So why, you may ask, is Bowers reviewing a Christmas album in February? That's a perceptive question, the answer to which is really quite simple: big band albums as impressive as this one by the superb New England Jazz Ensemble should be listened to and applauded not only during the holiday season but every day of the year.
The first half of the enterprise is devoted to well-known if not wholly traditional Christmas fare, the second to selections from Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn's swing-centered adaptation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet (transcribed by David Berger), and music director Walt Gwardyak's ensemble is completely at ease in either mode. The opening theme, "We Wish You a Cookin' Christmas," is a potpourri of seasonal favorites (including "Good King Wenceslas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Carol of the Bells") arranged by trumpeter Jeff Holmes. Holmes also arranged "Jolly Ole St. Nick," which embodies fragments of "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells," and plays the leading trumpet role on Gwardyak's lush arrangement of Bob Wells / Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song."
"Rudolph" next reappears in a funky new wardrobe (thanks again to Gwardyak's glistening arrangement), followed by "Winter Wonderland" and "Frosty the Snowman," each rigorously designed by Holmes, and a medley of "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," deftly sewn together by John Mastroianni.
The Nutcracker selections, lovingly reassembled by Berger from an Ellington/Strayhorn score that had vanished without a trace (he did so by listening to the original Ellington recording), feature authentic ensemble passages interspersed with more up-to-date improvisations by various members of the orchestra. Tenor George Sovak is showcased on two of them ("Sugar Rum Cherry," "The Volga Vouty") and shares the spotlight with Mastroianni's clarinet on "Chinoiserie."
Others heard from include Gwardyak, trombonists Peter McEachern and Tim Atherton, tenor Larry Dvorin, trumpeters Phil Person and Steve Fitzko, baritone Lisa LaDone, alto Bob DePalma and bassist Steve Bulmer. Earlier, DePalma is featured on "St. Nick," Mastroianni (alto) and Person on "Rudolph," Mastroianni (soprano) and Dave Sporny (euphonium) on "Wonderland," Sporny (trombone) and McEachern on "Frosty."
As I said, albums like this one aren't just for Christmas anymore but are suitable for cookin' in anyone's kitchen (or den)no matter what the season, and for no special reason.
Track Listing: We Wish You a Cookin' Christmas; Jolly Ole St. Nick; The Christmas Song; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; Winter Wonderland; Frosty the Snowman; Christmas Time Is Here / Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Suite from The Nutcracker Ballet -- Overture / Toot Toot Tootie Toot / Peanut Brittle Brigade / Sugar Rum Cherry / Entr'acte / The Volga Vouty / Chinoiserie / Danse of the Floreadores / Arabesque Cookie (66:47).
Personnel: Walt Gwardyak, music director, piano; Jeff Holmes, trumpet, tambourine (16); Steve Fitzko, Phil Person, Ken Roe, trumpet; John Mastroianni, alto, soprano sax, flute, clarinet; Bob DePalma, alto sax, flute, clarinet; George Sovak, Larry Dvorin, tenor sax, flute, clarinet; Lisa LaDone, baritone sax, bass clarinet; Tim Atherton, Peter McEachern, trombone; Dave Sporny, trombone (1-4, 6, 7), euphonium (5); Dave Wampler, bass trombone; Steve Bulmer, bass; John Mele, drums, percussion.