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One of the great combos in jazz, the George Shearing Quintet, returns to deck the halls with boughs of warm, swinging and imaginatively considered holiday music.
Christmas With The George Shearing Quintet is the pianist's seventh Telarc CD, and the quintet's first since 1994's excellent That Shearing Sound, itself the first Shearing quintet recording in nearly two decades. Mr. Shearing's popular, long-lasting quintet (1947-78) was predicated on the warm, spirited sound he created by combining piano, vibes and guitar with a swinging bassist and a bop drummer. It's a sound that suits the holiday season particularly well.
Many famous names have passed through Mr. Shearing's quintet over the years: Cal Tjader, Armando Peraza, Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Gary Burton, Toots Thielemans and Emil Richards. But here, he's teamed with regulars Neil Swainson on bass and Dennis Mackrell on drums and added the warm, swinging guitar of Canadian Reg Schwager and the facile vibes of Don Thompson (who, in addition to being an adept pianist, is also Mr. Shearing's most sympathetic partner on bass).
There's a special, timeless quality to Christmas, reminiscent of George Winston's December, that doesn't lock it into being heard only at Christmastime. Even Mr. Shearing, ever eloquent in his liner notes, says "I love Christmas Music. I can, and often do, play it all the year round. In Christmas music, there is always a smile somewhere."
On this record, smiles abound. Mr. Shearing and company invests such warmth and romance into this music that it doesn't need a holiday season to be heard. There's also a winning variety in moods, tempos and even a wonderful departure from the standard holiday repertoire (how inspired to include Claude Thornhill's classic "Snowfall" in a holiday collection!). The lightly Latin "Ding Dong! Merrily on High," the modal "Donkey Carol" and the bossa waltz of "The Christmas Waltz" are surely the set's highlights and inspire some of company's best soloing. Particularly notable are the agile interjections of the 79-year-old pianist, whose kid-in-a-candy-store excitement is quite infectious.
Mr. Shearing also notably overhauls the harmonics of several of these well-known tunes - giving them a new, surprisingly modern twist. These include the lovely waltz of "White Christmas," the jaunty, Erroll Garner inspired "Let it Snow" and a Bill Evans-like jazz ballad treatment of "Away in a Manager." Like a kid, he's also playful with some of the melodies, giving "Having Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" a "Birdland" refrain and dressing up "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in "Take Five" cool. Mr. Shearing becomes more introspective, almost classical, on the disc's solo numbers: the 15th century hymn "Noel Nouvelet," the pretty Scottish carol, "Balulalow" and his vocal version of "It's Christmas Time."
The holidays don't often get many notable jazz interpretations. Christmas With The George Shearing Quintet is, however, ideal. It's warm, romantic, swinging and one of the best gifts a jazz listener can get this season - and maybe enjoy throughout the year.
Songs:Ding Dong! Merrily on High; White Christmas; Winter Wonderland; The Christmas Waltz; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Noel Nouvelet; Donkey Carol; I'll Be Home For Christmas; Snowfall; Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow; The Christmas Song; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Balulalow; Away In A Manger; It's Christmas Time.
Players:George Shearing: piano; Reg Schwager: guitar; Don Thompson: vibraphone; Neil Swainson: bass; Dennis Mackrel: drums.