Christmas II: Whiskers on Kittens...

C. Michael Bailey By

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Small combo jazz makes a great soundtrack to the holiday season. The intimacy of trios and other small line-ups can foster creative and playful seasonal performances.

Bruno Hubert Trio and B3 Kings
A Cellar Live Christmas
Cellar Live

A Cellar Live Christmas is a merry martini of a holiday disc. Split between the B3 Kings and the Bruno Hubert Trio, this festive spin provides a Christmas coin whose two faces reflect different aspects of small combo jazz. Don't expect greasy seasonal offerings just because half of the disc is by an organ trio. The album has more class than that, not James Bond's Casino Royale class, more Sam Spade's The Big Sleep. A seasonal B3 Kings' "Jingle Bells" provides the set's introduction, a great vehicle for Cory Weed's alto saxophone and Bill Coon's guitar. Bruno Hubert follows with an angular "Little Drummer Boy," sung by B3 Kings' drummer, Denzal Sinclaire.

The two groups alternate cuts, with the B3 Kings swinging "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" (sporting a superb Bill Coon solo), "Away In A Manager," and a rocking "Dance Of The Sugar Plums." Hubert answers with 20-year-old port versions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" (check out Andre Lachance's bass solo), "I Saw Three Ships" and "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." This is a tasteful, full-bodied selection of traditional seasonal songs performed with care and spirit. If one wishes only a single seasonal jazz disc for 2006, let it be A Cellar Live Christmas.

Various Artists
A Very Special Charlie Brown Holiday Collection
Concord Records

Pass this one by. I suspect that Concord Music Group is going to release a Vince Guaraldi-related holiday release every year from here on out. Besides this United States Postal Service Exclusive, Concord has also released in 2006 A Charlie Brown Christmas (wasn't this remastered and re-released in 2003?). Understanding that this album is ostensibly to aid the US Postal Service, its release is nevertheless disingenuous. Added to the standard Guaraldi fare are Gerald Albright's "O Tannenbaum" (from 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas as are the other additions), chock full of every smooth jazz cliché possible. The Dave Benoit Trio provides acceptable "Rudolph" and "Jingle Bells," while Concord attempts further to needlessly update the classic collection with Vanessa Williams ("Just Like Me") and Toni Braxton ("It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year").

Concord would have done better by having Benoit release his own take on the Guaraldi classic, as Wynton Marsalis and Cyrus Chestnut did. This would have honored Concord and the Postal Service. Having said this, A Very Special Charlie Brown Holiday Collection will satisfy many listeners as well as benefit the constantly beleaguered US Postal Service. There is a bit of the old and a bit of the new from two prominent recordings that provide a pleasant enough holiday mix. Purists, however, will prefer A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Tidings Of Comfort And Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas
La Befana Records

The enigmatic Jim Skafish provides a most satisfying jazz holiday release in Tidings Of Comfort and Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas. Imagine, if you will, seasonal offerings performed by a cross between Thelonious Monk, Don Pullen and Tommy Flanagan. Skafish possesses a beautiful, fully formed approach to jazz piano. It's refreshingly edgy, almost noir in its abstractness, and bassist Lawrence Kohut and drummer Tom Hipskind match the mood perfectly. Skafish's approach to time-worn tunes is best heard in the introduction of "Joy To The World," "What Child Is This" and "Angels We Have Heard On High," the last one touching the very essence of edgy jazz. This is post-Miles Davis post bop at its very best. Don't think Skafish is all about upbeat cyber bop though. He can bust a wicked ballad too, as he and his gang prove on "Away In A Manager" (where he plays trills from the Gene Harris songbook).

Central to the disc is the 10-minute plus "We Three Kings Fusion." Here, every progressive element of Skafish's style collides in a nuclear fusion that could fire the star of Bethlehem. Cecil Taylor, Don Pullen, Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris, all are channeled in this sprawling piece of trio jazz. "Fusion" is the best piece of piano trio jazz performance I have heard all year and makes this disc shine as brightly as the hope of the season.

Rick Gallagher
Rick Gallagher

Pianist Rick Gallagher approaches traditional Christmas fare (save for the original title cut) with a traditional piano trio. While not as outgoing as Skafish, Gallagher has refined chops to burn and shows them off on the upbeat opener "Silver Bells," where he incorporates blues and country elements in his playing. "Snowriding" is a Vince Guaraldi-inspired romp via A Charlie Brown Christmas, full of block chords and Dave Brubeck rhythm changes. Think "Linus And Lucy" crossed with "Blue Rondo A La Turk." "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" is played as a ballad with a "Little Drummer Boy" undercurrent. "The First Noel" has a slight Latin flair and "Carol Of The Bells" a McCoy Tyner a al John Coltrane tension.

A welcome surprise is the elevation of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" into the seasonal canon where it has always belonged. The Frank Loesser "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" provides the bona fide standards angle. "I Saw Three Ships" is beautifully off time and jointed. Snowriding is a premier, straight-ahead, holiday jazz recording. Where Skafish chooses to explore, Gallagher chooses to plow even furrows of sound and time.

Tracks and Personnel

A Cellar Live Christmas

Tracks: Jingle Bells; Little Drummer Boy; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Away In A Manger; I Saw Three Ships; We Three Kings; O Come, O Come Emmanuel; Dance Of The Sugar Plums; I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.

Personnel: Bruno Hubert Trio: Bruno Hubert: piano; André Lachance: bass; Brad Turner: drums. B3 Kings: Cory Weeds: alto and baritone saxophone; Bill Coon: guitar; Chris Gestrin: B3 organ; Denzal Sinclaire: drums, vocals.

A Very Special Charlie Brown Holiday Collection

Tracks: O Tannenbaum; Linus And Lucy; Rudolph The Ed-nosed Reindeer; Just Like Me; Skating; Jingle Bells; Christmas Time is Here; It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year; The Christmas Song; Fur Elise; Greensleeves.

Personnel: Vince Guaraldi, David Benoit: piano; Alex Al, Fred Marshall, David Hughes: bass; Gerald Albright: tenor saxophone; Jerry Granelli, Vinnie Colaiuta: drums, percussion; Vanessa Williams, Toni Braxton: vocals.

Tidings Of Comfort And Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas

Tracks: Joy To The World; Deck The Halls; The First Noel; It Came Upon A Midnight Clear; Silent Night; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; O Come O Come Emmanuel; What Child Is This?; Angles We Have Heard On High; Away In A Manger; We Three Kings Fusion; God Rest Ye Merry Gents; Jingle Bells.

Personnel: Skafish: piano; Lawrence Kohut: bass; Tom Hipskind: drums, percussion.


Tracks: Silver Bells; Snowriding; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; The First Noel; Carol Of The Bells; Wonderful Christmastime; What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?; I Saw Three Ships; Joy To The World; Here We Come A-Wassailing; Caroling, Caroling; It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.

Personnel: Rick Gallagher: piano; Paul Thompson: bass; Tom Wendt: drums; George Jones: percussion.

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