2013 Yuletide Offerings
In some ways, it's hard to understand the ever-continuing fascination that the world has with this same music done up over and over by different artists, but in some ways it makes perfect sense: Christmas music is aural comfort food that comes during a season when few of us are likely to turn down food of any kind. Here's a few words about some of the musical meals that await this holiday season.
Tianna Hall & Chris Cortez
Blue Bamboo Music
The Texas-based twosome of guitarist Chris Cortez and vocalist Tianna Hall make for a fine team on this easy going, well- polished program of Christmas favorites. The repertoire itself holds no real surprises, as everything here has been done ad infinitum, but the arrangements, changing configuration and quality of work keep things interesting.
A few numbers on the program are scaled down in size and intimate in nature, highlighting the leaders' skills and simpatico sensibilities. Cortez captures the imagination all by his lonesome on a guitar-only take of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and Hall joins him on some duo numbersa straight-down-the-middle "Santa Baby," a "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" that has Cortez joining in on vocals, and a touching take on Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born" which segues into a full band "Christmas Time Is Here." Everything outside of the solo and duo realm features classy and tasteful arrangements provided by Mark Pisczek.
Pisczek proves to be the perfect writer for this project, as he creates unobtrusive charts that support and cushion the leaders and enhance the mood(s) at hand; you notice his writing, but never get distracted by it. While the focus here is squarely on Cortez's guitar and Hall's vocals, trumpeter Dennis Dotson also manages to make a big impression. This is beautiful stuff that goes down nice and easy like a warm drink on a cold winter's night.
Tim Warfield's Jazzy Christmas
These days, Christmas albums seem to come out in the early fall, before the long sleeve shirts even come out. So it comes as no surprise if a lot of people missed saxophonist Tim Warfield's Christmas album; it only came out a mere twenty five days before the holiday in 2012. That's why it's a good thing that Warfield officially released it again in time for Black Friday buyers this year. It is, after all, one of the strongest new(er) jazz holiday records out there. This veteran reed man enlisted some of his A-List buddiesvibraphonist Stefon Harris, who figures prominently as a soloist throughout, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and drummer Clarence Penn among othersto help him out on a program of Christmas classics.
Tim Warfield's Jazzy Christmas takes off with a sly swinging "Santa Baby," a "Let It Snow" that's full of warmth and positive vibes, and a "Joy To The World" that features the leader's flitty-to-friendly soprano up front; while Warfield is a tenor hero to many, it's his soprano that shines brightest on this album. As the program continues, Penn puts out, as expected, on "Little Drummer Boy," trumpeter Terell Stafford steps forward on "Caroling Caroling," and the band hits its stride on a charged take of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Vocals, provided by Joanna Pascale or Jamie Davis, figure into four tracks, but this remains an instrumentalist's record nonetheless. The bonus track and lone nod to Hanukkah "The Dreidel Song"proves to be campier than the rest of the performances, but it's all in good fun, and fun is really the name of the game here.
Ted Rosenthalwinner of the 1988 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, sideman to the jazz stars, and Playscape Recordings artistteams up with bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Tim Horner on this triumphant trio recording of holiday favorites. Rosenthal has proven time and again, over the course of more than a dozen acclaimed albums, that he has the smarts, chops, and ingenuity to captivate an audience, and he does it again here.
The pianist swings right out of the gate ("Winter Wonderland"), with Horner's inimitable cymbal work and Ueda's pliant tones assisting, and he quickly makes it clear that he's no one-trick pony. From there, he shifts gears, delivering a bluesier-than-usual "Silent Night" that references "A Child Is Born" and a burning bop take on "Angels We Have Heard On High." Elsewhere the pianist takes music near face value ("Greensleeves"), brings an Ahmad Jamal-esque openness to a classic ("Dance Of The Reed Flutes"), and channels "Blue Monk" while referencing the man in red ("Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"). Other highlights include a cheery "Sleigh Ride" and pleasing "Snowscape." The former is all smiles and the latterthe only original on the albumis a winner that captures the spirit of the season.
Christmas Vibes All Thru The Year
Vibraphonist Jay Hoggard's Christmas record hit shelves in 2012 but flew under the radar, as many of his releases seem to do. On the appropriately titled Christmas Vibes All Thru The Year, this oft unsung mallet master delivers a set of music that's a bit more piously programmed than some of the platters discussed elsewhere in this piece, but no less creative.
Hoggard, pianist James Weidman, best known these days for his role in saxophonist Joe Lovano's Us Five, and drummer Bruce Cox find great comfort in riding straight ahead together, but they're also willing to take a detour or two. In fact, the most memorable performances on this album are the numbers that diverge from expectations. Hoggard, for example, has it his way on a heartwarming vibes-only take on "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," and he works over Weidman's simple arpeggios at the dawn of "Silent Night/Away In A Manger/O Holy Night." The latter track eventually evolves, but it's that initial simplicity that lingers in the mind. Other high points include "We Three Kings/What Child Is This," which starts off in a wild and rangy place before settling in for the ride, and "Little Drummer Boy," which balances the refined and noble with the spacey and angular.
This album has a lot going for it, but it does have a few drawbacks. One surrounds a mix and balance which doesn't always put Weidman in the right light; another is connected to the one-man-band approach that Hoggard uses on two tracks. Hoggard, whether delivering soothing sounds in superb fashion or taking on the role of a caffeinated Milt Jackson, is at his best when he connects to real live musicians in the moment.
Nnenna Freelon & John Brown Big Band
Brown Boulevard Records
Some people have a great love for all-things-Christmas, but Christmas albums can be a hard sell to others. Vocalist Nnenna Freelon, for example, couldn't sell her label on the idea of a Christmas record, so she ended up taking the DIY path with some help from bassist John Brown, the director of Duke University's jazz program, leader of the John Brown Big Band, head of Brown Boulevard Records, and longtime friend of the singer.
While many big band Christmas albums swing full blast from the first to the last, that's not the case on this one. After a cheery and buoyant trip through Frank Foster's "Swingle Jingle Bells" arrangement, Freelon and company take a different tack as a smoldering soul vibe takes over as the "Spiritual Medley" gets underway with a bass-drum-vocal feature on "Children Go Where I Send Thee." As the program continues, Freelon and Brown touch on woefully overlooked Ellington ("I Like The Sunrise") and perform plenty of holiday favorites born anew. "Silent Night," for example, is revived with a coat of organ and an "All Blues"-like undercarriage and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" gets the NOLA treatment. Brown even steps up to the mic on one occasion, joining Freelon for a relatively straightforward "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
Finances are one thing, and sadly, the only thing that many labels look at, but from an artistic standpoint, it's clear that Freelon's label made a mistake with their naysayer attitude about a Christmas album. This one could easily become one hell of a holiday hit.
Manhattan Brass has been making wonderful music of the jazz and non- jazz varieties for two decades. Here, this brass quintet brings its vast experience and versatility to bear on a stylistically diverse program of music. A woozy-and-bluesy take on "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" kicks off the program, but things quickly take sharp turns in other directions. "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" gets a calypso update, intriguing harmonies surround "A Merrier Christmas," and "Stuffy Turkey" is far from stuffy. Other high points include "O Tannenbaum," a brief and to-the-point brass chorale, "The Christmas Song," which is done from the heart, "Jingle Bells," which benefits from a reggae rewrite, and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," which gives a nod to Dave Brubeck's immortal "Take Five."
The music contained herein was recorded between 2008 and 2011 but sonic consistency is never an issue; it all sounds like it came from one session. One change in personnela swap in the horn seattook place during that time but it doesn't impact said consistency one bit. With highly regarded players like bass trombonist Dave Taylor and trumpet legend Lew Soloff, and charts from Carla Bley and Jack Walrath, it's no surprise that things sound as good as they do here.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: The Angels; A Child Is Born/Christmas Time Is Here; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; The Christmas Song; We Three Kings; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; O Come O Come Emmanuel; Santa Baby; What Are You Doing New Years Eve?.
Personnel: Tianna Hall: vocals; Chris Cortez: guitar, vocals; Anthony Sapp: bass; Paul English: piano; Tom Cummings: vibraphone, drums; Dennis Dotson: trumpet; Woody Witt: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Warren Sneed: alto saxophone, flute; Thomas Hultén: trombone, bass trombone.
Tim Warfield's Jazzy Christmas
Track Listing: Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Let it Snow; Joy to the World; Little Drummer Boy; Caroling Caroling; Oh Christmas Tree; Silent Night; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Snowfall; The Dreidel Song.
Personnel: Tim Warfield: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Terell Stafford: trumpet; Stefon Harris: vibes; Cyrus Chestnut: piano; Rodney Whitaker: bass; Clarence Penn: drums; Daniel Sadownick: percussion; Neil Podgurski: piano (1, 3, 8, 10); Joanna Pascale: vocals (2, 5, 7); Jamie Davis: vocals (6).
Track Listing: Winter Wonderland; Silent Night; Angels We Have Heard On High; The Christmas Song; Dance of the Reed Flutes; Greensleeves; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Sleigh Ride; Let It Snow; Snowscape.
Personnel: Ted Rosenthal: piano; Noriko Ueda: bass; Tim Horner: drums.
Christmas Vibes All Thru The Year
Track Listing: Joy To The World; Let It Snow; Over My Head I Hear Music In The Air/Go Tell It On The Mountain; Winter Wonderland; And They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love; We Three Kings/What Child Is This; Silent Night/Away In A Manger/O Holy Night; I Want Love, I Don't Want Hate, I Want Peace, I Don't Want War; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Let Me Make It Clear, Christmas Vibes All Thru The Year; Rejoice Ye Pure In Heart; Little Drummer Boy; Deliver The Word, God Loves You.
Personnel: Jay Hoggard: vibraphone; James Weidman: organ, piano, keyboards; Bruce Cox: drums.
Tracks: Swing Jingle Bells; Spiritual Medley; Let It Snow; I Like the Sunrise; Christmas Time Is Here; Silent Night; Little Drummer Boy; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Baby, It's Cold Outside; I'll Be Home for Christmas.
Personnel: Nnenna Freelon: vocals: John Brown Big Band: John Brown: bass, vocals (9); Vaughan Ambrose: saxophones; James Gates: saxophones; Brian Miller: saxophones; Shaena Ryan: saxophones; Greg Tardy: saxophones; LeRoy Barley: trumpet; Art Barnes: trumpet; Derrick Gardner: trumpet; Jay Meachum: trumpet; Benjy Springs: trumpet; Mitch Butler: trombone; Andy Kleindienst; Ronald Westray: trombone; Joshua Vincent: trumpet; Brandon McCune: piano (1, 2, 7, 9, 10); Miki Hayama: piano (3, 4, 5, 6, 8); Scott Sawyer: guitar; Adonis Rose: drums and percussion; Beverly Botsford: percussion (1, 2, 4, 7).
Tracks: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; We Wish You A Merry Christmas; A Merrier Christmas; Stuffy Turkey; Siciliana; The Christmas Song; O Tannenbaum; Jingle Bells; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Lil Drummer Dude; Joy To The World.
Personnel: RJ Kelley: horn (2, 3, 4, 10); Ann Ellsworth: horn (1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11); Michael Seltzer: trombone; David Taylor: bass trombone; Wayne Du Maine: trumpet; Lew Soloff: trumpet.