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Various Artists: A Contemporary Jazz Christmas

Robert Spencer By

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Various Artists: A Contemporary Jazz Christmas Contemporary yes, but some of these folks have been around for awhile. The lineup is George Howard on "The First Noël," B.B. King's "Merry Christmas Baby," Tom Scott with "Feliz Navidad," Phil Perry and "The Christmas Song," Chick Corea's Elektric Band offering "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," Spro Gyra on "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Nelson Rangel's version of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", David Benoit with the old Charlie Brown and Snoopy hit "Christmas Time Is Here," Lee Ritenour's "White Christmas," Diane Schuur on another round of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Russ Freeman chiming in on "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," and Dave Grusin, Mr. GRP himself, with "Some Children See Him."

It's a mixed bag, but all of it is competent, and some is fine. The accent for the most part is on the word "Contemporary," as in heavy fusion-ary backbeats and electric machines in almost everyone's Christmas stocking. "Contemporary" could, of course, mean Wynton or Roy Hargrove or Tom Harrell or Joe Lovano or Anthony Braxton or Evan Parker, but here it means standard cookie-cutter Smooth Jazz.

George Howard starts it off with a slick synthesizer disco-beat background to highlight some excellent soprano saxophone. Then he lends the rhythm section, in style if not in personnel, to Tom Scott a little later for some virtually identical funk. The synthesizers are somewhat differently oriented but no less stridently in the forefront for Phil Perry. Chick, of course, is an original voice, but this track leans toward the man's more populist mode, and thus fits right into this disc. This "contemporary" background is kind of like Silly Putty: Spyro Gyra stretches it one way, Nelson Rangell another. It is neither offensive nor adventurous. Give the people what they want!

David Benoit stands out nicely with a Christmas-from-Ipanema take on the Peanuts tune. Michael Franks is a perfect fit for the Joao Gilberto vocal role. The introduction to Lee Ritenour's take on "White Christmas" reminds me of Paul McCartney's "Singalong Junk." No drum machines here. Lee Ritenour is not interested in taking any chances here, but why should he? The song is pretty. After that, Diane Schuur brings the strings, but they do not cloy. Her wonderful clear voice rescues this one from Muzakville. Not so for Russ Freeman's "Hark," which sports an ordinary guitar lead over a waka-waka Seventies synthesizer sound like the Love Unlimited Orchestra and Barry White used to have (and no, I am NOT kidding!) Ach, Grusin doesn't come in fast enough for a mercifully unadorned piano solo.

Happy Holidays! There are as many schisms in jazz as in theology. Is this jazz? Well, there are some fine improvisations, and this will no doubt sell better than anything I would call jazz. So I guess it is jazz! Anyway, what's in a name? This is entertaining music for dancing and for background, so enjoy.


Title: A Contemporary Jazz Christmas | Year Released: 1998 | Record Label: Impulse!


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