Away in a Manger" is equally touching, with a chimes melody leading to Swallow's familiar theme. Bley's arrangement is feather-delicate, as individual instruments move to the forefront only briefly, all supported by her spare but definitive accompaniment. Swallow, always a masterful improviser with eyes and ears on a song's melody, solos here with tender lyricism and a soft, cushiony tone as, gradually, the music turns Phrygian.
While others look for obscure Christmas tunes to lend themselves identity, Bley's choices are as conventional as they come"The Christmas Song," "Ring Christmas Bells," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "Jingle Bells" are but four of the twelve tunes that are so familiar as to be nearly Jungian. Still, this is Carla Bley, one of the great arrangers of the past half century, and her arrangements manage to tread the fine line between veracity and expansive, personal interpretation. There's no mistaking the "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" melody of "The Christmas Song" but, while avoiding any "jazzin' up Christmas" schtick, Bley makes this an unequivocally jazz album, as flugelhornist Axel Schlosser lays down some bop-inflected lines during his solo.
The majority of the tunes are relatively brief (under six minutes), and the arrangements are taut, but Bley does leave room for soloing throughout, albeit well-integrated into her detailed charts. There's room for swing, too, but in a 5/4 fashion during Schlosser and trombonist Adrian Mears' solos on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlement part one," where Bley rhythmically references Paul Desmond
's iconic "Take Five." "part two" is initially darker, Satie-like in the simplicity of Bley's piano before Swallow enters and brings back the swing for a solo from Bley that's indicative, as ever, of implicit taste that transcends virtuosic concerns.
Most Christmas albums are only good for a limited time each year. The songs Bley has chosen may have such iconic significance as to be tied to a specific time of year, but the arrangements and playing are so good that Carla's Christmas Carols transcends the season for which it's intended; an album that will also bring more than a little welcome cool to the heat of the summer.
Track Listing: O Tannenbaum; Away in a Manger; The Christmas Song; Ring Christmas Bells; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen part one; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen part two; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; Hell's Bells; Jesus Maria; Jingle Bells; O Holy Night; Joy to the World.
Personnel: Carla Bley: piano, celeste; Steve Swallow: bass, chimes; Partyka Brass Quintet: Tobias Weidinger: trumpet, flugelhorn (lead), glockenspiel; Axel Schlosser: trumpet, flugelhorn (soloist), chimes; Christine Chapman: horn; Adrian Mears: trombone; Ed Partyka: bass trombone, tuba.