While I can take credit for writing this month's column, credit for the idea itself must be given elsewhere. My wife recently wandered by the computer while I was hard at work on some review or other and asked, "Why don't you write a column for December on big-band music for Christmas?" Which is exactly what I shall do.
Of the 700 discs in my big-band collection, only eight are devoted exclusively to holiday themes, and half of those are by the same ensembles (two apiece)the Tom Kubis Big Band and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Great Britain. So let's start there.
The Kubis discs, both on Cexton Records, are It's Not Just for Christmas Anymore! (CR 21333, 1995) and You Just Can't Have Enough Christmas! (CR 21444, 1997). Each one embodies the usual solid, swinging Kubis arrangements and charming vocals by Jack Sheldon and Carol Jolin (Mrs. Kubis). Sidemen, among the cream of Southern California's abundant crop, include trumpeters George Graham, Wayne Bergeron, Stan Martin, Jeff Bunnell, Darrel Gardner, Christian Beck and Gary Halopoff; saxophonists Sal Lozano, Pete Christlieb, Bill Liston, Rusty Higgins, Jay Mason, Mark Whitman, Jeff Driskell and Brian Williams; trombonists Andy Martin, Alex Iles, Charlie Morillas, Chuck Hughes, John Leys, Bob McChesney and Rich Bullock; pianist Jack Reidling; guitarist Mike Higgins; bassist Trey Henry; drummer Ray Brinker, and percussionist Kurt Rasmussen.
On the earlier disc, which like its successor commingles traditional carols with more recent seasonal fare, Sheldon is at his tongue-in-cheek best on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (with help from Pat McCormick and Jack Riley) and the all-too-accurate "Jazz Musician's Christmas," while Jolin's breathy contralto brightens "Still, Still, Still" and a Jazzy "Winter Wonderland." Sheldon is back on the more recent disc with waggish parodies of "Frosty the Snowman" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (...my agent gave to me"), while Jolin is showcased on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Instrumentally, these are dynamic, straight-ahead takes on familiar holiday tunes with topnotch ensemble work and impressive solos by Christlieb, Graham, Higgins, Bergeron, Andy and Stan Martin, and Kubis himself (on tenor or soprano sax), among others. Needless to say (but we'll say it anyway), both discs are warmly recommended, and are as memorable in July as they are in December.
I must preface my overview of the two seasonal offerings by Britain's National Youth Jazz Orchestra by confessing that nothing I've ever heard by this singularly accomplished young ensemble has earned less than my wholehearted admiration and endorsement. Further than that, these may well be, on balance, the finest "seasonal" big-band discs ever recorded, no matter what the source (Big Band Christmas, 1989, NYJ 009; A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!, 1992-93, NYJ 014). Both, I believe, are still in print and available from NYJO Records, 11 Victor Road, Harrow, Middlesex HA2 6PT, United Kingdom.
The charts, most written especially for NYJO by some of England's finest Jazz composers, are consistently outstanding, at times spectacular, while the band itself under its first and only director, Bill Ashton, continues to astonish me with its remarkable poise and musicianship (average age is around 19 years with no one allowed to continue beyond 25). NYJO has its own vocalists, and again, the quality over the years has been exceptional, with Lorraine Craig ("At Christmas") and Ann Gilbertson ("Christmas Blue") doing the honors on Big Band Christmas and Jacqui Hicks ("My Gift to You," "It's Christmas") showcased on the more recent album. Drummer Chris Dagley, who anchored the rhythm section for almost a decade and now performs with the BBC Big Band, among others, makes sure that neither disc is ever transmuted into anything less than electrifying. Many NYJO grads have gone on to bigger if not better things, and on these discs we can hear, besides Dagley, pianist Simon Carter; trumpeters Mark Cumberland, Gerard Presencer, Andy Cuss and Olly Preece; saxophonists Adrian Revell, Alison Brown, Howard McGill, Lisa Grahame, James Hunt, Scott Garland and Ben Castle; and trombonists Mark Nightingale and Adrian Hallowell, among others.
Clever titles abound on both discs, such as Oliver Ledbury's "Wenceslas Squared," Mark Bassey's "The Thirst, No Ale," Alec Gould's "Take Five Kings," Alan Hare's "Bethlehem Lift Off," Mick Sheppard's "Angels from the Second Story," Nightingale's "Childstones" and Paul Hart's "The Twelve Bars of Christmas," but the titles are only window-dressing; as with any Christmas gift, it's what's inside the package that matters most. Each of these discs shines like the star atop one's tree. If you can find 'em, grab 'em. You won't be sorry.
Big Band Christmas, by Rob McConnell's tastefully swinging Boss Brass, is the most recent "seasonal" disc to cross our desk (Concord Jazz 4844, 1998). As always, it's hard to find fault with anything the Brass sets out to accomplish, as the outcome is never less than persuasive. In this case, Rob "plays it straight" for the most part on the traditional carols, although he does "take some liberties harmonically," which he hopes is okay with the listener. Can't speak for everyone, but it's okay with me. Only five carols are on the menu " "Away in a Manger" and two medleys, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear/Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem/Joy to the World." The balance consists of more contemporary fare including "The Christmas Song," "My Favorite Things," "The Christmas Waltz," "A Christmas Love Song," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and three more medleys " "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas/I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Silver Bells/In the Bleak Mid-Winter" and "White Christmas/Let It Snow/Winter Wonderland."
The ensemble is, as usual, beyond reproach, as are the soloists who include flugelmeister Guido Basso; trumpeters Kevin Turcotte, Steve McDade and Dave Dunlop; reedmen Pat LaBarbera (sitting in for Rick Wilkins, who was in Europe and missed his first recording session with the Brass in 27 years), Moe Koffman, John Johnson and Alex Dean; trombonist Alastair Kay; guitarist Ed Bickert; pianist David Restivo, and McConnell himself whose valve trombone adorns "The Christmas Song." This one's easier to find, and just as easy to recommend.
From 1995 comes A Message from Santa Klaus (Minor Music 801053), featuring drummer Klaus Weiss with Germany's NDR (North German Radio) Big Band. This is another well-cooked holiday banquet with muscular charts by Weiss, Bill Holman, Rob Pronk, Jorg Keller and Thomas Stabenow and guest appearances by saxophonists Carolyn Breuer and Walter Gauschel, bassist Stabenow, trumpeter Till Bronner, pianist Roberto di Gioia and vocalist Annette Lowman ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Silent Night," "The Christmas Song," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"). For variety, there's a down-home blues ("Message from Santa Klaus"), a Basie-style burner ("Sleigh Ride") and even a "Merry Christmas Polka." Breuer, whom I'd not heard before, is a standout on soprano ("Silent Night," "I Saw Three Ships") or alto ("The Twelve Days of Christmas"), as is di Gioia on "Merry Christmas Polka." The NDR band lets it all hang out in support of Lutz Bochner's romping tenor on "Winter Wonderland," which closes another splendid seasonal session.
Kansas City is fortunate to house within its precincts several first-rate Jazz ensembles including the Trilogy Big Band, whose second release also from 1995 is The Trilogy Big Band Does Christmas (Sea Breeze 2071). There are no vocals on this one, simply great arrangements of such seasonal favorites as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "The Christmas Song," "Winter Wonderland" (samba) and others. The soloists, all of whom are consistently resourceful, include saxophonists Bill Crain and Doug Talley, trumpeters Al Pearson and Jay Sollenberger, trombonist Jim Cann, pianist/organist Wayne Hawkins, bassist Tim Brewer and drummer Tom Morgan. Trilogy opens with a blistering rendition of "What Child Is This" (Greensleeves) and never slackens the pace throughout a colorful program that ends with Brewer's feature, "O Tannenbaum" (O Christmas Tree). The radiant charts are by Steve Herold, Dave Aaberg, Mike Crotty, Chuck Tumlinson and Tom Morgan. Trilogy is easily the equal of any regional big band in the country, if not the world, and warrants an unqualified thumbs-up for this effort.
Completing our catalog of seasonal big-band releases is Holiday Jazz Blizzard by the surprisingly well-endowed North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (VAC 703), which was recorded in June 1997. Although not quite as sharply recorded as some of the other discs herein surveyed, it embodies more than its share of exuberance and charm thanks to some off-the-beaten-path selections (Shorty Rogers' "Snowball," excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite, Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born," Victor Herbert's "March of the Toy Soldiers") and admirable charts by John LaBarbera, Ralph Carmichael, Gregg Gelb, Stan Kenton and others. The clear-voiced band singer is Kathy Gelb ("Let It Snow," "A Child Is Born," "The Christmas Song," a sultry "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"). Another well-conceived and executed big-band Christmas album.
If you have the "holiday season blues," any of these eight superb albums should supplant them with a rainbow before you can say "ho, ho, ho." Until next year...