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Christmas albums may be perceived as an outmodeled necessity commercial artists are expected to undergo, but French saxophonist Raphal Imbert sees vast potential in those all-too-familiar compositions.
"It seems to me very exciting to able to explore all the facets of this repertoire, for more than any other it exemplifies the incredible dialogue of cultures that has gone to make up the vast range of American music," he writes in the liner notes of Pieces For Christmas Peace. Co-led with accordionist Jean-Marc Fabiano and incorporating Argentinean and classical elements, this attitude makes the debut album by their Sixtine Group an adventure and a pleasure.
Imbert, a composer and instructor whose raw intensity blew away the crowd when I saw him at the 2005 Jazz In Marciac festival, guides the ensemble along the tricky path of arrangements mellow enough for decorating trees while taking enough chances to achieve novelty. The result is a melding of chamber and free jazz, where slightly edgy melodies anchor blowing exchanges of quiet passion.
Twelve of the fifteen songs are rearranged classics and many would make a handy reference for a world of misguided efforts. A modern Dixie romp of "Frosty The Snowman" makes adequate room for a funk opening, overhaul of the chorus and live-feeling jam session in a compact four minutes. "Amazing Grace" opens with a thudding acoustic bass solo by Simon Tailleu that gives little hint of its leanings, until Jean-Marc Fabiano's accordion and Marion Rampal's deep gospel vocals combine to meld what Imbert says is a composition with Celtic and Negro spiritual roots. Elvis and Ellington clash in "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," which with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is a fine chance to hear Imbert swing rapidly on alto. "Oh Hanukah" is a stunner, making reverential, wildly off-key klezmer accordion stabs and jungle rhythms a logical fit.
Imbert's three originals, all prominently featuring Fabiano, are low-key winners, even if their themes fit the holidays more than their sounds. The saxman shows his lyrical side on soprano during a lengthy improvised collaboration on "Timon En Berceuse," a C-scale modal lullaby for his son. The opening "Tango Triste," with a heavy Argentinean accent that slowly builds to a burn, is said to be a preview of their coming tribute to Piazzolla.
Missing the mark a few times seems inevitable. Infusing a low Afro-Cuban percussion rumble into "White Christmas" isn't cringeworthy, for instance, but does little to enhance the melody and only gets interesting when Imbert and Leloil leave the others behind during the last couple of minutes with a flow of complimentary phrases. The only other hindrance is being a little shy on the "wow" factor, an almost unavoidable necessity for a holiday album trying to arrange so many themes coherently.
Track Listing: Tango Triste; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town;
Winter Wonderland; Amazing Grace; I'll Be Home For Christmas; Frosty The
Snowman; Timon En Berceuse; White Christmas; Away In A Manger; Oh
Hanukah; Cette Veille De Christmas; Santa Claus Is Back In Town; Auld Lang
Personnel: RaphaŽl Imbert: saxophone, bass clarinet; Jean-Marc Fabiano: accordion; Christophe
Leloil: trumpet; Stephan Caracci: vibraphone; Simon Tailleu: bass; Cedrick Bec: drums;
Jean-Luc Difraya: vocals, percussion; Marion Rampal: vocals.