II. Christmas 2005: Something New...
As I write this, my home base in Arkansas this holiday season is experiencing record high temperatures. Eighty-degree weather in mid-November does not set one up for anticipating the holidays. That sets the stage for a more expansive list than in past years. I am including new releases, some old one I found notable and some that many would not consider holiday fare at all. None of this lessens the fun of the holidays.
Diana Krall and the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
Diana Krall provides the best jazz vocal disc of Christmas music that you can find. Superbly backed by the Clayton/Hamilton Big Band, and sporting copious amounts of the singer's muscular piano playing, there is nothing to discourage recommending this disc. It is perfectly quaffed by Tony LiPuma and Krall, sleek and plush and accenting the singer's robust alto; Christmas Songs is the type of disc we should all expect from a major label but often do not get. Experience has taught that major label involvement can often doom an otherwise promising project such as this; but gratefully, not so here. Fueled with powerful arrangements by John Clayton, Johnny Mandel, and Krall herself, Christmas Songs is a seamless product from beginning to end. Equal to the arrangements and orchestrations is Krall's voice. Her deep alto is immediately appealing in the same way the late Shirley Horn's was, sans the cigarettes. Her singing, particularly on the slower ballads, such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and "White Christmas is sumptuous and full-bodied. Up-tempo, Krall takes control with perfect diction and just enough elasticity to be interesting. This is a home run.
The David Leonhardt Jazz Group
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Big Bang Records
David Leonhardt's I'll Be Home for Christmas extrapolates comments above that often independently produced jazz is vastly superior to major label offerings. Here, the pianist leads his quartet behind vocalist Nancy Reed in a effortlessly swinging survey of the holiday repertoire. Leonhardt has sensitive blues awareness derived more than likely from his years as David "Fathead Newman's pianist. He displays this aptitude throughout I'll Be Home for Christmas, but most particularly on "Let it Snow, "O Christmas Tree (in a minor key), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and "Hear Comes Santa Claus. Leonhardt and his rhythm section prove equally adept with Latin rhythms, as on "Jingle Bells. Very cool is the blues march vamp on "Sleigh Ride. Nancy Reed is in her best form and Taro Okamoto's drumming is superb. Where Diana Krall's disc is a good big band offering, David Leonhardt's is a great small combo recording.
I was hoping for more or at least something different from Anita Baker. The disc starts of well enough with a bit of a New Orleans take on "Frosty the Snowman, but then finds its way into the '80s/'90s groove of her popular recordings. While there is nothing wrong this as it a pictorial of the period, it is less satisfying than Diana Krall's Christmas Songs simply because it way overproduced. Having said all of that, the smooth jazz crowd that worships Boney James and Kenny G will eat this like cranberry sauce at Christmas dinner. I personally love Anita Baker and her music. Her holiday offering comes in just short of what I was wishing for. That is not to say that the disc is without its charm. The opening, "Frosty's Rag and "O Come All Ye Faithful, performed, appropriately enough, with the Yellow Jackets, is fun and contemporarily swinging. This is an excellent smooth jazz offering.
Noel: One From The Heart
B Jazz Records
Here is what on the surface looks like a beautifully low-key Holiday decoration that is in reality an artistic masterpiece. Vocalist Barbara Montgomery has released the sparest and most beautiful Holiday collection of the year. With her exquisite voice supported only by piano, Montgomery carefully assembles these carols and hymns with keen attention to subtle changes in harmony and rhythm. "What Child is This is so delicately reharmonized that the ancient melody is newly revealed. She deftly combines "Lo How A Rose Ere Blooming with "Coventry Carol and takes on the modern fare of John Rutter's "Carol of the Children as if it had been around forever. A spare "O Holy Night closes this disc appropriately and makes it the unexpected treat of this holiday season.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Intro; Jingle Bells; Let It Snow; Christmas Song; Winter Wonderland; I'll Be Home For Christmas; Christmas Time Is Here; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; White Christmas; What Are You Doing New Year's Eve; Sleigh Ride; Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep.