The holiday season has its ups and downs on Big Band Holidays, recorded live over two Decembers (2013-14) by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which is without a doubt one of the finest big bands money can buy. Even though the most recent number on the album ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") was recorded almost a year ago, several clues indicate that the album was more or less rushed to market in time for this year's festivities. For example, guitarist James Chirillo's name is absent from the personnel list, as are those of guest vocalists Cecile McLorin Salvant, Gregory Porter and Rene Marie. Elsewhere, solos by trombonist Chris Crenshaw and soprano saxophonist Ted Nash are reversed; it is Crenshaw, not Nash, who solos on "White Christmas," and Nash, not Crenshaw, who does the honors on Nash's arrangement of "We Three Kings." Minor flaws, it's true, but errors that could easily have been corrected given more time and vigilance.
The album opens on a high note with the first of its three instrumentals, Ernie Wilkins' Basie-centered arrangement of "Jingle Bells" (Frank Foster-like tenor solo courtesy of Walter Blanding). "White Christmas," neatly arranged by saxophonist Victor Goines, and "We Three Kings" are the other non-vocal numbers. "Kings" is the least palatable of the three, as Nash's dissonant backdrop is unnecessary and disconcerting. McLorin Salvant, this year's DownBeat poll winner as best female vocalist, unfurls her talents on "What Child Is This?," "It's Easy to Blame the Weather," "Good Morning Blues" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Those who recall "Merry Little Christmas" from the 1944 holiday classic Meet Me in St. Louis are in for a bit of a shock here, as McLorin Salvant has for reasons unknown chosen to sing an earlier Ralph Blane / Hugh Martin lyric that was cast aside by Roger Edens and the brass at MGM because it was considered too depressing. And as usual, they were right. Well, at least she sings the verse, which wasn't heard in the film.
It could be argued that "Blame the Weather" and "Good Morning Blues" are not, strictly speaking, holiday themes, but here they are, and McLorin Salvant is suitably charming on each one. As for 'What Child Is This?," it suffers from Wycliffe Gordon's overwrought arrangement. Rene Marie is engaging on her two numbers, "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" (based, it seems, on "Love Me or Leave Me") and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," while Porter gently caresses "A Cradle in Bethlehem" and summons the shade of Jimmy Rushing to help vanquish the bluesy "Merry Christmas Baby." As noted, Big Band Holidays is rather a mixed bag whose high spots serve to neutralize its shortcomings. The JALC is first-class throughout, as are its guests. A splendid holiday album? Impressive in many respects, yes, but a half-step short of exemplary.
Jingle Bells; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; White Christmas; Zat You,
Santa Claus?; A Cradle in Bethlehem; We Three Kings; What Child Is This?; Merry
Christmas Baby; It’s Easy to Blame the Weather; I’ll Be Home for Christmas; Good
Morning Blues; Band Introductions.
Wynton Marsalis: music director, trumpet; Ryan Kisor: trumpet; Kenny Rampton:
trumpet; Marcus Printup: trumpet; Sherman Irby: alto, soprano sax, flute,
piccolo, clarinet; Ted Nash: alto, tenor sax, flute, alto flute, piccolo, clarinet;
Victor Goines: tenor sax, clarinet; Walter Blanding: tenor, soprano sax, clarinet,
oboe; Joe Temperley: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Paul Nedzela: baritone sax,
bass clarinet; Vincent Gardner: trombone; Chris Crenshaw: trombone; Elliot
Mason: trombone; James Chirillo: guitar; Dan Nimmer: piano; Carlos Henriquez:
bass; Ali Jackson: drums. Cecile McLorin Salvant: vocals (2, 7, 9, 11); Rene
Marie: vocals (4, 10); Gregory Porter: vocals (5, 8).