Mention the name of guitarist Joe Negri to any Pittsburgh native and you'll invariably be greeted with a smile. Negri is a Pittsburgh jazz legend who has gigged with countless performers and symphonies over the decades. He's also loved by millions of baby boomers through his role as "Handyman Negri" on the renowned PBS TV series Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. As endearingly modest as he is brilliant, Negri has unwittingly created one of the finest modern Christmas recordings I've ever heard with Guitars For Christmas. Joined by accomplished guitarist Marty Ashby on rhythm, Negri takes you on a string-driven sleigh ride through traditional songs and latter-day favorites featuring nine different guitar models.
While Negri specializes in a nimble single-string approach reminiscent of Joe Pass, his execution is more closely aligned with the late 50s sound of Barney Kessel, imbuing his songs with thick tones and staccato chords. He is also quite adept at alternating time signatures on-the-fly, shifting gears as smoothly as a precision engineered sports car.
The briskly paced "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" showcases Negri and Ashby's one-two combination in full flight, as does "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," which segues seamlessly into a delightful version of "Happy Holidays." On "Angels We Have Heard On High," Negri shows that at age 77 he can still light up the fret board, carrying the melody along like a cold wind whipping through the Allegheny Mountains.
One of the many highlights of Guitars For Christmas is the relatively neglected Gerry Neiwood composition "Joy." The tune opens with Ashby setting the harmonic ground with a unique 7/8 time until Negri, spinning off pure lyrical magic, elevates the melody to new heights. From there, the interplay of "Joy" unfolds naturally as Ashby trades rhythmic gestures with Negri's playful accents. You'll only wish the song lasted longer.
Elsewhere on the CD, the Negri and Walter Myers composition "In The Happy Long Ago" is a perfect lullaby for tucking the kids into bed on Christmas Eve. The inventive interpretation of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" features exciting rhythmic work by Ashby. The Italian folk song "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle" is an unexpected delight, calling to mind holiday traditions from the olde world.
A splendid convergence of handcrafted jazz and holiday cheer, Guitars For Christmas possesses a timeless quality that's sure to make it a favorite of jazz fans for years to come. Not unlike Negri himself.
Personnel: Joe Negri: guitar; Marty Ashby; guitar.