With December ushering in the holiday season, it seemed logical to allow this month's column to address two items that fall under the category of jazzy Christmas fare. Although the repertoire in this area is really quite limited, some of the more memorable holiday jazz sides include works by Ella Fitzgerald and Jimmy Smith. For my money however, among the best sets is a pair of 1964 sides cut for Prestige by Bobby Timmons and Don Patterson. The idea for successful Christmas music adaptations has always been about utilizing the formats of such traditional pieces as a launching pad for substantial jazz performances and both Timmons and Patterson do that in a way that allows their own personalities to rise to the surface.
A staple of the Prestige catalog, organist Don Patterson turned out a substantial number of albums for the label during the sixties, with Holiday Soul (Prestige 7415) being among his rarest and hardest to find. Serving somewhat as a house rhythm section for Prestige at the time, Patterson is heard with guitarist Pat Martino and drummer Billy James and the threesome generates the kind of energy that belies the group's modest size. The centerpiece is a lengthy groove on "Jingle Bells," launched by a modal vamp that leads into a string of choruses from both Patterson and Martino. "Merry Christmas Baby" takes on an azure hue with "down home" statements from our lead voices, a clarity of purpose evident in both the solos and Rudy Van Gelder's classic engineering for an organ combo. Even "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer" swings like crazy, Martino's Wes-inflected octaves being of particular interest.
When it comes to pianist Bobby Timmons, most consider his main contribution to the music to be a gospel-tinged/funky outlook that ushered in a whole genre of soul-jazz that is still in favor among today's younger set. As such, his collection of Christmas favorites as assembled under the same banner of Holiday Soul (Prestige 7414) is even more individualistic than Patterson's. "White Christmas" is as far removed from its usual maudlin tone as is possible, with a bluesy feel that finds Timmons romping across the snow banks with blissful ease. It's a funky vamp that launches "Winter Wonderland" and over several choruses Timmons and bassist Butch Warren get to speak their piece, supported ever so tastefully by drummer Walter Perkins.
Both of these holiday sets stand firmly on the grounds of being good Christmas music, but they also offer considerable jazz performances to boot. The shame is that even with Fantasy's ambitious reissue programs of late, each of these records has yet to be reissued on compact disc (however, two selections from each album do appear on the compilation The OJC Christmas Collection ). Their reappearance at some point will be a welcomed gift to jazz fans of the hard bop persuasion. In the meantime, keep a look out for these vinyl trinkets and best wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season!