Christmas albums are a dime a dozen. Yet in the hands of skillful, forward-thinking musicians, even the most frequently recorded holiday classics deserve another listen. This is certainly the case with the Yellowjackets' Peace Round.
The quartet of Russell Ferrante, Jimmy Haslip, Bob Mintzer and Marcus Baylor provides a fresh, unique approach to the Christmas theme with this collection. The album was independently released in 2003, then reissued this year by Heads Up International. Each member contributed to the arrangements of such traditional songs as "Little Drummer Boy," "Deck the Halls," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Winter Wonderland."
The group gives each song that jazzed-up feeling while staying within the perspective of the holiday theme. Mintzer's arrangement of "Silent Night," for example, has a straightforward jazz quartet approach, yet the beauty of Mintzer's soprano saxophone keeps the groove within the framework of a joyous night when all is calm. Mintzer contributed three other arrangements, including "Deck the Halls." While his sax is out front, it's Baylor's patter on the drums that gives this selection its unique flavor.
On the somber yet elegant title song, arranger Ferrante takes point, complemented by beautiful playing all around, particularly Haslip on bass. Baylor's wife, Jean, provides vocals for the Old English carol "The First Noel." Jointly arranged by the Baylors and pianist Ferrante, this is more upbeat than what one normally hears. Jean Baylor's voice is the perfect addition to the group's instrumentation. She makes the song both pleasing to the ears and spiritual food for the hungry soul.
The group cranks it up a notch with a slick presentation of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," which again features Mintzer on the soprano sax, punctuated by Baylor's pacing. Ferrante shares the lead on piano, adding a broken-time motif to his solo. Wrapping up Peace Round is the appropriately tranquil "In a Silent Night," an arrangement inspired by the previous work of Joe Zawinul and Miles Davis.
Many Christmas songs run the risk of being overdone, with artists of all genres producing new albums every year. However, the Yellowjackets prove that even the tried and true can be fresh and inspiring when given a little creative spin.
Track Listing: 1. Little Drummer Boy; 2. Silent Night; 3. Deck the Halls; 4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; 5.
Peace Round; 6. The First Noel; 7. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 8. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem; 9.
Winter Wonderland; 10. In a Silent Night.
Personnel: Russell Ferrante, piano, synthesizers; Bob Mintzer, tenor and soprano saxophones; Jimmy Haslip, bass and synths; Marcus Baylor, drums