Deck the Halls with Big Band Carols

Jack Bowers By

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With the holiday season on track and hastening toward us like a runaway locomotive, it's time once again to hunker down and prepare for the annual onslaught of "Rudolph," "Frosty the Snowman," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Sleigh Ride," "Silver Bells," chestnuts roasting on an open fire and everyone's perennial favorite, "White Christmas." Not to mention the many traditional songs of praise that help to make the season bright. There was a time not long ago when big bands were all but absent from the holiday music scene save for backing singers like Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Perry Como or Rosie Clooney, but after years of hibernation they've come back strong, bedecking the seasonal themes in splendid new garments designed to put anyone in a suitably cheerful holiday mood.

How do I know that? I'm glad you asked, as the proof is at hand and about to be shared. In other words, I've chosen from the CD library 26 holiday-centered big-band albums that would make even Ebenezer Scrooge or Buster Keaton smile. Herewith a few words about each.

Even though all are performed by large ensembles, there are only three albums named Big Band Christmas—by Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass; the Chris McDonald Big Band; and Britain's National Youth Jazz Orchestra. The Boss Brass list five songs with "Christmas" in the title, McDonald four, NYJO three. McConnell's disc is comprised primarily of more contemporary themes such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Let It Snow," "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and even "My Favorite Things," although it does embrace the more traditional "Away in a Manger," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Joy to the World." As all the charts are McConnell's there's no need to debate quality, as that goes without saying.

McDonald, on the other hand, is, I suspect, unknown to most listeners, even those who are closely attuned to big-band jazz. Not to worry; he's one of the finest arrangers of hymns, carols and other seasonal music I've ever heard, as he shows on "Sleigh Ride," "White Christmas," "Blue Christmas," "The Little Drummer Boy" (arranged like Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing"), "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Let It Snow" and such established themes as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Silent Night," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." In the holiday music sweepstakes, an unequivocal winner.

NYJO's album, recorded in 1989, opens with a lively rendition of "Deck the Halls" and doesn't ease up until the last swashbuckling bars of "Hark! The Herald Angels Swing." That's not the only title with which the band takes liberties; others include "I Saw Six Ships," "Wenceslas Squared," "The Thirst—No Ale," "Take Five Kings" and "I Left My Heart in Royal David's City." NYJO has a second holiday album, A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, recorded four years later, that includes such send-ups as "Bethlehem Lift Off," "While Shepherds Waved," "Angels from the Second Story," "Childstones" (a.k.a. "What Child Is This?") and "The Twelve Bars of Christmas." As is always true of NYJO, the charts are captivating and the musicianship impeccable, notwithstanding the band's 25 year upper age limit.

Two albums are devoted to the seasonal music of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, A Stan Kenton Christmas by the Capitol Bones, and Well Seasoned by Britain's top-drawer Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra. Mark Taylor, an arranger for the U.S. Army Blues, directs the 'Bones in a program comprised mainly of traditional hymns plus Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" (from the Charlie Brown TV specials), "My Favorite Things," "The Christmas Song" and "Big Bad Drummin' Dude" (their version of "The Little Drummer Boy") featuring the Blues' Steve Fidyk. Eight of the fifteen numbers were arranged by Ralph Carmichael, three by trombonist Matt Niess, one each by Taylor, guitarist Jim Roberts, pianist Tony Nalker and Kenton himself ("Adeste Fidelis"). The music is reminiscent of the Kenton orchestra, as is that on Well Seasoned, the first half of which is devoted to jazzier themes such as "Groove Blues," "Chelsea Bridge," "Manteca" and "There Will Never Be Another You." Carmichael arranged nine of the eleven holiday tunes, complementing Kenton's "Adeste Fideles" and Bob Florence's "Auld Lang Syne." Each of the albums has much to recommend it.

Having mentioned the Army Blues, it should be noted that seasonal albums by armed service bands are usually hard to come by. Not that they haven't been recorded, but unless one learns about them through some other source they may as well be nonexistent, as such albums target a limited audience and aren't offered for sale. We do, however, have two by the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note, Christmas Time Is Here (from 1998) and A Holiday Note from Home (2005). Unlike those mentioned so far (except for NYJO), these include vocals, three by Tracey Wright on Christmas Time, four by Paige Wroble on Note from Home. Despite sizable personnel changes between the recording dates (only the trombone section remains unscathed), there is absolutely no letdown when it comes to proficiency, and both albums are warmly recommended—if one can find them.

In the "numbers don't lie" (or do they?) department, composer / arranger / saxophonist Tom Kubis and his big band have recorded three holiday albums—sort of—starting with It's Not Just for Christmas Anymore! (1995) and including You Just Can't Have Enough Christmas! (1997) and A Jazz Musician's Christmas (2002). Each of these albums is admirable, even though eight tracks from You Can't Have Enough and nine from It's Not Just for Christmas comprise the entire Jazz Musician's Christmas. So instead of three recordings we have two-plus, as the only songs on the earlier albums that aren't repeated on the third are "Frosty the Snowman" (sung by Jack Sheldon), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (sung by Carol Jolin), "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "White Christmas" (You Just Can't Have Enough), "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" (Sheldon), "Still, Still, Still" (Jolin), "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Christmas Bells Are Ringing," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Waltz" (It's Not Just for Christmas). The most recent album has a decided edge, as it includes both of Sheldon's humorous monologues, "A Jazz Musician's Christmas" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas (My Agent Gave to Me").

Two more albums are devoted (again, sort of) to the music of Tchaikovsky, Shorty Rogers' The Swinging Nutcracker and David Berger's The Harlem Nutcracker, which transcribes in part music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn based on Tchaikovsky's well-known ballet. Rogers' album, recorded in 1960, boasts an all-star lineup that includes trumpeters Conte Candoli, Jimmy Zito and John Audino; saxophonists Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca, Bill Holman, Art Pepper and Bud Shank; trombonists Frank Rosolino and George Roberts; pianists Pete Jolly and Lou Levy; bassist Joe Mondragon; and drummers Mel Lewis and Frank Capp, with arrangements by Rogers. Enough said. Berger's less well-known Sultans of Swing are no less capable, skating easily through five prismatic Ellington / Strayhorn charts and nine of his own. Nine selections from the Ellington / Strayhorn Nutcracker can be found on another impressive album, the New England Jazz Ensemble's Wishes You a Cookin' Christmas, recorded in 2003. The first half of the disc is devoted to contemporary themes from "Jolly Ole St. Nick," "The Christmas Song" and "Rudolph" to "Winter Wonderland," "Frosty," "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the second to the Nutcracker suite.

Swedish composer Nils Lindberg's A Christmas Cantata for choir, big band and two vocalists is arguably the most enterprising of the various anthologies, including as it does passages from Isaiah, Matthew, Luke and John set to music and interspersed with the carols "Ding, Dong Merrily on High," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "A Sussex Carol," the Welsh anthem "Deck the Hall," the traditional Swedish tune "Glad dig ku Kristi brud" and the English hymn "Sing, O Sing This Blessed Morn." As a bonus, Lindberg appends three Swedish folk songs arranged for choir, helping to make this a cornucopia of seasonal pleasure.

Of the 11 albums remaining, six stand narrowly above the rest in terms of content and performance, and each one can be endorsed without pause. They include the Adventures in Jazz Orchestra Celebrates Christmas, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's Carol of the Bells, the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra's Christmas Jazz, The North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra's Holiday Jazz Blizzard, the Nova Jazz Orchestra's An Odd Christmas and the Trilogy Big Band Does Christmas.

That leaves us with five, and while these are perhaps a step beneath the others they are nonetheless bright and entertaining in their own way, and should help gladden anyone's holiday season. In alphabetical order, they are Music & Mistletoe by Wayne Bergeron with the After Hours Brass; Christmas with the Dallas Christian Jazz Band; Family Holidays by the Gap Mangione Big Band; Christmas Day, My Favorite Day by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble; and A Message from Santa Klaus by Klaus Weiss and the NDR Big Band.

As a whole, a bumper crop of seasonal big-band music, more than enough to fill anyone's stocking to overflowing or enhance his/her gift list. But why wait? I think I'll start listening right away.

It's About Time

Two long-overdue awards were recently announced, the first to legendary trumpeter Snooky Young, the second to the distinguished educator Leon Breeden. Young, who recently turned 90 and still plays and records with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, has received the inaugural L.A. Jazz Treasure Award from the LACMA and Los Angeles Jazz Society. Young was the lead trumpeter for the Jimmie Lunceford band from 1939-42 and later played with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra and Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band from 1967-92.

Breeden, who directed the University of North Texas Jazz Studies program and the award-winning One O'Clock Lab Band from 1959-81, was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at UNT's commencement ceremony in August. The degree is given by the university to a candidate who has demonstrated high standards of excellence through his or her scholastic achievements, professional accomplishments, philanthropy or public service record. Under Breeden, UNT's Jazz Studies program rose to international prominence, and the school's lab bands earned almost 50 national awards for group and/or individual performance while Breeden helped establish the country's first bachelor's degree program in Jazz Studies. Breeden received Outstanding Professor honors from UNT in 1976, and in 1985 was inducted into the National Asssociation of Jazz Educators' Hall of Fame. In 2003, the North Texas Jazz Festival introduced the Leon Breeden Award for best middle or high school big band.

Out and About

Betty and I were in Arizona in late August to attend the ninth annual Prescott Jazz Summit. During the Friday evening concert I stepped outside for a moment, and on my return I could hear the piano rocking on a spirited rendition of "Route 66" but couldn't see the pianist. When he stood up later to acknowledge the applause and take a well-deserved bow, I discovered why: the young man was not much taller than the piano itself, and the room was buzzing about the bantam-sized "nine-year-old pianist" who'd not only played with the big guys but held his ground among such heavyweights as trumpeter Carl Saunders, trombonist Scott Whitfield, tenor saxophonists Tony Vacca and Rusty Higgins, guitarist Jack Petersen, drummer Gary Hobbs and bassist Ted Sistrunk. This was too good not to look into further, so the next day I sought out the pint-sized prodigy and sat down for a brief chat. The first thing I learned, aside from his name—Grant Cherry—was that he's not nine years old but thirteen, an eighth-grader in Tucson who's been playing piano for less than two years (he'd started as a drummer when he was eight). Cherry was in Prescott to sit in with the Tucson Jazz Institute's premier Ellington Band whose regular pianist was unable to make the trip. Among his influences on piano, Cherry said, are Oscar Peterson and Red Garland. Pretty fair role models. While he is comparatively small for his age, Cherry's talent is king-size. Nine or 13, the kid can play, and more should be heard from him as he grows, literally and figuratively, into a first-rate jazz pianist.

Two Sad Goodbyes

The jazz world has lost two more outsanding performers, vocalist Chris Connor and tenor saxophonist Gianni Basso. Connor, who came to prominence in the 1950s with the Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton orchestras, died August 29 at age 81. Fortunately for her many fans, Connor's entire recorded legacy has been reissued on CD including the albums The George Gershwin Almanac of Song, Witchcraft and Lullabys of Birdland. While she is perhaps best remembered for the song "All About Ronnie," Connor recorded a number of other hits including "Trust in Me" and "I Miss You So."

Although not well known in the States, Basso, who died August 17, was one of Europe's leading tenors for many years and performed with a who's who of jazz headliners including Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, Art Farmer, Johnny Griffin and Buddy Collette. He also played with the Clarke-Boland Big Band Big Band, the Maynard Ferguson Dream Band and the Thad Jones Big Band. Basso's most recent album is a tribute to the great Swedish baritone saxophonist, Lars Gullin.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin...'!

New and Noteworthy

1. Jack Cortner Big Band, Sound Check (Jazzed Media)
2. Dana Legg Stage Band, The Other One (Sea Breeze Jazz)
3. SWR Big Band / Sammy Nestico, Fun Time (Hanssler Classic)
4. Alf Clausen Jazz Orchestra, Swing Can Really Hang You Up the Most (Sunny Nodak)
5. Terry Vosbein / Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Progressive Jazz 2009 (no label)
6. John Burnett Swing Orchestra, West of State Street / East of Harlem (Delmark)
7. Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I'm BeBoppin' Too (HighNote)
8. Dan Cavanagh, Pulse (OA2)
9. Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, Muse (Creative Nation Music)
10. Terry Gibbs Big Band, Swing Is Here (Verve)
11. Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra, Nice n' Juicy (Sea Breeze Jazz)
12. Cal State University-Northridge, Rain Song (no label)
13. Count Basie, Mustermesse Basel 1956, Part 1 (TCB)
14. European Jazz Orchestra, Swinging Europe 2008 (Music Mecca)
15. Arveheim / Berke Upscale Ten, Scope (Phono Suecia)

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