XMAS IV: Let it Snow, Let it Snow...Chet Baker, Bela Fleck, Karen Wilhelm, The Boilermaker Jazz Band
...Let it snow! Stuck at home this Christmas? Here are four holiday collections to consider spinning with a fire in the fireplace and eggnog in the mug.
Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album
This music, recorded in 1987 a few months before trumpeter Chet Baker's death, has been in and out of release since first hitting the streets. Its newest incarnation is as a music download. It is worth a listen if, for no other reason, than Baker possessed a tone perfectly sculpted for playing holiday classics. His martini-dry trumpet voice with softened edges easily slip in and out of these familiar melodies without losing any of the holiday cheer to straight improvisation. This is where Baker's relative lack of technique really pays off for him.
Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album was originally released under Baker's and alto saxophonist Christoper Mason's names. By all research, Mason left precious few footprints in the jazz world save for this recording. Mason possesses a bluesy, full-throated, bar-walking tone that is more Louis Jordan than Johnny Hodges. He provides an earthiness and organicity to this collection that contrasts well with Baker's cool-school approach. The opening "Silent Night" offers a microcosm of this by adding pianist Mike Pellera's sensitive gospel and blues sensibility. Pellera's informed blues playing gives this old German Carol an American humidity with interesting results.
In addition to the standard carols one might expect there is a smattering of spirituals. Their inclusion here pushes the envelope on what is and is not part of the holiday music canonwhich is a good thing, because it keeps the sub-genre fresh. Particularly fine here is "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Mason is at his reedy blusiest-booziest introducing the piece. Baker, who does not have a blues bone in his body, provides the gentle foil to the spiritual, giving the performance a slightly off-kilter character. The same effects are wrought from "Amazing Grace" (given an up-tempo treatment) and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
Chet Baker plays consistently like...Chet Baker. The trumpeter could always be counted on to provide an acceptable, sometimes even inspiring, performance regardless of the circumstances. This is one of the attributes that makes Baker's trumpet playing so listenable. Baker is a difficult artistic figure to come to terms with because he only allows terms that are his own.
Visit Chet Baker on the Web.
Perpetual Motion has no more business being included in this holiday music series than "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has being included on Chet Baker's Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album. This is a collection of Baroque and early Romantic pieces composed by a who's who of those periods rendered with the aid of bluegrass instrumentation. The only way that this works is because of the sheer instrumental genius of Bela Fleck and those he asked to join him on this unique recording.
Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Paganini, they are all here, their spirits infusing the recordings. Fleck fears no composer. His most affective performances are on the tonally challenging pieces by Debussy ("Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum" from "The Children's Corner") and Chopin's Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor, which sounds downright Hebraic in the hands of Fleck, guitarist Bryan Sutton, and violinist Joshua Bell. Fleck's Beethoven is a revelation. The Adagio Sostenuto from the "Moonlight Sonata" is rustically tender. Beethoven's variations on "God Save the King" take on deeper and more nationalistic meanings when perfomed on banjo. It might have been a German elaborating a British theme, but the piece is all-American in delivery.
Perfection, or near perfection, must linger somewhere in our experience. Some things we encounter in art are simply so much better than the rest that simply saying that they are "good," "superb," or some other meaningless superlative is not adequate. Perpetual Motion is a perfect recording in the most perfect definition of the word. It offers fresh perspective to musically familar territory in a manner that introduces, teaches, and celebrates both musical genius long dead and virtuosic genius blazingly alive.
Visit Bela Fleck on the Web.
I Still Believe
I Still Believe arrived too late for last year's reviews and emerges here as a very storng addition to the standard jazz vocals holiday offering. Vocalist Karen Wilhelm, who hails from the City of Brotherly Love, belts this holiday collection with the best of them. Wilhelm's voice is durable and consistent with a dense midrange capable of holding up both the high and low ends. Her band is also reliable as are her arranngemments.