Bright is the word for these holiday confections. Whether it's brassy brass or progressive performance, here are some larger settings of the Christmas canon for your consideration.
Jazz Yule Love
The first volume of Jazz Yule Love features an all-star cast of jazz musicians brought together for festive play on Crusaders' drummer Stix Hooper's label Mack Avenue. Very refreshingly, the collection lacks the cautious nature of Telarc's Christmas Break: Relaxing Jazz For The Holidays, featuring instead edgy pictures such as Eastern Rebellion's "We Three Kings and "Joy To The World, which drive the seasonal melodies to an avant-garde edge. Pianist Cedar Walton propels these pieces forward, leaving just enough church in his playing to stay within the seasonal parameters.
This edginess is softened with performances like vibraphonist Terry Gibbs' "White Christmas and pianist George Shearing's "Sleigh Ride. These two masters conduct concert hall recital versions of the familiar that swing and sing. Pianist Pete Jolly bops his way with his trio through a very direct "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year and a resonant "O Tannenbaum. Tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards performs a solo "Silent Night that recalls Art Pepper's similar treatments of "Over The Rainbow.
Plaintive and nostalgic, full of the blues, "Silent Night stands as the collection's apex, while Kenny Burrell's transformation of the late Thad Jones' standard "A Child is Born is the most sensible addition to the Christmas canon yet on disc. It's fortunate that Mack Avenue issued the 2006 answer to Jazz Yule Love, Jazz Yule Love, Vol. 2.
Jazz Yule Love, Vol. 2
And quite the answer it is. Jazz Yule Love, Vol. 2 picks up where Jazz Yule Love left off, pushing the envelope. Trumpeter Sean Jones kicks the disc off with a triple-time "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, that gets downright raucous in the solo sections. Jones juxtaposes this romp with his quietly thoughtful "O Holy Night. The Gerald Wilson Orchestra follows with "Jingle Bells, in the best arrangement of a Christmas piece since those on Wynton Marsalis' Crescent City Christmas Card. Wilson's brand of orchestration recalls Stan Kenton without the arrangement excesses.
The Hot Club Of Detroit uses Dave Bennett's clarinet to its advantage on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, where Bennett plays with an Artie Shaw midregister sweetness. The group plays a sepia-toned "Chipmunk Song right out of 19th-Century gypsy songbook. Guitarists Evan Perri and Colton Weatherston weave a beautifully intricate Christmas tapestry.
The spirit of Bach is summoned in a 20-second interlude where guitars, mandolin and clarinet dance. That is, it recalls Bach composing at white heat, sweating, his breath smelling of too much Jagermeister while living in a 1910 Storyville Hotel. Ilona Knopfler turns in a superbly sung "I'll Be Home For Christmas," and Oscar Castro-Neves provides Latinesque settings on "Air On A Six String and "Dance Natal. The disc's highlight is Bud Shank's "Let It Snow, where the West Coaster plays as if Southern California had snow. Jazz Yule Love, Vol. 2 and its sister Jazz Yule Love make a great Christmas twofer.
Boston Brass and The All-Stars Brass Band
The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols
Gentle Listener: Please put on your driving goggles before listening to The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols. Kenton's otherwise bombastic arrangements, forever maligned as over-the-top, work perfectly on Christmas Carols. In fact, stunningly so. Kenton, along with arranger Ralph Carmichael, created music that shimmered, often approaching genius. One need go no further than the opening pieces "Good King Wenceslas and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen to hear Kenton's shiny brass vision in the rhythm horns that atalyzes the tunes.
This luminous effect is accented by Kenton and Carmichael's liberal use of counterpoint. Again, think of Bach. Imagine Bach on the road with Art Pepper, smoking a Pall Mall and drinking scotch. The Boston Brass pulls off these charts with powerful style and grace, capturing Kenton's intention accurately without being rote. There is a momentum behind all of these arrangements that vibrates the heart and truly celebrates the season. Most of the pieces are less than three minutes long, existing as lightning flashes of brilliance.
Of the longer pieces, "Greensleeves reveals itself as the disc show stopper. It begins loud and proud, settling into a Latin-propelled descending figure that provides the ancient melody with an almost James Bond-soundtrack foothold. The arrangement sounds like a cross between Ennio Morricone and Morton Stevens. JD Smith's trumpet (Smith also arranged the piece) could melt the polar icecaps, while the entire band pours it on in a molten manner.
All the tracks sound fresh and sonically scrubbed. While Kenton may have always been a bit over-the-top as an orchestra leader, he's shown in perfect balance with his ambition on The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols. The Boston Brass sublimely capture both the spirit of Kenton and the holiday season, providing the listener with an exceptional musical experience.
Joyful! does not strictly belong under a holiday music heading. But the Christmas canon (that assembly of musical pieces associated with the holiday season) is not a static entity, and allows consideration of music off the beaten path. I add to the canon Pete Malinverni's Joyful!, which features gospel-jazz settings for selected psalms. Joyful! employs a mass choir from New York City's Devoe Street Baptist Church, with soloists and a jazz quintet. The result is a jazz-gospel-blues fusion oratorio celebrating the Christian/Christmas tradition.
Each selection is accompanied by the Reverend Frederick Ennette narrating selections from the psalms chosen by Malinverni. The musical and textual themes are upbeat, with Malinverni demonstrating his sprite composition and arrangement skills. He surrounds the sacred passages with the earthy sensuality of gospel-infused jazz and blues. The soloists, both vocal and instrumental, are uniformly inspired as they sing over hard bop-inspired harmonies and melodies. Malinverni's piano is fully informed and seamlessly moves through the genera shades of his arrangements.
This is stand-up, clap-your-hands, dance around, spirit-filled music that plants itself in the listener's head, inviting itself to be played over and over again. As an added bonus, the digipak contains a DVD with interviews and concert footage of the performance, that when viewed will increase appreciation for Malinverni's vision and ambition.
Tracks and Personnel
Jazz Yule Love
Tracks: We Three Kings; White Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Sleigh Ride; It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year; Christmas Heart; O Tannenbaum; Silent Night; O Come All Ye Faithful; A Child Is Born; Joy To The World; Angels We Have Heard On High.
Personnel: Eastern Rebellion featuring Cedar Walton; Terry Gibbs Quartet; Pillars Of West Coast Jazz; George Shearing; Pete Jolly Trio; Les McCann Trio; Teddy Edwards; Eugene Maslov Trio; Kenny Burrell Quartet.
Jazz Yule Love, Vol. 2
Tracks: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Jingle Bells; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Air On A Six String; I'll Be Home For Christmas; Dance Natal (Dance Of The Sugar Plum Faeries); Let It Snow; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Chipmunk Song; O Holy Night; Another Year.
Personnel: Sean Jones; Gerald Wilson Orchestra; Hot Club Of Detroit; Oscar Castro-Neves; Ilona Knopfler; Bud Shank Quartet; Ilona Knopfler; Oscar Brown, Jr.
The Stan Kenton Christmas Carols
Tracks: Good King Wenceslas; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; We Three Kings Of Orient Are; Once In Royal David's City; The Holly And The Ivy; Greensleeves; O Tannenbaum; Angels We Have Heard On High; O Holy Night; The Twelve Days Of Christmas; Adeste Fideles; Christmas Medley; Motown Jingle Bells.
Personnel: Rich Kelley, Jeff Conner, Jens Lindermann, Scott Thornburg: trumpets; JD Shaw, Chris Cooper, Jeff Nelson, Jeff Stockham: horns; Ed Clough, Joe Columbo, Scott Hartman, Mark Frost: trombones; Andrew Hitz: tuba; Dan Hostetler: drums; Michael Bull: percussion; Bill DiCosimo: piano; Matt Vaconti: bass.
Tracks: Make Joyful Noise; The Lord Is Good; O, Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me And Known Me; Let The Earth Shake; Let The Sea Roar; To The Rock; Whither Shall I Run?; Merciful And Gracious; I lift Up My Soul; It Is He.
Personnel: Steve Wilson: alto saxophone; Joe Magnarelli: trumpet, flugelhorn; Pete Malinverni: piano, conductor; Todd Coolman: bass; Duane Broadnax: drums; Frederick C Ennette, Jr.: narrator; The Devoe Street Baptist Church Choir: vocals.