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Christmas 2015 III: All That Jazz

C. Michael Bailey By

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Barbara Dennerlein
Christmas Soul
MPS Records
2015

Christmas Soul is a swinging little jazz party fueled by Barbara Dennerlein's Hammond B3. Now, if the listener is expecting some Jimmy Smith smoky grease or Larry Young radioactivity, you will be disappointed. Dennerlein is known for using rare analog effects pedals for chorus, vibrato, and reverb together with a percussion register conceived in the mid-1930s. The result is an organ that sounds very organic. Dennerlein summons an impressive number of sounds from the B3 with this setup. "Christmas Time is Here" is sung by Zara McFarlane cushioned on a pillow of B3 softness. "We Three Kings" is seasoned with Mangus Lundgren's slippery flute and Abdissa Assefa's throbbing percussion, largely defying what might be considered standard holiday fare. Presence of "B's X-mas Blues" meets the universal criteria that all organ jazz contain on blues. "Sleigh Ride" is performed in such a way that it could have been arranged by Burt Bacharach. The most pleasant surprise is the inclusion of "Chim Chim Cherie" from Mary Poppins (Walt Disney, 1964). This is a holiday-related piece seldom heard in this context and it is effectively performed here. Well Done.

Rebecca Angel
My Favorite Time of Year
Timeless Groove Records
2015

My Favorite Time of Year is a true CD single... that is a CD with a single selection, the Dennis Angel-penned and Rebecca Angel-sung original composition that features Dennis Angel's tart flugelhorn. "My Favorite Time of the Year" is a well-intentioned adult contemporary jazz offering that makes this listener wonder what a tradition seasonal set by Rebecca Angel would sound like, performed in this same flavor of jazz. Rebecca Angel's voice is a sturdy alto and Dennis Angel's playing is close and piquant. There is a market for this music and I hope this pair finds it.

Various Artists
Where Will You Be Christmas Day?
Dust-to-Digital Records
2004

Where Will You Be Christmas Day? is a Dust-to-Digital product featuring Christmas novelty songs from the first half of the Twentieth Century, all remastered from the 78 rpm collections of Joe Bussard, Frank Mare, and Dick Spottswood. Be forewarned, the fidelity of these remasters are fair to good. But then, that would not be the reason one would be interested in this collection. This music is the equivalent of an aural daguerreotype: old sounds coming from the Victrola horn of history. It is a fun bunch included here. Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Lightnin' Hopkins...how can a collection be grander or more strange than this one? There is but a single "Christmas Carol" among the two dozen "seasonal" offerings and that is "Jingle Bells" by the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Highlights include Lead Belly's "Christmas is A-Coming," Walter Davis' "Santa Claus" and Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell's "Christmas in Jail—Ain't that a Pain." This is a collection to make us grateful for the 21st Century and nostalgic for the 20th.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Big Band Holidays
Blue Engineer Records
2015

One cannot hear Big Band Holidays without recalling the skillfully cultivated holiday essence admixing seasonal music with the spirit of NOLA as it is found on Wynton Marsalis' Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia, 1989). Master craftsman Marsalis, the musicians he surrounds himself with and the deep muse from which he draws his strength united for an inspired treatment of a tried-and-true repertoire. Going on 27-years old, Crescent City Christmas Card is one of the finest jazz-oriented holiday discs available. Breaking to the present, Marsalis once again creates a collection of music that reflects the city after which is was fashioned, in this case, New York City. Featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Big Band Holidays breathes deeply, blows brightly, and swings with a big-city authority. Where Crescent City Christmas Card was curiously organic, harboring the fertile and refined inspiration of a home town, Big Band Holidays is a mighty and bright blast of uptown swagger that features Rene Marie, Gregory Porter, and Cecile McLorin Salvant, as well as guitarist James Chrillo. The arrangements are inventive and clever without being cute. If the opening "Jingle Bells" does not make you think of the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Porter's singing on "Merry Christmas Baby" fails to recall Joe Williams, I will eat my hat!

Johnny Summers
When It's Christmas Itme
Self Produced
2015

The present surprise this season is Canadian singer/trumpeter Johnny Summers' When It's Christmas Time. Summers is presented in a variety of combo formats ranging from big band swing to small group hard bop. Summers is a durable vocalist able to withstand a range of tonal and volume variations. "'Zat You Santa Claus" is pure WWII big band, while "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is Chicago bop. "Winter Wonderland" is a duet featuring pianist Chris Andrew and Summer's singing and blowing his horn. This is how Harry Connick, Jr. would do it if dared. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" has Summers sparring with Allison Lynch while playing the flumpet. The band gets its Gospel shoes on for a plaintive "O Holy Night." The style is one that could have been invented by Wynton Marsalis. Summers sings this song perfectly straight to great effect. The singer rounds out his collection with two originals, "Long Way to Go" and "When Its Christmas Time," deserving more attention in the future.

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