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Holiday Music '99

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It's been a rather lean year in terms of new jazz holiday CDs this year. I confess that I haven't visited many CD stores yet this season, and most of what has arrived in the mail for me to review bears copyright dates of 1998 or earlier. So I'll cover what I have, then supplement the column with a few of my favorite holiday CDs of all time. First, the new ones:

Pianist Beegie Adair offers a Jazz Piano Christmas in an acoustic piano trio format. It's thoroughly competent although not terribly adventurous. It's just about what you'd expect from a piano trio: lightly swinging arrangements, walking acoustic bass, gently swinging drums (lots of brushes), and head-solo-head format. It's a good choice for dinner music. Twelve tunes comprise the program, all well-known staples with the exception of Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." (44:41; Green Hill GHD5148)

For more contemporary fare, check out guitarist Phil Sheeran's I'll Be Home for Christmas, on his own Passage label. Sheeran lends his rich, mellow tone (often doubled in octaves) to nine chestnuts (including the one where they roast on a open fire) and closes the program with an original, "Christmas Time is Sleeping," performed solo. The first half of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the title cut are performed solo, too, and Sheeran offers some interesting alternate chords and thoughtful embellishments. The opener, "Silver Bells," suffers from a clunky drum machine track, but the other programmed cut, "O Come O Come Emanuel," works a bit better. The rest of the program, with live bass and drums, proves more warm and satisfying to these ears. "What Child is This" is given a light samba treatment, with alto flute carrying the melody as well as soloing. It's one of the best renditions of this tune I've yet heard. "Silent Night" also features flute and light Latin percussion, to excellent effect. "The Christmas Song" finds Sheeran in a duet with labelmate Phil Markowitz, a more straight-ahead pianist. The largest contributor to the overall success of this CD is Sheeran's arrangements, which all present these often-heard classics in creative new settings. (38:58; Passage 60026)

Like so many offerings from Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, Big Band Christmas is just total excellence. Best of genre. The program starts off deceptively; the medley of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas/I'll Be Home for Christmas" begins with a verse as brass and flute/clarinet chorale, sans rhythm section. You wonder if this one's going to be a yawner. But then the rhythm section kicks in with a light latin beat, the band starts swinging, and you know you're in for a treat. Some of the tunes are presented in a more straight-forward nature, but McConnell's arrangements feature rich voicings and harmonic liberties and breathe new life into even the most often-heard chestnuts. But on others, McConnell takes delight in arranging completely new settings for the tunes. For example, "The Christmas Waltz" begins as a samba. Two of the most delightful tunes on the CD are those that haven't been often heard: "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" (Frank Loesser) and "A Christmas Love Song" (Johnny Mandel/Alan & Marilyn Bergman). My favorite tunes on a holiday CD are often those that haven't been played millions of times already. The usual stable full of brilliant soloists shine again on this CD: flugelhornist Guido Basso (three solos!), guitarist Ed Bickert, and almost all of the trumpeters and saxophonists. One note: this is the first Boss Brass recording in 27 years that doesn't include tenor saxophonist Rick Wilkins -he was on tour in Europe. Pat LaBarbara fills in nicely. (59:49; Concord CCD-4844)

The Citylights record label has released CD titled The Night Before Christmas. There's no artist or group name on the package, it's just marketed with a soft-focused cover photo of an attractive woman in a black evening dress in a prone position with a blurred fireplace in the background, which of course has nothing to do with the music contained herein. The dozen tunes are faceless smooth holiday instrumentals, played by the standard sax, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Most of the tunes are predictable for the smooth jazz genre, so much that "Here We Come a-Caroling" is elevated by its soaring string section. A couple other moments of interest (at least by the fact that they provide sonic variety) occur on "Angels We Have Heard on High" with it's Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) lead and "Winter Wonderland" with a four-piece horn section and Hammond B-3 organ, albeit with a repetitious drum loop. This CD would be a good choice for background music at a holiday wine-and-cheese party. (51:12; Citylights CTYL-3004)

It's no secret that Windham Hill, ever since its rise to popularity around 1984, is the master of the sampler. Over the last two years, they have come close to overkilling the concept with at least five holiday compilations (one a 2-CD set). Despite the fact that there's not much jazz on these (other than the first one), here's a thumbnail sketch of their offerings. A few years ago, the Windham Hill Jazz sub-label was almost extinct, but in the last couple years they've signed some major contemporary jazz talent, often from the shrinking GRP roster. So this year, they've released A Jazz Noel. Michael Franks has often written tunes about escaping to tropical island paradises, and in this vein he composed "Island Christmas," with his typically playful lyrics and snaking melodies. Spyro Gyra takes us to the Caribbean as well, with a steel drum-flavored "Feliz Navidad." Maysa Leek offers a sensitive vocal on Tom Scott's pop/R&B original "The Gift of Your Love." Chieli Minucci's one-man-band performance of his composition "Magic" is interesting, as is the following cut, "Joyous," on which Minucci is billed as Special EFX (although he is joined only by saxophonist David Mann). The compilation also includes some less-than-remarkable tunes from the Braxton Brothers, Earl Klugh and Stefan Dickerson, and Tom Grant. Credit is due to Hiroshima, Ricky Peterson, Doc Powell (dba "Double Scale"), and for contributing originals to the holiday repertoire. For the disc's closer, we switch genres entirely, with Etta James' blues-soaked rendition of "Please Come Home for Christmas." (53:56; Windham Hill Jazz 11460)

Windham Hill has had great success with its "Winter Solstice" series, which numbers at least six numbered volumes (last time I checked). 1998's addition to the series was A Winter Solstice Reunion. To quote the liner notes, "This collection is a reunion in that it brings together many of the artists who created and defined the original Windham Hill sound." The performers include label founder William Ackerman, George Winston, Alex DeGrassi, Liz Story, Barbara Higbie, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Nightnoise, Michael Manring, Paul McCandless, Tuck and Patti, and a few newer label artists. There's really no jazz here at all; the music is (as described) remeniscent of the 80s new age sound that Windham Hill defined. Many of the tunes are originals and, while nice, often don't suggest much association with what we would traditionally think of as holiday music. "I Saw Three Ships" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" are present, as well as two traditional Spanish songs, "Babe is Born/Enter the Stable Gently" and "La Nit De Nadal (Christmas Night)/El Noi De La Mare (Son of Mary)." The disc closes with Tuck and Patti's gorgeous, sentimental "Christmas Wish." (60:48; Windham Hill 11369)

The latest compilation in this series is the double-disc Winter Solstice On Ice. The liner notes describe this as the musical companion to the two hour world premiere A&E network special by the same name, in which world-class skaters perform to the music contained herein. Admittedly, I only watch figure skating every four years during the Winter Olympics, but I have a hard time envisioning much of this music as being suitable for this purpose, but what do I know? There's little jazz to be found on disc one; it's mostly folk-to-new age pieces, performed primarily on piano or guitar by artists such as George Winston, Jim Brickman, Liz Story, Michael O Domhnaill, and Michael Hedges. Some jazz, as well as some jazz-flavored R&B/pop, material surfaces on disc two. Jeffrey Osborne opens with "This Christmas," followed by the disc's highlight, the gorgeous, sentimental "Christmas Wish" by Tuck and Patti (from the previous year's A Winter Solstice Reunion). Phil Perry, Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, Hiroshima, and the Rippingtons also contribute some nice performances. The program returns to more new age, i.e. Jim Brickman, David Arkenstone, and Yanni, on the latter half of the disc. (54:03, 67:32; Windham Hill 11459)

Windham Hill acquired the Private Music label a few years back, and seems to have refocused the label to popular smooth R&B artists. This roster provides most of the material for the 1998 sampler The Colors of Christmas. There are two or three performances each by Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne, Philip Bailey, Roberta Flack, Sheena Easton, Melissa Manchester, and one by Oleta Adams. The tunes feature lushly orchestrated arrangements, most of which are from the pen of Robbie Buchanan. Buchanan also produced the disc and played piano, organ, synths, etc. Again, there's not much jazz here per se, it's mostly smooth R&B pop. The mix is heavier in favor of sacred and contemporary Christian tunes with fewer secular selections than many holiday CDs. But this is a high-quality, enjoyable program. These top-flight vocalists deliver impressive performances, and the arrangements do them justice. (47:20; Windham Hill 11368)

Here are a few of my favorites from years past, in no particular order: 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. (60:22; Columbia CK 68527)

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. (60:07; Warner Bros. 46793)

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. (50:52; Chicago CRD 3035)

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. (46:19; Heads Up HRCD-3024)

The modern-day Glenn Miller Orchestra has recorded two Christmas CDs, In the Christmas Mood (64:42; Laserlight 15418) and In the Christmas Mood II (44:16; Laserlight 12200) 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 efforts are 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 extrordinaire 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! (67:34; Blue Note 32127)

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. (33:51; MPS/Polygram 821859)

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. (34:57; Rounder 9060)

I wish you all a happy and jazzy holiday season! See you next year, starting with a "best of 1999" column.

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