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Holiday Music '98

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This will be the fourth holiday season now that I've spent living in sunny Phoenix, AZ. (Well, it's usually sunny. Today it's been pouring rain all day; totally out of character for the desert. Makes it easier to stay indoors and review CDs, I suppose.) And I love the warmer weather! After being born and raised in Ohio, and spending eleven and a half years near Washington, DC, I've had enough snow, ice, slush, and freezing temperatures—thank you.

What's the point to this? Just that I'm not dreaming of a White Christmas. It's not beginning to look a lot like Christmas, although people do put a lot of lights on their houses. I won't be walking in a Winter Wonderland except for the few days I spend visiting my parents in Ohio. So I really rely on holiday music to get me in the spirit of the season. Here's a sampling of what's been released this season and a few from last season.

Grover Washington, Jr.'s Breath of Heaven has quickly become one of my holiday favorites. It contains wide musical variety and is exquisitely performed throughout. The disc opens with a straightforward rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." While a funky fusion arrangement of "Silent Night" might seem like a questionable, if not tasteless, choice, Billy Childs' chart works quite well and provides a good solo vehicle for Washington. "I Wonder as I Wander" stays closer to tradition is rendered sensitively by Grover's soprano and Joe Locke's vibes and chimes. The lone original, "The Love in His Infant Eyes" (by Washington and Donald Robinson), and "The Magi's Song/A Child is Born" also display sensitive balladry. Washington touches on the classical repertoire with "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and also offers an instrumental version of "Christmas Day Chant," based on a Gregorian chant. The whole CD is highly musical and completely avoids the pitfalls of frivolity, triteness, and commerciality of many holiday CDs. The outstanding arrangements and performances by Billy Childs, Joe Locke, and Hiram Bullock deserve much of the credit, as well as Grover Washington, Jr.'s inspired playing.

Guitarist Peter White's Songs of the Season have a more contemporary jazz flair, and the disc occasionally suffers from commercialized cliches, but White's crystal-clear acoustic guitar tone and tasteful playing save the day. The contemporary tunes are interspersed with nice orchestral arrangements of "Joy to the World/Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "The First Noel," and "White Christmas." Joni Mitchell's wistful "River," sung by Kenny Lattimore, also provides welcome varitey; and it's one Christmas tune that hasn't been done to death yet. A couple other highlights: White teams with Gregg Karukas, Brian Bromberg, and Peter Erskine for a jazzy "Jingle Bells," and the talented and underrated keyboardist/arranger Freddy Ravel develops "Silent Night" from a solo guitar intro verse to a soulful vocal by Dee Harvey.

Smooth jazz saxophonist Paul Howards presents his Candlelight Christmas in a tastefully unique package. The standard plastic jewel box is cradled in dark green felt inside a slightly larger rectangular box with gold leaf bottom and sides, a clear plastic inner cover, and a dark green lid. Accompanying the CD is a gold Christmas pin and a statement that a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Children's Wish Foundation & New Hope Center. The entire gift box presentation is very elegant and attractive, and will be marketed in the jewelry and accessory departments of department stores throughout the U.S. My review copy even came gift-wrapped! No word on what the suggested retail is. But what of the music? Howards, a regular at Walt Disney World's Pleasure Island Jazz Company, wraps his full-bodied sax sound around a program of eight holiday staples and two originals, most arranged in the current "smooth jazz" genre. It's largely enjoyable, but how much you enjoy this will depend to a large extent on how much you like programmed rhythm tracks. Case in point: on Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here," Howards' warm and sensual tenor sax and Mike Avila's lyrical piano accompaniment are rather awkwardly paired with a click track. Putting an edgy rhythm track on "O Come, O Come, Emanuel" is a questionable choice as well. The tracks work a bit better on other tunes such as "What Child is This" and "This Christmas," and they contribute positively to an interesting arrangement of "Little Drummer Boy" and a reggae-ish "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." The two originals, the title cut (by Howards and pianist/programmer/co-producer Michael Crain) and "Waiting for Snow" (by Crain), are nice additions to the program. The CD closes with a new-agey but nice rendition of "Silent Night," with guest pianist Wayne Gratz (courtesy of Narada).

Fantasy Records went exploring in their deep vaults and came up with nine previously unreleased tunes from Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts scores, then paired these up with five previously released tunes (including the instantly recognizable "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmas Time is Here") to create Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits. The only problem with this packaging strategy is that I think it's inaccurate (at best) or deceptive (at worst); most of the tunes have nothing to do with holidays. There's the "Great Pumpkin Waltz," "Thanksgiving Theme," and both a vocal and instrumental version of "Christmas Time is Here." Other than these, any holiday connection is pretty hard to identify. Packaging this as a Peanuts retrospective would be far more accurate. This aside, this is an enjoyable display of Guaraldi's talented and likable piano playing and composition skills. As usual, he strikes a pleasant middle ground between easily accessible melodies and skillful jazz playing. Since the tunes were culled from many recording dates, the personnel varies widely, but trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Monty Budwig, guitarist Eddie Duran, and drummer Jerry Granelli are some of the more recognizable names contributing their talents here. Next up, a couple label compilations.

The Warner Brothers roster of both straight-ahead and contemporary artists invites you the "Warner Brothers Jazz Christmas Party." By all means, accept this invitation! There's plenty of good times to be had here. Joshua Redman opens the program by proving that even mundane holiday fare such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" can be the basis for some good jazz blowing. Next, Al Jarreau turns in one of his most soulful and expressive performances yet in "Celebrate Me Home." Michael Franks' "I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree" is truly a gem; Franks is at the top of his game with his wry and clever lyrics, quirky melody, and understated delivery. This one should become a holiday standard. Gabriela Anders' "Our First Christmas" is a similarly clever composition and winning performance. Organist Larry Goldings and pianist Brad Mehldau duet on a highly interactive and jazzy "Silent Night."

Smooth sax sensation Boney James' contemporary-oriented "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is pleasant enough, as is Kirk Whalum's "A Candle in Bethlehem." Kevin Mahogany's deep, rich voice infuses "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with all the emotional potential of this song, which is usually absent from other versions. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner turns in a jazzy take of "Pure Imagination," done here in waltz time backed by Brad Mehldau's piano trio. While this tune is not normally considered part of the holiday repertoire, it fits nicely in this collection. Brad Mehldau's trio continues next with "Christmas Time is Here." It's an introverted, sensitive rendition, but this tune is coming dangerously close to dying of overexposure (it's on six of the CDs reviewed in this column). Bob James, also performing in the piano trio format, reaches beyond the well-worn holiday repertoire with "Personent Hodie (Sing Aloud on This Day)," and the results are rewarding; it's a rich, creative arrangement, and James' playing is excellent. It gives a glimpse into the excellence James is capable of but, in my opinion, reaches only occasionally. Bob James closes the album in a duet with banjo phenomenon Bela Fleck for a totally new spin on "White Christmas." This CD is consistently excellent and highly recommended.

Blue Note's Yule Be Boppin' is, true to its name, a more bebop-oriented affair and as such may be of less interest to contemporary jazz listeners than more straight-ahead jazzers, let alone the public at large. Generally, the instrumentals fare better than the vocals. The disc opens with Kurt Elling's rendition of Steve Allen's "Cool Yule;" it's pretty decent throughout the main section, but the jive/rap in the second half sounds hokey. Even more hokey is Sweet Daddy Lowe and the Blue Note Ad Hoc Orchestra's "Be-Bop Santa Claus" -a rap loosely based on "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Dianne Reeves is enjoyable on a jazzy "Jingle Bells," but Bob Dorough's vocal on his own "Blue X-mas" is rough-edged and rather depressing. Judi Silvano appears three times on this CD. Her feature, "I'd Like You For Christmas," is a treat (and Joe Locke smokes on vibes!). But on the finale, "Carol of the Bells," she sounds shrill and unfocused, as do soprano saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Yoron Israel; it's a display of pointless virtuosity on this nearly unlistenable track. Rachelle Farrell contributes an emotional and thought-provoking political anthem called "Peace on Earth," although its appropriateness in this collection is questionable. Turning to the instrumentals, guitarists will thrill to contributions from Pat Martino, Fareed Haque, and Charlie Hunter (a beautiful solo rendition of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here"). Eliane Elias, in piano trio format, is brilliant on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," although I don't usually associate this tune with the holidays. So overall, the quality of this collection is spotty; there are some truly rewarding moments and some poor throw-away numbers.

The next few CDs don't really fit solidly in the "contemporary jazz" niche, but will probably be of interest to some jazz lovers.

Singer Etta James applies her soulful blues stylings to Twelve Songs of Christmas, almost all well-known staples. The instrumental accompaniment (several horns and a rhythm section) and the comfortably swinging arrangements are consistently excellent. Whether or not you enjoy the overall product depends on whether you're a fan of Etta James and similar bluesy female singers. Her voice is somewhat coarse, earthy, and rough-edged, but it does have a certain soulful appeal.

The venerable rock-jazz outfit Chicago, most of whose recent releases have been re-packagings of their greatest hits, has released a holiday collection called Chicago 25. As on their 1995 foray into the big band repertoire, Night and Day, they put their distinctive vocal and horn stamp on well-known tunes with mostly successful results. The jazzy horn arrangements (all by James Pankow, with occasional help from Lee Loughnane or Robert Lamm) are exceptionally good this time around. In fact, they save several of the opening charts which otherwise don't offer much beyond the usual renderings of the tunes. Other charts reach a higher plane with fresh new treatments, such as "The Christmas Song" with it's catchy syncopations and jazz-rock background. Lee Loughnane's composition "Child's Prayer" features a children's choir (some of whom are Chicago members' offspring), harpsichord, and renaissance brass arrangement. "Feliz Navidad" is a pleasant mid-tempo latin-rock arrangement with accordian, vibes, and flutes. Sassy, funky brass and vocal parts enliven "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Trumpeter Lee Loughnane turns in a decent vocal on his blues-rock arrangement of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" The brass and vocal arrangements are especially beautiful on a respectful treatment of "Silent Night." The children's choir closes the disc with "One Little Candle." Compliments should also be given for the great cover and booklet art. The familiar Chicago logo shows up embedded in a wreath on a front door (with '25' as the house number), as brass ornaments on the Christmas tree, as a repetitive wallpaper pattern, and superimposed on the couch cushions. Excellent arrangements throughout the program (brass, vocal, and rhythm) make this CD a winner! Give it a try.

The Squirrel Nut Zippers, one of the champions of the swing revival, have released a holiday package called Christmas Caravan. The album is drenched in schmaltzy nostalgia of various sorts (there's not much swing here), and overall, it's a dud. Based on this and their previous release, Perennial Favorites, I don't care for the Squirrel Nut Zippers nearly as much as other new swing outfits such as the Cherry Poppin' Daddies or the Royal Crown Revue. They sound rough-edged, sloppy and just plain amateurish. Maybe it's a calculated part of their schtick, but I'm not amused or impressed. At least I'll give them credit for creating a mostly original program.

Finally, here's one that's not jazz at all, but if you have a sick sense of humor and love a good parody, you absolutely must go out and buy Bob Rivers and Twisted Radio's More Twisted Christmas. It's the zany sequel to Twisted Christmas and I Am Santa Claus, and it's right up there in the league with Weird Al Yankovic and Dr. Demento. You'll roll on the floor laughing to "It's the Most Fattening Time of the Year," "There's a Santa Who Looks a Lot Like Elvis" (to the tune of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas"), and "All You Need is Elves" (based on "All You Need is Love"). You'll lose bladder control on "Yellow Snow! Yellow Snow! Yellow Snow!" A couple excerpts:

Oh the weather outside was whitening
'Til the dog did something frightening
He's got no other place to go
Yellow snow! Yellow snow! Yellow snow! When he finally goes outside
He'll be frolicking 'round in the storm
He'll be marking our yard with pride
You can tell by the steam that it's warm!


And you'll crack up when you hear "Buttcracker Suite"—excerpts from the Nutcracker Suite (obviously) with lyrics that poo-poo thongs, wedgies, and the drooping beltlines of repairmen and truckers ("just say NO to crack!"). This one is just too much fun!

I wish you all a happy and jazzy holiday season! See you next year, starting with a "best of 1998" column.

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