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We Three Holiday Happenings: Season's Greetings From Benny Benack III and the Steven Feifke Big Band, Martina DaSilva and Dan Chmielinski, and Dave Stryker

Dan Bilawsky By

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It's Christmas all over again, so deck the halls, break out the eggnog and get ready for a proliferation of holiday albums. As with any and every year, there are plenty of new jazz releases that fall into this most festive category and saturated market. Some lean solely on popular favorites, sticking close to the templates while injecting some swing, soul and individuality into the music; others play with those recognizable and reliable classics like putty, stretching and reshaping them to their will; and a few even move off the map entirely, delivering original material in the spirit of the holiday season. Those artists under discussion here tend to utilize a mixture of all three tactics to excellent effect, and the magic in their music could make a believer out of the most cynical, Santa-denying souls.

Benny Benack III with the Steven Feifke Big Band
Season's Swingin' Greetings
Ring Road Recordings
2019

While the proper debut from the Steven Feifke Big Band has yet to surface, this holiday EP, with vocalist/trumpeter Benny Benack III fronting that stacked outfit, is a nice introduction to the group's dynamic. There's an attractive mixture of sincerity and humor to be found in the way this crew addresses the holidays, but don't let the lightheartedness fool you: The musicianship is serious, and seriously on point. This is a well-oiled machine and, across five very different numbers, Feifke, who mans the keys with supreme skill, makes his mark as an arranger and orchestrator by providing smart charts that expertly back Benack's charming vocals and horn work.

In terms of out-and-out Christmas classics there's "I'll Be Home For Christmas," bookended with a caffeinated "Poinciana" groove variant and featuring an electrified Feifke spot in the center, and "The Christmas Song," with Benack's heartfelt crooning and Sasha Berliner's vibraphone drawing attention. But it's not all well-worn fare for this gathering. A buoyant "My Wish List Is You," with Benack and guest vocalist Alita Moses doling out the romantic sentiments, and the comical "My Girlfriend Is An Elf," complete with an opening verse and some appealing trumpet work, speak to Benack's strong writing. And then there's the sole nod to Hanukkah—a swaggering take on "The Dreidel Song." Adopting a rat pack aesthetic promoting high times, Benack delivers the goods by bringing the dreidel game to the gamblers while the band swings, struts and modulates. It's all over far too quickly for Season's Swingin' Greetings, and that's a true mark of success. While satiating and satisfying with its songs, this one also leaves you wanting more.

Martina DaSilva, Dan Chmielinski & Friends.
A Very Chimytina Christmas
Outside In Music
2019

Vocalist Martina DaSilva, perhaps best known as the leader of retro-current purveyors The Ladybugs, teams up with bassist Dan Chmielinski, one of wunderkind pianist Joey Alexander's stabilizers of choice, for a set of smartly arranged, playfully virtuosic takes on holiday favorites. DaSilva delivers new wrinkles and acrobatics, working with her overdubbed self on the "Greensleeves" opener but mostly serving as the sole vocal presence, and Chmielinski, whether walking, comping, or dazzling with orchestral aplomb, fills the canvas like few bassists can. Their chemistry is exceptional and the fun they're so obviously having is contagious.

It only takes two to make things go right here, as made clear on performances like "The Christmas Song," a duo delight enlivened by Chmielinski's creative grounding/bounding and a little four-to-the-bar chording, and "Last Christmas," suggesting a different feel and flow from the Wham! model. But three feels just as fine, as made clear when a guest happens to enter the mix. Tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino fills out the harmony and adds some obbligato work and soloing to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch"; guitarist Gabe Schnider helps dress up the all-I-need-is-you idealism of "Diamonds and Pearls" and the João Gilberto-penned "Presente de Natal"; vibraphonist Joel Ross sets a tweaked "My Favorite Things" and a chimerical "When You Wish Upon A Star" aglow with his mallet work; and Ben Wolfe joins DaSilva and Chmielinski, his one-time mentee at Juilliard, on "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," making it a two-bass hit for the holidays. A veritable cornucopia of Christmas goodies, this duo-centric and trio-friendly date provides one of the freshest takes on this material in quite some time.

Dave Stryker
Eight Track Christmas
Strikezone Records
2019

While guitarist Dave Stryker completed his Eight Track trilogy earlier in 2019 by delivering a third volume of jazzed-up takes on '70s radio hits, he reconvened the band, with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, organist Jared Gold and drummer McClenty Hunter, to put together a complementary Christmas set. The results, recorded during the sweltering summer season, are a winter wonderland.

As with the other artists under discussion, Stryker takes a catholic approach to programming. There are direct nods to the era saluted on his previous Eight Track dates, like the soulful trip through Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," the sensitive glide over John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," and a melding of Young-Holt Unlimited's "Soulful Strut" with holiday classic "Frosty the Snowman." But they're artfully mixed in with some traditionals, the Elvis Presley-associated "Blue Christmas," Vince Guaraldi's pacifying "Christmas Time Is Here," and even Leroy Anderson's concert classic "Sleigh Ride." Stryker's guitar work, toned down a tad for the occasion, and Harris' vibes, as fluidly soulful as ever, often cover the foreground; Gold steps out with style, though he also excels at laying cushy beds for his band mates; and Hunter delivers the solid foundations with class. Steve Nelson, who occupied the vibraphone spot in the band on Eight Track II, also drops in for a one-off visit on the swinging "O Tannenbaum" closer. A cheery affair that goes down easy, Eight Track Christmas promotes a Yuletide cool.

Tracks and Personnel

Season's Swingin' Greetings

Tracks: My Girlfriend is an Elf; My Wish List is You; The Dreidel Song; The Christmas Song; I'll Be Home for Christmas.

Personnel: Steven Feifke: piano, arrangements, orchestrations; Benny Benack III: vocals, trumpet; Alita Moses: vocals (2); Andrew Gould: alto saxophone, flute; Alex Lore: alto saxophone, flute; Sam Dillon: tenor saxophone; Michael Stephenson; tenor saxophone; Andrew Gutauskas: bass clarinet; Max Darché: trumpet; John Lake: trumpet; Walter Cano: trumpet; Gabe Medd: trumpet; Rob Edwards: trombone; Javier Nero: trombone; Armando Vergara: trombone; Gina Benalcazar: bass trombone; Sasha Berliner: vibraphone; Steven Feifke: piano; Dan Chmielinski: bass; Joe Peri: drums

A Very Chimytina Christmas

Tracks: Greensleeves; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; The Christmas Song; Last Christmas; Diamonds And Pearls; You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch; Presente de Natal; My Favorite Things; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; When You Wish Upon A Star.

Personnel: Martina DaSilva: vocals; Dan "Chimy" Chmielinski: bass; Lucas Pino: tenor saxophone (2, 6); Gabe Schnider: guitar (5, 7); Joel Ross: vibraphone (8, 10); Ben Wolfe: bass (9).

Eight Track Christmas

Tracks: This Christmas; What Child Is This?; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Happy Xmas (War Is Over); Soulful Frosty; Christmas Time Is Here; Sleigh Ride; Blue Christmas; We Three Kings; O Tannenbaum.

Personnel: Dave Stryker: guitar; Stefon Harris: vibraphone; Jared Gold: organ; McClenty Hunter: drums, percussion; Steve Nelson: vibraphone (10).

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