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MCG Jazz does Christmas: New Holiday Releases From Ann Hampton Callaway and the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra

Dan Bilawsky By

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The inevitability of new Christmas albums often fills jazz journalists with dread. And while some may assume it's because we're a cynical breed with unreasonable standards and upturned noses, that couldn't be further from the truth (in most cases). The reason jazz journalists approach new Christmas albums with caution is simple: the number of slipshod, hastily-produced, derivative holiday albums produced in a given year always seems to significantly outweigh the number of quality Christmas projects that appear in the same time frame. But rest assured, every year also seems to offer a few winners in this category. In 2015, Pittsburgh's Manchester Craftsmen's Guild is responsible for pushing two of them through the pipeline to the public.

Ann Hampton Callaway
The Hope Of Christmas
MCG Jazz

Tired of the same dozen-or-so Christmas tunes delivered in every permutation possible? Then this one will likely bring a smile to your face. Vocalist extraordinaire Ann Hampton Callaway delivers a dozen fresh songs—only one has seen the light of day before—that capture the Christmas spirit without pandering to past recordings. None have "new classic" written on them, but all are expertly shaped and pleasing to behold.

The music was written or co-written by a variety of Grade A composers—Callaway, Emmy-winning composer Wesley Whatley, celebrated vocalist-composer Michael Feinstein, and several other top-notch tunesmiths—and the lyrics come from the pen of two-time Emmy-winner William Schermerhorn. Add nearly thirty stellar musicians to the mix—the New York Voices, Five Play, flautist Hubert Laws, saxophonist Gerald Albright, and trumpeter Claudio Roditi included—and you have a sure recipe for success.

The album kicks off with the heartwarming "On Union Street (A Christmas Street)." Callaway is backed by a septet, but the arrangement—courtesy of Marty Ashby and Mike Tomaro—makes the band sound much bigger. It's one of the most memorable tracks on the album, remaining fixed in the mind for this writer after a mere two listens. As the album plays on, it quickly becomes clear that there are no throw-away tracks. There are, however, some that rise above. "One Star" is one example, shining brightly with percussion backing, a silken trombone solo from Jay Ashby, and some notable soprano soloing from saxophonist Steve Wilson; the lightly-scored "I Saw A Sparrow," with Marty Ashby providing sensitive support on classical guitar and Laws' flute channeling the titular bird, is another.

As the playlist plays out, humor makes an appearance via the slow and sly "Santa Doesn't Like Me"; pianist Ted Rosenthal's trio, augmented by Janelle Reichman 's tenor saxophone and Jami Dauber's trumpet, delivers the pleasantly waltzing foundation beneath Callaway on "Christmas Isn't Christmas At All"; a well-wrought song verse introduction and trad jazz ideals help to change things up for "I Want To Play Santa"; and samba sounds serve to seduce on "What Good Is Being Cranky (When It's Christmas Time)." And there's even more to be found after that.

This project was eighteen months in the making, and its architects' attention to details and desire to get things just right come through in the music. If that isn't enough to sell people on this album, then the cause—with all proceeds going to "support the MCG jazz program and its mission to preserve, present, and promote jazz"—may do the trick.

Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra
Joyful Jazz
MCG Jazz

The other Christmas-themed album from this respected imprint is hot jazz for a cold winter's night. The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, with guest vocalist Freddy Cole upping the ante on three tracks, delivers thirteen killer numbers arranged by multi-reedist Mike Tomaro.

Tomaro co-directs this outfit with trumpeter Sean Jones, and it's abundantly clear that this pair runs a tight ship. Everything is just the way many big band fans want it: crisp, punchy, and grooving. The band hits hard right out of the gate with the charged swing of "Jingle Bells," a vehicle for Jones' acrobatic trumpet. From there the band moves every which way: Cole makes his first appearance on "Jingles, The Christmas Cat," a Latin-spiced "Carol Of The Bells" gives both Ashbys—Marty and Jay—a chance to step out front, bassist Paul Thompson gets a starring role on a Basie-esque swing trip through "Blue Christmas," and Cole returns for the balladic "A Cradle In Bethlehem."

Further on there's a finely-wrought "Do You Hear What I Hear?" underscored by Thomas Wendt's martial snare groove and brightened by a dash of statospheric lead trumpet, a brightly waltzing "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," and a desert journey through the richly-scored, Cole-enhanced "White Christmas (In The Sahara)." Then Tomaro delivers "Merry Christmas, John Coltrane"—something of a contrafact on "Giant Steps" with references to "Deck The Halls"—before dialing things down for a hip and understated reading of Claude Thornhill's "Snowfall."

The final trio of tracks includes two Brazilian-inflected numbers—a jaunt through Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" sans whip and faux horse neigh followed by a light bossa reading of "The Christmas Song" with vocals from the late Maureen Budway—and a rocking, groove-morphing finale in the form of "Joy To The World." Listeners may know most of these songs oh too well, but they all shine like new here thanks to Tomaro's arrangements and the expert execution of the musicians in the band. Joyful Jazz truly lives up to its name.

Tracks and Personnel

The Hope Of Christmas

Tracks: On Union Street (A Christmas Toast); The Hope Of Christmas; One Star; Discovery; I Believe; I Saw A Sparrow; Santa Doesn't Like Me; Christmas Isn't Christmas At All; I Want To Play Santa; What Good Is Being Cranky (When It's Christmas Time); My Gift Of Thanks; Fly With The Angels.

Personnel: Ann Hampton Callaway: vocals; Janelle Reichman: clarinet (1, 5, 6, 9), tenor saxophone (1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 11); Jami Dauber: flugelhorn (1, 5), trumpet (2, 7-9, 11); Marty Ashby: 12-string guitar (1), classical guitar (6, 10, 12), banjo (9); Alon Yavnai: piano (1, 3, 5, 10); James Genus: bass (1, 3, 5, 10); Mark Walker: drums (1, 3, 5, 10); Lucas Ashby: percussion (1, 3, 5, 10); Ted Rosenthal: piano (2, 8, 12); Martin Wind: bass (2, 8, 12); Tim Horner: drums (2, 8, 12); New York Voices—Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader, Peter Eldridge—vocals (2, 4); Jay Ashby: trombone (3, 10, 12); percussion (5), vocals (10); Mike Tomaro: tenor saxophone (4); James Moore: trumpet (4); Tomoko Ono: piano (4, 7, 9, 11); Noriko Ueda: bass (4, 6, 7, 9, 11); George Perilli: drums (4); Gerald Albright: alto saxophone (5); Hubert Lawks: flute (6); Sherrie Maricle: drums (7, 9, 11); Michael Davis: trombone (9, 11); Claudio Roditi: trumpet (10); Chuck Loeb: guitar (11); Alexander Cummings: alto saxophone (11);

Joyful Jazz

Track Listing: Jingle Bells; Jingles, the Christmas Cat; Carol of the Bells; A Cradle in Bethlehem; Do You Hear What I Hear?; It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year; White Christmas; Merry Christmas, John Coltrane; Snowfall; Sleigh Ride; The Christmas Song; Joy to the World.

Personnel: Sean Jones: co-conductor, co-artistic director, trumpet, flugelhorn; Mike Tomaro: co-conductor, co-artistic director, soprano, alto sax, flute, clarinet; Steve Hawk: trumpet, flugelhorn; James Moore: trumpet, flugelhorn; Kenny Rittenhouse: trumpet, flugelhorn; Curtis Johnson: alto sax, flute; Eric DeFade: tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Kenny Powell: tenor sax, clarinet; Brad Wagner: baritone sax (1-3, 9, 11, 12); James Germann: baritone sax, bass clarinet (4-8, 10, 13); Jeff Bush: trombone; Keith Jackson: trombone; Jay Ashby: trombone, percussion; Chris Carlson: bass trombone (1-3, 9, 11, 12); Glenn Wayland: bass trombone (4-8, 10, 13); Marty Ashby: classical and electric guitar; Alton Merrell: piano, keyboards; Paul Thompson: acoustic, electric bass; Thomas Wendt: drums; Lucas Ashby: percussion (3); Maureen Budway: vocal (12). Special guest—Freddy Cole: vocals (2, 5, 8).


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