Tis the season (again? already?), and along with the usual relentless merchandising we get the new flock of Christmas jazz. So, striking an ecumenical note, here's the question: why is this Christmas CD different from all other Christmas CDs? After all, it contains a dozen of the most popular holiday songs, done in standard trio format. The answer goes beyond the cover, Meredith d'Ambrosio's fascinating egg-shell mosaic of a snowy Charles River, although it's a huge departure from Venus Records' usual suggestive artwork.
First, this is the kind of music that you can play at family gatherings when your relatives are allergic to jazz (as in, "why do they keep messing up the melody?"). For one thing, Eddie Higgins is the gentlest of sparkling pianists, and the tunes are served straight up with only brief improvised choruses, offering a friendly invitation to any shower singers in the room (mirror dancers will also enjoy "White Christmas"). For another, Higgins's comrades are also world-class: Jay Leonhart is justly renowned for his pitch, melody and wit, while Joe Ascione is famed for his imagination, versatility and taste. Together they produce consistently swinging and delightful music, with no need to lunge for the "skip" button at any time.
Happily, there are stealth surprises in here for the jazz fan, like the intriguing arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," where Ascione double-times his brushes over Leonhart's stately bowing; "Little Town...", which gets due reverence in the opening piano solo, then glides into a slow bossa; and "Sleigh Ride," with its tongue-in-cheek quote from Prokofiev and Higgins really stretching out. The longest track, at 6:11, is "Winter Wonderland," but even Aunt Gertrude will be bobbing her head to Ascione's tasty solos, especially after a few trips to the punch bowl.
These Christmas Songs are warm, beautifully-executed, and, well, merry.