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Christmas III: Jazz Vocals - Tianna Hall/Chris Cortez, Nnenna Freelon, New York Voices and Albrecht Mayer/The King’s Singers


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The vocal holiday offerings are all over the map stylistically. Latin, big band, small ensemble singing and whatever the Albrecht Mayer/King's Singer's collaboration is, this a hopping creative season. For a seasonal subgenre of any musical subgenre usually reserved for money-making more than art, this year's releases are exceptional.

"May your days be merry and bright" indeed.

Tianna Hall & Chris Cortez
Blue Bamboo Music

Tianna Hall, Godmother of the Houston Jazz Mafia, convened a family meeting this summer to wax this collection of holiday fare. It must be the humidity in Houston, that makes creativity so fecund and fruitful. While the holiday season is generally associated with cold and winter, Noel possesses an necessary tropical breeziness betraying its advent in South Texas, where it is never cold. Hall is very comfortable in the Latin Jazz arena and employs the musical strain throughout this very fine release. She shares billing with Houston's go-to guitarist Chris Cortez to produce a holiday release where vocals and guitar are equally distributed, giving the disc a contemporary (but not too contemporary) personality.

Hall's singing is both studied and determined. Opening the disc with "The Angels" ("Angels We Have Heard on High"), Hall weaves her way through a lively samba, segueing into a darkly humid medley of Thad Jones' "A Child is Born" and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here." This is the most inspired pairing of holiday tunes this year. Cortez and Hall take advantage of the fine Houston horn section assembled, alto saxophonist Warren Sneed, trumpeter Dennis Dotson and tenor saxophonist Woody Witt turning in solid and expressive solos.

"We Three Kings" is given an elaborate arrangement to buoy Hall and Cortez as they both do their thing. Cortez presents a blistering solo that contrasts with the overall languid character of the piece. Cortez performs a personal and introspective solo guitar rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" that exists as the spiritual center of the recording, while his duet with Hall on the playful "Santa Baby" lightens the mood without starting a fire as Rene Marie does with the song on I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt (Motema Music, 2013). Noel is a hip and homespun affair presented by friends and neighbors. It captures the spirit of the holidays and the spirit of swing in jazz perfectly.

Nnenna Freelon
Brown Boulevard Records

If Tianna Hall & Chris Cortez keep Christmas intimate with a big band just small enough to do so, then Nnenna Freelon does the opposite with as big a band as she could find. Joining forces with the John Brown Big Band, Freelon presents a holiday recital that is impeccable and forward- looking. Of central importance to this recording are the arrangements used, and they are, to a song inventive and novel.

Freelon and Brown spare no expense on the production of Christmas. It is superbly produced (though never over- produced). The sonics and engineering are also excellent. This attention to detail in the music inspires a most swinging and jazzy treatment by Freelon, who stretches out in her singing, taking many phrasing and stylistic chances in concert with Brown's big band. The sound is tremendous...BIG, creating its own velocity and momentum. "Silent Night," usually treated as a ballad and played gentle is transformed into an organ soul-jazz torch song, delivered with fervor by Freelon. "Little Drummer Boy" is wound up by drummer Adonis Rose who establishes a hard shuffle for Freelon to sing over.

Freelon and Brown share duties on the sexy and strolling "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Brown is conversational, full of mirth with Freelon being necessarily coy. Arranged by trumpeter Derrick Gardner, "Cold Outside" is the underpinning of the entire disc, infusing the disc with the joy and celebration of the season. This truly has been a good year of holiday recordings.

New York Voices
Let It Snow
Five Cent Records

If Tianna Hall & Chris Cortez keep Christmas intimate with a big band just small enough to do so and Nnenna Freelon does the opposite with as big a band as she could find, then New York Voices adds an additional three voices to Freelon's recipe taking the festive spirit of the holidays over the top musically. The New York Voices possess a slightly more sepia sound that their Manhattan Transfer counterparts, harkening back to the sound of 1940s singing groups. That is not to imply that the Voices sound is dated or nostalgia driven. The song arrangements are popping fresh and extroverted with volume and thoughtful in quiet places.

The title cut is a showpiece, large with great energy and a swinging arrangement. Reharmonized, this "Let It Snow" is transformed into a big band juggernaut that whips between time signatures, vocalese and scat singing, and very tight harmonies. To the opposite end of the sonic spectrum with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," sung a cappella with pre-war harmonies warm as mulled wine. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," another a cappella piece, is full of snowflakes and starlight. It is the breathe you see on a cold day. "Sleepers, Wake!" is downright Baroque, beautifully articulated. Let It Snow is a great addition of the holiday discography of ensemble singing.

Albrecht Mayer and The King's Singers
Let It Snow
Deutsche Grammophon

This is a little different Let It Snow from the New York Voices release. Okay, I will level with you, it is a lot different. The closest comparison of previously released music to this disc are the recordings made by saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. Garbarek's otherworldly soprano saxophone suspended above the ancient melodies sung the the Hilliards has found its dedicated audience. Not the lightest fare, the Garbarek/Hilliard axis has made memorable and beautiful music.

The oboe is not a soprano saxophone and The King's Singers are not the Hilliards...and never were they meant to me. Oboist Albrecht Mayer pits himself against the King's singers with the same intention Garbarek had with the Hilliards: to lend an ethereal wail to the voices. The oboe does not wail. It is woody and introverted, combining well with the ensemble voices. The repertoire is also off the beaten path (mostly) with clever treatments of Vivaldi ("Winter") and Bach ("Christmas Oratorio" and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") and Handel ("Suite No. 4") are all well treated here. This is an unusual idea that seems to work very well.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: The Angels; A Child Is Born/Christmas Time Is Here; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; The Christmas Song; We Three Kings; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; O Come O Come Emmanuel; Santa Baby; What Are You Doing New Years Eve?.

Personnel: Tianna Hall: vocals; Chris Cortez: guitar, vocals; Anthony Sapp: bass; Paul English: piano; Tom Cummings: vibraphone, drums; Dennis Dotson: trumpet; Woody Witt: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Warren Sneed: alto saxophone, flute; Thomas Hultén: trombone, bass trombone.


Tracks: Swing Jingle Bells; Spiritual Medley; Let It Snow; I Like the Sunrise; Christmas Time Is Here; Silent Night; Little Drummer Boy; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Baby, It's Cold Outside; I'll Be Home for Christmas..

Personnel: Nnenna Freelon: vocals: John Brown Big Band: John Brown: bass, vocals (9); Vaughan Ambrose: saxophones; James Gates: saxophones; Brian Miller: saxophones; Shaena Ryan: saxophones; Greg Tardy: saxophones; LeRoy Barley: trumpet; Art Barnes: trumpet; Derrick Gardner: trumpet; Jay Meachum: trumpet; Benjy Springs: trumpet; Mitch Butler: trombone; Andy Kleindienst; Ronald Westray: trombone; Joshua Vincent: trumpet; Brandon McCune: piano (1, 2, 7, 9, 10); Miki Hayama: piano (3, 4, 5, 6, 8); Scott Sawyer: guitar; Adonis Rose: drums and percussion; Beverly Botsford: percussion (1, 2, 4, 7).

Let It Snow (New York Voices)

Tracks: Let It Snow; Christmas Song/Christmas Time; O, Little Town of Bethlehem; O Come, O Come Emmanuel; We Three Kings; Holiday For Strings; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Sleepers, Wake!; O Come All Ye Faithful; The Merry Medley; I Wonder As I Wander; We Wish You A Merry Christmas; Silent Night.

Personnel: Darmon Meader: vocals, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Kim Nazarian: vocals; Lauren Kinhan: vocals; Peter Eldridge: vocals; Andy Ezrin: piano; Paul Nowinski: bass (1-3, 6, 12); Marcello Pellitteri: drums (1-3, 6, 12); Bob Mann: guitar (1-3); David Finck: bass (5, 9- 11); Ben Wittman: drums (5, 9-11); Big Band (1, 3, 10, 12): Tyler Kuebler: alto saxophone; Andy Axelrad: alto saxophone; Tedd Baker: tenor saxophone; Grant Langford: tenor saxophone; Doug Morgan: baritone saxophone; Brian MacDonald: trumpet; Kevin Burns: trumpet; Rich Sigler: trumpet; Tim Leahey: trumpet; Joe Jackson: trombone; Jim McFalls: trumpet; Dave Perkel: trumpet; Lee Gause: trumpet; Studio Orchestra (2, 5, 6, 8, 9): Mari Washington: violin; Emily Barnes: violin; Greg Pinney: violin; Mark Dorosheff: violin; Ni Santiago: violin; Nathan Wisniewski: violin; Bill Tortolano: violin; Marlisa del Cid Woods : violin; Judy Cho: violin; Monika Dorosheff: violin; Bryce Bunner: viola; Cathy Scarborough: viola; Dana Rokosny: viola; Julius Wirth: viola; Christine Lightner: cello; Sammuel Swift: cello; David Cho: cello; Chris Kosky: contrabass; John Barger: contrabass; Nathan Clark: trumpet; Matthew Misener: trumpet; Mike Brest: trumpet; Brandon Chaney: trombone; Jeff Gaylord: trombone; Jay Heltzer: trombone; Joel Wealer: horn; David Balandrin: horn; Stacy Ascione: flute; Julianna Arnold: clarinet; Josh Arvizu: oboe, English horn; Eddie Sanders: bassoon.

Let It Snow (The King's Singers)

Tracks: Styne: Let It Snow; Vivaldi: The Four Seasons—Winter; Praetorius: Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen; Pierpont: Jingle Bells; Traditional: What Child Is This; J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 / Part 2—Sinfonia; Rutter: The Wild Wood Carol; Schubert: Winterreise, D.911—Frühlingstraum; Saint- Saëns: Sérénade d'Hiver; Giazotto: Adagio; Loesser: Baby, It's Cold Outside; Traditional: She Moved Through The Fair; Parchi: Aleih Neiri; Handel: Suite No.4 In D Minor For Harpsichord, HWV 437— Sarabande; J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 147, No.10—Jesu bleibet meine Freude; Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel —Abends will ich schlafen gehn.

Personnel: Albrecht Mayer: oboe; The King's Singers.

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