Renowned jazz singer Nnenna Freelon's first Christmas album truly is a gift, made possible by a small bequest from her Christmas-loving mother and a long-time friendship with John Brown, director of Duke University's Jazz Studies program and leader of the splendid John Brown Big Band. Brown not only made his ensemble available but co-produced the album with Freelon and released it on his own label, Brown Boulevard Records.
It's clear that this is something Freelon has wanted to do for some time, as she eagerly embraces the Christmas spirit on Frank Foster's arrangement of "Swingle Jingle Bells" and hugs it tightly to the end, even though the session was recorded in July, during a summer heat wave, in her native North Carolina. Sandwiched among the more traditional carols are a pair of songs that celebrate the season more than the holiday: "Let It Snow," "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (a playful duet with Brown, who forgoes the upright bass to make a charming vocal debut), along with Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise," to whose lyric Freelon has appended a passing reference or two to Christmas.
The rest is unvarnished yuletide fare, from "Swingle Jingle Bells" to "Christmas Time Is Here," "Silent Night," "The Little Drummer Boy," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (a popular ballad that swings here as never before, New Orleans-style). There's also a "Spiritual Medley" that opens with "Children Go Where I Send Thee" and includes "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Joy to the World" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." Even though he was an avid church-goer, Franz Gruber undoubtedly never envisioned "Silent Night" as a toe-tapping, gospel-inflected blues, which is how Freelon and Brown present it in Jerald Shynett's fresh arrangement. She adds more jazz intonation to "The Little Drummer Boy," making that reading work as well (with stalwart assistance from the ensemble and especially drummer Adonis Rose).
Freelon, Brown and their virtuosic companions have worked hard to make this Christmas decidedly special; and best of all, the album's release date is November 12, giving listeners ample time to savor it while the holiday season is in full swing.
Swingle Jingle Bells; Spiritual Medley; Let It Snow; I Like the Sunrise; Christmas Time Is Here; Silent Night; The Little Drummer Boy; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Baby, It’s Cold Outside; I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
Nnenna Freelon: vocals; John Brown: leader, bass, vocal (9); LeRoy Barley: trumpet; Art Barnes: trumpet; Derrick Gardner: trumpet; Jay Meachum: trumpet; Benjy Springs: trumpet; Vaughn Ambrose, James Gates, Brian Miller, Shaena Ryan, Greg Tardy: saxophones; Mitch Butler: trombone; Andy Kleindienst: trombone; Ron Westray: trombone; Joshua Vincent: trombone; Scott Sawyer: guitar; Brandon McCune: piano (1, 2, 7, 9, 10), Fender Rhodes (4), organ (6); Miki Hayama: piano (3-6, 8), celesta (4); Adonis Rose: drums, percussion; Beverly Botsford: percussion (1, 2, 4, 7).
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