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Postcards from Christmas 2001

Chris M. Slawecki By

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In a way, the path of holiday music that annually ends each year sort of parallels the trajectory of Jazz released throughout the rest of the year: The releases come in many forms and styles. Though someone will occasionally pen a contemporary classic, the general repertoire is commonly agreed-upon and standard. With a repertoire so traditional and established, the importance of skillful improvisation and inventive arrangements is paramount. The best releases are both annual and perennial. And including a touch of the Blues is always nice. So what better way to celebrate the festive spirit that with an overview of some of this year's new holiday music?

Various Artists: making seasons bright (GRP)

Interwoven with threads of pop, R&B and soft funk, making seasons bright snapshots a picture postcard from a Contemporary Jazz Christmas 2001. bright is produced by guitarist Lee Ritenour to feel as soft, comfortable and warm as your favorite holiday sweater, beginning with Rit's own welcoming version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Gerald Albright's version of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" has surely made Grover Washington Jr. look down from heaven and smile. As for the vocalists, heartthrob Will Downing pleads through "I'll Be Home For Christmas,"Diana Krall shakes and finger-pops thru "Jingle Bells," and Al Jarreau is choirboy pure in "Silent Night." Pianists also help make this session bright, including David Benoit ("The First Noel"), a Spanish dance through "Suite de "Nuestra Navidad" by Dave Grusin, and Joe Sample, who elegantly throws down "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" like a mischievous child trapped in black tie and tails. Other guitarists turn in solid performances, too: Jeff Golub's "Here Comes Santa Claus" blends together just the right mixture of tart and sweet; Joyce Cooling's last name drops the perfect hint for her soft version of "The Christmas Song," her guitar and whispered vocals in duet with Ritenour; and Marc Antoine's acoustic "What Child Is This" and its lush, cascading accompaniment is absolutely the most gorgeous present under this tree.

Kirk Whalum: The Christmas Message (Warner Bros.)

Whalum preaches the Gospel of the baby Jesus on his first complete set of Christmas music and makes sure that you notice: In the accompanying inner booklet, he writes: "Dear Listener, Yes, there is an actual message to Christmas! Here's a hint: it's the difference between "X-Mas" and "Christ-mas." His message is straight from the church, and his music wears well the soft, warm and flowing mantle of soulful " in the deepest sense of the word" saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. "Old school" selections include the spiritualized "Rise Up Shepherd Boy and Follow," where Whalum arises and blows his horn with the power of Gabriel, and the set-ending "Blott En Dag" a time-honored Swedish hymn sung in the original language by Cyndee Peters. Folks seeking something a little more "new school" will prefer the harmonized, tag-team vocal beat-boxin' by Kevin and Kyle Whalum in a thumpin' update retitled "The Little (Ghetto) Drummer Boy," or the Caribbean-spiced "Do You Hear What I Hear." Guitarist Phil Keaggy, a legend in both contemporary Christian and pop circles (thanked by Whalum in the credits as "master guitarist for the Cross"), soothes the title track with his electric and nylon acoustic strings, a new Whalum original for this set. John Stoddart just may have composed that elusive "new Christmas classic": "Love From A Star," which manages to be both a contemporary soul ballad and a Christmas song and features Stoddart's own fetching lead vocal.

Various Artists: Blue Xmas: Christmas Blues Instrumentals (Evidence)

It's almost odd how familiar this new collection of holiday instrumentals sounds. You may have heard these songs plenty of times, and heard these Blues styles plenty of times, but you've probably not heard these songs played in these styles too often. By definition, Blue Xmas generally lacks the sexual menace and sorcery of more dangerous Blues; rather, it's a comfortable gathering of guitarists, pianists and harmonica players (from nearly half a dozen different labels) 'round the holiday music punchbowl, teaming up and then trading partners. Phil Upchurch leads the "house band," contributes several arrangements, and plays bass in a supportive style that's the very definition of the word "solid."

Harmonica player Kim Wilson is as ubiquitous as mistletoe, moanin' the Blues on "Blue Christmas" (a natural in this setting), in the opening "White Christmas" and more. Not to be outdone, Charlie Musselwhite echoes the soul of a small town storefront church in "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and Sugar Blue whips "Deck The Halls" into a driving roadhouse Blues with his frenzied howls. Chicago guitar greats Otis Rush and Son Seals pair off to cut each other on "We Wish You A Merry Christmas," while Walter Trout stamps for life his Stevie Ray Vaughan fan club membership card with his scorching, ascending solos in "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." Pianist Barry Goldberg stomps down the floorboards with his window rattling, barrelhouse boogie-woogie version of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and saxophonist Ernie Watts blasts out a bouncy "Sleigh Ride" in fine honky-tonk style. Guitarist Denny Freeman, perhaps as his reward for his rocksteady work in the house band, gets to play Wes Montgomery playing the Blues in his featherbed soft reading of "The Christmas Song." Something old, something new, something borrowed AND something Blue.

Various Artists: Playboy Latin Jazz Christmas: A Not So Silent Night (Playboy Jazz / Concord)

Okay, so maybe the first two things that pop into your head when you hear the word "Christmas" will NEVER be "Latin Jazz" and "Playboy" magazine.

It almost figures that Hugh Hefner's Playboy Jazz label would try something to spice up the winter holidays. To his credit, Hefner's liner notes are reasonably informative and articulate; to the music's credit, these Latin arrangements of holiday standards, annotated by style, never sound or feel like an exercise, and such contributors as Poncho Sanchez, Arturo Sandoval and the Caribbean Jazz Project shine brightly. Sandoval's bright, colorful trumpet lines illuminate the opening "Jingle Bells" (big band Songo), dancing and twinkling like candlelight reflected in tree tinsel.

The Caribbean Jazz Project (Dave Samuels, vibes; Dave Valentine, flute; and Steve Khan, guitar) are the brightest stars in this Latin constellation, though their music almost sounds too sparklingly sunny and warm to be adorned in tunes associated with the dead of winter "Sleigh Ride" (Mambo), for example, almost sounds more like a jet ski cruise across soft blue waters, and "Angels We Have Heard on High" (Songo) ends with a flute solo atop a percussion fiesta that'll ttle those holiday chimes. The best arrangement on this set enlivens "What Child Is This" (Afro Cuban 6/8), as the horn section blares the hook to "The Carole of the Bells" in counterpoint to the main "Child" melody. Skip the "Santa Baby" (Cha Cha) by Sheila E., a campy vamp miserably beneath her talent in which she apparently attempts to break the world "boop boop be doo" record; fast-forward instead to the set ending "Feliz Navidad" (Mambo) where she appears alongside her father Pete Escovedo, featured on timbales and vocals.

Nancy Wilson: A Nancy Wilson Christmas (Manhattan Craftsmen's Guild / Telarc)

For more than three decades, Nancy Wilson has worked with the Manchester Craftsman's Guild, a non-profit, multi-discipline learning and arts center serving communities in and around Pittsburgh. She recorded A Nancy Wilson Christmas, her first album consisting entirely of holiday music, in the MCG studios, and is donating all of its proceeds to the MCG Jazz program. It's a noble venture consistent with the class and grace with which Wilson has conducted her entire career

Christmas is representative of her musical style, too. She still sounds a traditional Jazz voice respectful to and serious about the music, yet warm and playful; challenging yet comfortable, and clear as a churchbell on a crisp, sunlight Christmas morning" and even into her sixth decade of performing, Wilson's personalized blend of vocal styles remains unlike every other vocalist. She's probably closer to Ella than to anyone else, as in this up-tempo ascension through "O Christmas Tree," or the way that her voice sails off and then disappears on the last syllable of the phrase "You took our sins a-waaayyy" in this solemn yet swingin' reading of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," but only sort of. She romps like a deer through Vince Guaraldi's timeless "Christmas Time is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and grinds a long, slow and tasteful Blues in "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?." Wilson seems to glide through this set like a gracious, elegant host, refreshing your drink, making certain that you're comfortable, and introducing you to her many friends working the room: Claudio Roditi ice-skating on trumpet in "O Christmas Tree," Darmon Meader burning the midnight saxophone blues in "New Year's Eve," plus James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Herbie Mann, Jon Faddis (who melts "Let It Snow"” with a stratospheric trumpet solo), the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Band, the New York Voices and others.

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