Five Golden Rings for Christmas

C. Michael Bailey By

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The 2011 holidays are nearly upon us and with them, the requisite focused recordings. The number of such offerings has diminished in the last number of years. What has not diminished is the quality of the recordings, as evidenced by these five "golden rings."

Happy holidays, jazz fans.

Elisabeth Lohninger Band

Christmas in July

Jazz Sick Records


Austrian singer and studio maven Elisabeth Lohninger follows her exceptional Beneath Your Surface (Lofish Music, 2004), The Only Way Out is Up (Lofish Music, 2007) and Songs of Love and Destruction (Lofish Music, 2010), with a polyglot offering, Christmas in July.

What separates Christmas in July from most other straight-ahead holiday recordings is its intelligence. The disc opener, "Giant Chestnutz/Christmas," is so clever that it almost escapes notice. Mel Torme's Christmas standard is reharmonized by pianist Walter Fischbacher using John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" as the underpinning. From there, Lohninger passes through Brazil ("Os Meninos Da Mangueira"), France ("Petit Papa Noel") and Denmark ("Den Yndigste rose") before arriving at her native Austria for a most exciting (and disconcerting) "Stille Nacht." The arrangements make the songs and Lohninger holds steady with a most demanding repertoire.

Ellis Marsalis

A New Orleans Christmas Carol

ELM Records


A New Orleans Christmas Carol is pianist Ellis Marsalis' A Festival of Carols (after King's College, Cambridge). It is more a suite than a simple collection of seasonal songs, a thoughtfully conceived and assembled extended work. Marsalis structures his suite using ensembles of different sizes and composition. He opens solo, playing a pensive "O Tannenbaum" before moving into a percussion heavy "Little Drummer Boy." Cynthia Liggins Thomas is a masterfully presented interpretation of trumpeter Thad Jones "A Child is Born."

Marsalis' son and drummer Jason Marsalis emerges as a vibraphone contender on "O Holy Night" and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here." His understated approach is more Milt Jackson than Gary Burton and more Joe Locke than Milt Jackson. Elegance is the word that comes to mind when listening to the elder Marsalis. Like his son, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Marsalis is reverent of older forms of jazz and is well schooled in each. A New Orleans Christmas Carol holds up well beside Wynton's excellent A Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia, 1992).

Chris Bauer

In a Yuletide Groove—Harmonic Jazz for the Holidays

Self Produced


This is the fringe outlier of the seasonal releases, the one that challenges us to listen and enjoy. In jazz, the singular name associated with the harmonica is Toots Theilmanns (though Hendrik Meurkens has been making noise with his chromatic harp these last several years). In a small field dominated by such a large name, it is a bit hard to get attention. Chris Bauer has been haunting harmonic jazz for some 40 years and has released five previous recordings.

In a Yuletide Groove—Harmonic Jazz for the Holidays turns out to be an immediately enjoyable offering. Bauer is a grand straight-ahead player not given to pyrotechnics, but still blessed with solid chops and an acute ear for melody and improvisation. His melody is muscular and improvisation densely smart. Bauer amps up the Latin vibe on "Feliz Navidad" and presents one of the post strange and haunting takes of Schubert's "Ave Maria" on record. The harmonica has got a pretty back hick reputation, one that is wholly undeserved. In the hands of such a master as Bauer, it is good as tenor gold.

class="f-left" >Tony Bennett

The Classic Chrismas Album

Legacy Records


Do you know what Harry Connick, Jr., Peter Cincotti Tony DeSare and Michael Buble have in common? None of them are Tony Bennett (or, by proxy, Frank Sinatra). Bennett has been the authentic voice of popular music since the 1940s, Sinatra's favorite singer and the epitome of the singer of the "pop" song (in an older vernacular). Bennett's The Classic Christmas Album, which offers only the previously unreleased "What Child is This" as an explanation for yet one more rehashed Bennett Christmas album, begs consideration specifically because of its subject. As a single entity, with no regard for what came before, The Classic Christmas Album, with the possible exception of Bennett's indulging his daughter with a duet on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," is as fine a holiday music offering as one could expect.

Bennett obviously had fun recording this repertoire, as evidenced by his chuckling and mirthful delivery of "My Favorite Things" and his barely contained celebration in the coda of "Christmas In Herald Square." Giants are always acknowledged by looking backwards. It is nice to have one in our midst that we can still properly appreciate and be thankful for. Is that not the reason for the season?

Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury


House of Classics


No holiday season is complete without a new recording of Handel's Messiah and 2011 is no exception. Except that the performance of note is 20 years old and way overdue for a reissue. Stephen Cleobury and The Choir of King's College, Cambridge's Messiah, originally released on Argo in 1993, is based on Handel's 1751 version and is the only authentic conventional S(oprano)A(lto)T(enor)B(ass) performance on record. This is a crystal clear, fully realized performance of Il Sasson's masterpiece.

The band Cleobury employed was the period-instrument Brandenburg Consort under the direction of Roy Goodman. Much progress had been made since the harsh character of Christoper Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music recording of 1980 (Archiv). Modern sonics permit the warmth of period performance to be better captured and Goodman takes full advantage of his fine group. Perfect tempi are also employed, neither too fast (McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, Arkhiv, 1997) or too slow (Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, RCA, 1959). Outstanding is alto Hillary Summers and her features "Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive" and "He was Despised" are near perfect performances. If any of the myriad recordings of Messiah deserved re-issue, it is this one.

Tracks and Personnel

Christmas in July

Tracks: Giant Chestnutz/Christmas Song; Os Meninos Da Mangueira; In Notte Placida; Potpourri Da Navidad; Mary's Boy child; Petit Papa Noel; Glans Over Sjo Strand; Advent; Christmas Eve; Den Yndigste Rose; Von Himmel Hoch O Englein Kommt; Stille Nacht.

Personnel: Elisabeth Lohninger: vocals; Axel Fischbacher: guitar; Walter Fischbacher: piano; Johannes Weidemuller: bass; Ulf Stricker: drums.

A New Orleans Christmas Carol

Tracks: O Tannenbaum' The Little Drummer Boy; We Three Kings; A Child Is Born; God Rest You Merry Gentlemen; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; O Holy Night; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time is Here; Silent Night; O Little Town of Bethlehem; have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Christmas Joy; Sleigh Ride; Greensleeves; The Christmas Song; We Wish You and Merry Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; The Little Drummer Boy.

Personnel: Ellis Marsalis: piano; Bill Huntington, Peter Harris: bass; Jason Marsalis: drums, percussion, vibraphone; Roman Skskun: vibraphone.

In a Yuletide Groove—Harmonic Jazz for the Holidays

Tracks: Winter Wonderland; Feliz Navidad; I'll Be Home for Christmas; Frosty the Snowman; Christmastime Is Here; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer; Home for the Holidays; We Three Kings; The Christmas Song; Let It Snow; My Favorite Things; White Christmas; O Tannenbaum; Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town; Ave Maria. .

Personnel: Chris Bauer: harmonica; Glenn McClelland: keyboards; Chris Ziemer: guitar; Matt Parrish: bass; Matt Mohn: drums; Rob Paprozzi: vocals, harmonica (15); Patty Bauer: keyboards (16).

The Classic Christmas Album

Tracks: Santa Claus is Coming to Town; My Favorite Things; Christmas Time Is Here; Deck The Halls; The First Noel; The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire); Silver Bells; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; I Love The Winter Weather; I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm; Christmas In Herald Square; I'll Be Home For Christmas; O Come All Ye Faithful; What Child Is This; Winter Wonderland; Silent Night; White Christmas.

Personnel: Tony Bennett: vocals; other musicians unidentified.


Tracks: Messiah Parts 1, 2 & 3.

Personnel: Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury; Brandenburg Consort, Ray Goodman; Lynne Dawson: soprano; Hillary Summers: alto; John Mark Ainsley: tenor; Alastair Miles: bass; Crispian Steele Perkins: trumpet.

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