Recording Christmas music, or an entire album of holiday favorites, has become a rite of passage of sorts, having been done over the decades by artists as diverse as Snoop Dogg and The Andrews Sisters. What is often lost in these either saccharin or sarcastic forays is that such classic tunes are usually very well-written and, in the right hands, excellent fodder for interpretation. In the jazz world, there are a number of entries into the genre by the likes of Vince Guaraldi, Paul Bley, Jimmy Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. The three reviewed below represent some of the better recent attempts.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
has explored this format before, with 1989's Crescent City Christmas Card
. Only "Jingle Bells" makes a reappearance as do saxophonist Wessell Anderson, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and the inclusion of an operatic vocalist on a few tracks, Roberta Gumbel this time around (the band is a ten-piece). But the album's aesthetic draws most directly from the banjo and guitar of guest Don Vappie, giving the album its overt Creole flavor and ability to sound both modern and vintage simultaneously, an appealing mixture. The band is stymied, however, on the vocal tracks featuring Gumbel; her voice is overly dramatic, almost church-like (surely intentional), and lost is the fun and pliability of the purely instrumental tracks.
Trio Westpianist Eldad Zvulun, bassist Neal Miner and drummer/leader Tobias Gebbpresent the second volume of their takes on holiday repertoire. The obvious template for this album is Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas
in both instrumentation and perky swing. The most successful tracksand that means combining inventiveness with esteemare Gebb's overtly named arrangements like "O Tannenbaum Funk" or "We Three Kings Waltz." The others are taken more conservatively without much variation to the original versions. It is an odd choice for a relatively young band to devote two-thirds of their recorded output to Christmas music but the more Trio West does it, the less it comes across as a commercial ploy and becomes more of a sincere exploration.
Unsurprisingly, Carla Bley
's Carla's Christmas Carols
is the most ambitious of the three. Originally commissioned for the Essen Philharmonie, Bley and electric bassist Steve Swallow, plus the Partyka Brass Quintet, play a mix of traditional material ("O Tannenbaum," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Jingle Bells") and subversively titled Bley originals like "Hell's Bells" and "Jesus Maria." Bley plays quiet piano or celeste so most of the melodic content comes either from the bell-like plinking of Swallow or the brass quintet. There is often a beautiful stateliness to this album that is almost surprising, given Bley's penchant for sardonic humor. In fact, unlike some other artists for whom the Christmas record is a discographical detour, Carla's Christmas Carols
makes perfect sense within her overall oeuvre.
Tracks and Personnel Christmas Jazz Jam
Tracks: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; Mary Had A Baby; Jingle Bells; Blue Christmas; Go Tell It On The Mountain; O Christmas Tree; O Little Town Of Bethlehem; Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer; The Christmas Song; Good King Wenceslas; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Greensleeves.
Personnel: Wynton Marsalis: trumpet; Victor Goines: clarinet, tenor and soprano saxophone; Wessel Anderson: alto saxophone; Walter Blanding: tenor and soprano saxophones; Paul Nedzela: baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Wycliffe Gordon: trombone and tuba; Vincent Garden: trombone; Don Vappie: banjo, guitar and vocals; Dan Nimmer: piano; Reginald Veal: bass; Herlin Riley: drums; Roberta Gumbel: vocals. Plays Holiday Songs, Vol. 2
Tracks: We Three Kings; Tannenbaum Funk; Joy To The World; Jingle Bells; Noel; Silent Night Samba; Come All Ye Faithful; Tannenbaum Salsa; Joy To the World Samba; We Three Kings Waltz; Auld Lang Syne.
Personnel: Tobias Gebb: drums; Neal Miner: bass; Eldad Zvulun: piano. Carla's Christmas Carols
Tracks: O Tannenbaum; Away in a Manger; The Christmas Song; Ring Christmas Bells; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen part one; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen part two; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; Hell's Bells; Jesus Maria; Jingle Bells; O Holy Night; Joy to the World.
Personnel: Carla Bley: piano, celeste; Steve Swallow: bass, chimes; Partyka Brass Quintet: Tobias Weidinger: trumpet, flugelhorn (lead), glockenspiel; Axel Schlosser: trumpet, flugelhorn (soloist), chimes; Christine Chapman: horn; Adrian Mears: trombone; Ed Partyka: bass trombone, tuba.