Jazz Christmas recitals are tricky affairs and nominally follow a bell distribution when considering the variables of combo size compared to the arrangement expertise necessary to render a quality performance. Solo and duet formats offer the most freedom and exposure in performance, requiring only simpatico from those involved in the arrangement. The middle-sized combos (trios, quartets, quintets) merit great care in arranging holiday pieces, while big band and orchestral affairs are tacked down with arrangement. Poor medium-sized combo arrangements can sink otherwise promising Christmas offerings.
Thankfully, such is not the case with Snowfall: A Jazz Compass Christmas Celebration. Jazz Compass is an independent jazz label guided by drummer Joe La Barbera, guitarist Larry Koonse, trumpeter Clay Jenkins and bassist Tom Warrington. For Snowfall this quartet was expanded to a quintet by the addition of pianist Bill Cunliffe. Originally released in 2004, Snowfall flew under the radar, only to surface late this Christmas season. But it's never too late for seasonal offerings this fine.
The quintet deftly opens with Claude Thornhill's ethereal "Snowfall, a piece that was long overdue for serious seasonal consideration. Originally orchestrated for Thornhill's famous big band, it is perfectly condensed for quintet by house drummer La Barbera. Koonse's soft and round guitar tone and Jenkins' open-bell trumpet distill this lush piece to its melodic elements, providing a soft setting for improvisation.
The group's approach to Bach's "Sleepers Wake proves that Jacques Loussier doesn't have the market cornered when interpreting the classics in a jazz setting. This is perhaps the finest moment on the disc: every musician executes at a uniformly high level. A languid but swinging "I'll Be Home for Christmas precedes a necessarily percussive "Little Drummer Boy, where Joe La Barbera pays tribute to the late Elvin Jones.
What Child is This features Larry Koonse, who carefully approaches the ancient piece with a respectful interpretive flair. Bill Cunliffe turns in an almost contrapuntal solo followed by a Monkian obbligato. The medley of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas/Jingle Bells features everyone, most centrally Jenkins, who plays his best spit-fire Woody Shaw. Jenkins opens "O Come O Come, Emmanuel, a plaintive ballad, in the middle to low register. Bassist Warrington exercises whole note elasticity.
This fine holiday set concludes with a similar "Silent Night, making Snowfall the best jazz seasonal recording I heard in 2006.
Personnel: Clay Jenkins: trumpet; Larry Koonse: guitar; Bill Cunliffe: piano; Tom Warrington: bass; Joe La Barbera: drums.