Dave McKenna is 67 years old, virtually the same age as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Sonny Rollins. For pianists that lands his formative years in the days of Duke, Basie, even Earl Hines. His piano playing bears a trace of the stride, edging over into Monk territory now and again. Not that Monk is an influence; McKenna and Monk may have had the same influences, but took them in different (and not-so-different directions.)
McKenna is fluid, agile, and cheerful. On this program of Christmas tunes, he jazzes like Jelly Roll, who asserted that jazz was not a collection of tunes but a style, and that any tune can be jazzed. McKenna proves him right in a style Mr. Morton would no doubt recognize and appreciate. Well, maybe he'd fire off a letter to Down Beat about how he was really the one who had this idea first, but I'm sure McKenna would cheerfully grant him the distinction.
The fine old pianist takes on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night." "Let it Snow," "Don't Want No Blues This Christmas," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Christmas Waltz," "O Little Town of Bethlehem/Mary's Little Boy-Child," "O Holy Night," "Silver Bells," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Snowbound," "An Eggnog, Some Mistletoe and You," "Sleigh Ride," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "O Christmas Tree." That he does not regard this project as a holiday throwaway is proven by the erudite liner notes, which give the date and author of each tune, plus the original German, Latin, or English lyrics.
Did you know that "Jingle Bells" was written by a J. S. Pierpont in 1857? That "Silent Night" dates from 1818? The way McKenna plays them would certainly give no hint. His attack is assured the way only a master's can be after fifty years of playing, and he approaches each tune with an original perspective that makes it new after all these years.
"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," for example, enjoys a jaunty new life as a bluesy stride piece; it follows the darker blues of the McKenna original "Don't Want No Blues This Christmas." McKenna plays blues on piano as of he invented the concept. His other originals, "Snowbound" and "An Eggnog, Some Mistletoe and You" are similarly strong and at home among the carols.
Christmas Ivory is a delightful experience. The carols are revitalized by McKenna's unruffled presentation, but retain enough of their original character to make this disc a perfect addition to the playlist of any Christmas party.