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Dave Hughes' All-Time Favorite Contemporary Holiday Recordings

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While it boggles my mind to start thinking about Christmas already, I shall nevertheless devote this month's column to some of my favorite Holiday CDs. Most are solidly in the Contemporary Jazz vein, but I've included a few other fun ones at the end.

I've chosen not to review the three Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CDs or Kenny G's Miracles, mainly because they are among the top-selling Christmas CDs of all time. I'll bet you're already quite familiar with them. Ditto the three GRP Christmas Collections.

The order in which these reviews are presented should not imply ranking.

Holiday Jazz

David Benoit has two worthwhile Christmas CDs. His first, Christmastime, was originally recorded in 1983 and was released on CD a few years ago (Bluemoon). It's one of Benoit's more hard-swinging recordings, recorded with just a quartet of piano, guitar,bass, and drums. The CD opens with "Carol of the Bells" (which Benoit would later re-record for the first GRP Christmas Collection). Although this is one holiday song that I usually find annoying with its incessant 4-note motif, in Benoit's hands it's a launching pad for some very inspired improvising. That spirit continues throughout the program. In 1996, Benoit tapped the holiday repertoire again with Remembering Christmas. It's a rich, tasteful collection, mostly in the"straight ahead" jazz vein. Most tunes are performed either by a trio (piano, bass, drums) or a quintet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, percussion). There's not a synthesized note on the album. A piano duet with Dave Brubeck is a special treat. Highly recommended!

An old sentimental favorite of mine is Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Two cuts, "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmas Time is Here" are immediately recognizable, and some of the others (many are Guaraldi originals) have become etched into our subconscious from seeing the TV special for so many years. But unlike most soundtrack music that doesn't stand too well on its own, the opposite is true here. These gems are child like and happy, tastefully elegant, and full of jazz sensibilities and simple beauty.

Like David Benoit's CDs, Gregg Karukas' Home for the Holidays is an excellent straight-ahead acoustic jazz outing from a musician who's better known for more peppy, contemporary stuff. The old chestnuts are dressed up in new chord voicings and styles, and it swings big time.It's adventuresome, creative, and well-executed. Singer Shelby Flint contributes several very tasty vocals.

Russ Freeman's Holiday, however, stays solidly in modern, contemporary jazz. Freeman performs in several settings: solo classical guitar, multi-tracked with Freeman playing all parts (many on MIDI-guitar), and live ensemble. This album does more to illustrate all of Freeman's considerable and varied talents than the highly polished and successful Rippingtons albums. There's some interesting material here. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" is given a sizzling Latin treatment with horns and percussion. Vangelis' "Hymne," with its synthesized grandeur, is not the stuff you usually hear on holiday albums, but it fits nicely. Two Freeman compositions, "Faith" and "Holiday," despite their titles, evoke radio-friendly pop-jazz (a la Rippingtons) rather than the holidays, although they are admittedly enjoyable.

Tuck Andress, of the guitar-vocal duo Tuck and Patti, presents Hymns,Carols, and Songs About Snow. It's just solo electric guitar—no overdubs or edits. How many fingers does this guy have? He performs complete arrangements (melody, chords, and bass line) simultaneously.It's truly amazing. Fortunately, technique doesn't overshadow taste;the whole CD is immensely enjoyable.

Thom Rotella is a contemporary jazz guitarist who is also a talent deserving wider recognition. On Spirit of the Carols, he departs from his usual combo format and performs the album almost entirely by himself, on multi-tracked acoustic, classical and electric guitars, and mandolins. Two vocal cuts by Tierney Sutton and one track with soprano,alto and bass recorder provide periodic variety. It's all pleasant enough. It would make a great backdrop for Christmas dinner or sitting around the fire in the late evening.

For sheer beauty, it's hard to beat Roberto Perera's Christmas Fantasies. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Perera's catalog of consistently excellent releases on Heads Up, his axe is the Paraguayan Harp. While his music isn't particularly jazz-oriented, his virtuosity and the highly pleasing timbres of his instrument, when placed in this lilting, swirling light Latin setting, makes for relaxing yet musically rewarding listening.

The modern-day Glenn Miller Orchestra has recorded two Christmas CDs,In the Christmas Mood (Laserlight) and In the Christmas Mood II (Laserlight) which not only give the big-band treatment to holiday classics (mostly secular), but never miss a chance to insert snippets from the well-known Glenn Miller songbook into the arrangements. This is a risky technique; the results of such effortsare usually annoying and trite, but in the hands of top-notch arrangers John LaBarbara and Dave Wolpe, the fit is perfect and the results are wonderful. Glenn would be very, very pleased. However, I have one quibble, from a consumer standpoint. Of the twelve tunes on the second CD, six are repeats from the first CD (the exact same takes); there are only six new selections on the disc, with a total time of about 22 minutes.

In 1995, Blue Note Records released an all-star disc called Jazz to the World as a benefit for the Special Olympics. The roster of big-name talent present (who normally record for many different labels) promises lots of musical firepower, and the results do not disappoint! The artists present fall primarily into two camps: today's top vocalists, and the fusion pioneers of the '70s who are still very much at the top of the jazz game today. Can you imagine the Brecker Brothers playing Christmas music? Here, they join with guitarist extraordinaire Steve Khan to perform "The Christmas Waltz," a song written,coincidentally, by Khan's father, Sammy Cahn. Stanley Clarke and George Duke reunite for "O Tannenbaum," along with Everette Harp. Herbie Hancock and Eliane Elias contribute a piano duet of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Dianne Reeves and Lou Rawls join forces for "Baby It's Cold Outside." Other luminaries, many of whom one would not normally expect to perform holiday music, include Chick Corea, Fourplay, Steps Ahead,John McLaughlin, Herb Alpert and Jeff Lorber, Michael Franks, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Holly Cole, and many more. A veritable holiday music feast!

Holiday Vocal Groups

One of the best vocal jazz ensembles of all time was Singers Unlimited, and their 1972 recording Christmas is, in my opinion, one of the finest discs in their catalog. (Also check out their album with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, which sadly is not available on CD.) The incomparable arrangements of Gene Puerling are enough to make this album remarkable, but another factor in its success is the choice of material. While there are a few well-known tunes, many of the songs are European carols that are much less known in the U.S. There are six songs, presented in sequence, that were composed by jazz trumpeter Alfred S. Burt that are joyful, harmonically interesting, and well-suited to a small vocal group. The best known of the batch is"Caroling, Caroling." This one's on my must-play list every year.

One cannot discuss premiere vocal groups without considering Manhattan Transfer, my choice for the best vocal ensemble of any era.The Christmas Album features the orchestrations of Johnny Mandel and the vocal arrangements of Gene Puerling, Johnny Mandel, and Tranfer members Janis Siegel and Alan Paul. While the quality of talent going into this recording is of the highest caliber, the end result is slightly underwhelming. There is little of the lively panache of most other Manhattan Transfer recordings. While it's rich with full, lush musical textures, it's too subdued and laid back to really evoke what I would normally consider "the holiday spirit."

Holiday World Jazz

A Brasilian Christmas is another all-star sampler assembled by guitarist / producer Oscar Castro-Neves, similar in scope and personnel to the recent Toots Thielemans' "Brasil Project" 1 and 2. Featured artists are Joyce, Dori Caymmi, Ivan Lins, Global, Ricardo Silveira, Toninho Horta, Joao Bosco, and of course, Oscar Castro-Neves. My favorites are the tunes by vocalist Joyce; they're upbeat, cheerful, and perfectly done. (Her solo albums are nice, too.) The acoustic guitar tracks by Horta and Castro-Neves and the vocal/guitar tracks by Caymmi and Bosco are effective as well, setting both sacred and secular tunes in a samba setting. Surprisingly, the only clunker here is the lone Ivan Lins contribution, "White Christmas." The usually dynamic Lins just isn't in good vocal form at all on this date.

The compilation CD World Christmas is a very non-traditional holiday album. It's sort of a combination of progressive jazz and world beat. While the songs are all interesting, creative arrangements, the album doesn't really have that much of that hard-to-pinpoint "Holiday Spirit"—it's more of a world / jazz CD than a holiday CD. There are plenty of world-class musicians present here: Bob Berg, John Scofield, the Caribbean Jazz Project (Paquito D'Rivera, Andy Narell, Dave Samuels), Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Eliane Elias, Dave Valentin, Mino Cinelu, Dianne Reeves, Joshua Redman, Marcus, and many more. In the spirit of giving, this album is a benefit for the Special Olympics.

Holiday Trombones

Okay, I will admit that, as a trombonist, it's easy for me to like these two recent holiday CDs from Summit Records, primarily a brass and classical label. Trombones Under the Tree is an unaccompanied trombone quartet recording from Joseph Alessi, Mark H. Lawrence, Carl Lenthe, and M. Dee Stewart. These gentlemen sit in major symphony orchestras and on university faculties. There's really no jazz here at all, it's all traditional brass stuff, but it's still a must-have for brass lovers. Their excerpts from the Nutcracker Suite are particularly enjoyable.

For jazzier trombones, check out the Hollywood Trombones'Christmas. The format here is trombone choir with occasional percussion or bass. Eighteen of L.A.'s top studio pros are heard in various combinations, often ten or twelve at a time. The arrangements,by Bob Florence and some of the trombonists, ensure that the potential of a team of top trombonists is fully realized. Some of the arrangements are based on Gene Puerling's vocal arrangements for the Singers Unlimited album mentioned above. To my ears, there are few sounds more pleasing than that of a mellow, expressive, perfectly blended trombone ensemble. But then I couldn't be biased, could I?

Holiday Weirdness

Now, for those of you who will admit to, even take pride in, having a bizarre, semi-deranged sense of humor (not to mention taste in music), I offer the following three CDs for your listening pleasure. When Christmas commercialism, mall mob scenes, annoying relatives, and too many parties (?) start to get the best of you, pop one of these discs in your CD player.

If you've gotten to the point where you think you've heard every Christmas standard reworked into every possible musical style, and the blanket of snow in the winter wonderland of holiday music has been trampled to death, then you need the Bobs' Too Many Santas. Of course, it helps if you're a fan of a cappella groups in general and avant-garde acts like the Bobs in particular. This is one of the most unique and, at times, looniest holiday CDs out there. There's not one well-worn standard here, it's mostly competent originals and a few obscure or parodied covers.

Weirder still is Brave Combo's It's Christmas, Man! Brave Combo is versatile not only in the instruments they can cover, but also in the genres they visit. In this CD we get holiday favorites, as well as some lesser-known tunes, mutated into various world dance styles. For several examples: "O Christmas Tree" as a samba, "The Christmas Song"as ska, plus polkas, cha chas, a waltz, etc. It's all good, clever fun. Put it on about halfway through your holiday party, after everyone's had a couple drinks.

Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio's I Am Santa Claus is totally whacko. Nothing is sacred here; holiday classics and well-known personalities are fodder for some uproariously funny comedy and parody."Walkin' 'Round in Women's Underwear," "I Came Upon a Roadkill Deer,""Teddy the Red-Nosed Senator," "Didn't I Get This Last Year?" (based on"Do You Hear What I Hear")—got the idea? I didn't know what to make of the title "Grahbe Yahbalz" until I heard the song. The tune is "Deck the Halls," and the opening line is "Grab ya balls like Michael Jackson..." You simply must have this.

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