Various Artists: A Traditional Jazz Christmas
An eclectic lineup of heavyweights makes this Christmas collection worth more than passing notice: Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, Kenny Burrell, Lionel Hampton, Ahmad Jamal, Gene Ammons...let's hear a nice round of applause also for Al Hibbler, Ramsey Lewis, Les Brown, Peggy Lee, and Soulful Strings. Everyone sounds just fine enough on this CD to make great background music for the holidays; at the same time, there are a few standouts.
Pops, for one, is tops. "Christmas in New Orleans" and "Christmas Night in Harlem" date from 1955. His trumpet playing is as exuberant as ever (a trifle more so on the first track than on the second), and the vocals even more so. The backing is competent enough not to be noticeable, which was no doubt precisely the maestro's intention. Trad fans will also enjoy Les Brown's brief but flashy take on "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" Hamp's r&b "Swingle Jingle" is a happy take on-can you guess which carol? The fun of this disc, however, is that these musicians get a chance to have a spot of fun with some well-known material. Burrell sounds as if his Little Drummer Boy has been doing some hard time, but the big band behind him pretends not to notice, and everything comes out OK.
The disc dutifully records the original sources of each of these tracks, but unfortunately, only the leaders get mentioned. Thus I have no idea who plays the great gruff tenor for Hamp on "Swingle Jingle." Anyone? Even though both he and Lionel Hampton were recording for Impulse! in 1964, I'll bet it wasn't Archie Shepp. Was it Illinois Jacquet?
Anyway, Peggy Lee and Soulful Strings are here too. Peggy and her honey-voiced pals turn in "Ring Those Christmas Bells." Soulful Strings chugs along with "Sleigh Ride," and it sounds a little like what they're playing in Penney's tonight. Somebody plays a decent flute in the middle.
Remember Gene Ammons? He's the tenor man who had John Coltrane as an alto-playing sideman on a couple of Prestige dates in the Fifties. Ammons himself has a big "Texas tenor" sound, displayed in happy form on another knockoff of "Jingle Bells." This one's called "Swingin' for Christmas."
Kudos to Mr. GRP for including Ahmad Jamal's gorgeous Debussyan take on "Snowfall," which to my knowledge is only by an imaginative leap a Christmas carol at all. It is, after all, credited to Claude Thornhill, not a noted caroler. In any case, Mr. Jamal is luminous in his delicacy. For this one alone, this disc is worth the money. Buy it for your jazz-hating friends, and Armstrong, Ammons and Ahmad will turn some heads.