Five Golden Rings for Christmas
The 2011 holidays are nearly upon us and with them, the requisite focused recordings. The number of such offerings has diminished in the last number of years. What has not diminished is the quality of the recordings, as evidenced by these five "golden rings."
Happy holidays, jazz fans.
Elisabeth Lohninger Band
Christmas in July
Jazz Sick Records
Austrian singer and studio maven Elisabeth Lohninger follows her exceptional Beneath Your Surface (Lofish Music, 2004), The Only Way Out is Up (Lofish Music, 2007) and Songs of Love and Destruction (Lofish Music, 2010), with a polyglot offering, Christmas in July.
What separates Christmas in July from most other straight-ahead holiday recordings is its intelligence. The disc opener, "Giant Chestnutz/Christmas," is so clever that it almost escapes notice. Mel Torme's Christmas standard is reharmonized by pianist Walter Fischbacher using John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" as the underpinning. From there, Lohninger passes through Brazil ("Os Meninos Da Mangueira"), France ("Petit Papa Noel") and Denmark ("Den Yndigste rose") before arriving at her native Austria for a most exciting (and disconcerting) "Stille Nacht." The arrangements make the songs and Lohninger holds steady with a most demanding repertoire.
A New Orleans Christmas Carol
A New Orleans Christmas Carol is pianist Ellis Marsalis' A Festival of Carols (after King's College, Cambridge). It is more a suite than a simple collection of seasonal songs, a thoughtfully conceived and assembled extended work. Marsalis structures his suite using ensembles of different sizes and composition. He opens solo, playing a pensive "O Tannenbaum" before moving into a percussion heavy "Little Drummer Boy." Cynthia Liggins Thomas is a masterfully presented interpretation of trumpeter Thad Jones "A Child is Born."
Marsalis' son and drummer Jason Marsalis emerges as a vibraphone contender on "O Holy Night" and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here." His understated approach is more Milt Jackson than Gary Burton and more Joe Locke than Milt Jackson. Elegance is the word that comes to mind when listening to the elder Marsalis. Like his son, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Marsalis is reverent of older forms of jazz and is well schooled in each. A New Orleans Christmas Carol holds up well beside Wynton's excellent A Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia, 1992).
In a Yuletide GrooveHarmonic Jazz for the Holidays
This is the fringe outlier of the seasonal releases, the one that challenges us to listen and enjoy. In jazz, the singular name associated with the harmonica is Toots Theilmanns (though Hendrik Meurkens has been making noise with his chromatic harp these last several years). In a small field dominated by such a large name, it is a bit hard to get attention. Chris Bauer has been haunting harmonic jazz for some 40 years and has released five previous recordings.
In a Yuletide GrooveHarmonic Jazz for the Holidays turns out to be an immediately enjoyable offering. Bauer is a grand straight-ahead player not given to pyrotechnics, but still blessed with solid chops and an acute ear for melody and improvisation. His melody is muscular and improvisation densely smart. Bauer amps up the Latin vibe on "Feliz Navidad" and presents one of the post strange and haunting takes of Schubert's "Ave Maria" on record. The harmonica has got a pretty back hick reputation, one that is wholly undeserved. In the hands of such a master as Bauer, it is good as tenor gold.
The Classic Chrismas Album
Do you know what Harry Connick, Jr., Peter Cincotti, Tony Desare and Michael Buble have in common? None of them are Tony Bennett (or, by proxy, Frank Sinatra). Bennett has been the authentic voice of popular music since the 1940s, Sinatra's favorite singer and the epitome of the singer of the "pop" song (in an older vernacular). Bennett's The Classic Christmas Album, which offers only the previously unreleased "What Child is This" as an explanation for yet one more rehashed Bennett Christmas album, begs consideration specifically because of its subject. As a single entity, with no regard for what came before, The Classic Christmas Album, with the possible exception of Bennett's indulging his daughter with a duet on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," is as fine a holiday music offering as one could expect.