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Ted Rosenthal Trio: Wonderland

Dan McClenaghan By

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Lots of "Christmas Albums" come out every year. Many of them are nice for an easy holiday listen, but let's face it, expectations are low in terms of endurance, and they can often be rightfully seen as quickly done, quick buck affairs. Then there are the ones that have endured: the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965); Elvis Presley's A Christmas Album (RCA, 1957); and Frank Sinatra's A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra (Capitol, 1957). And aside from the Guarldi Trio's set, the jazz genre—for whatever reason—hasn't contributed more than a handful of lastingly memorable Holiday discs, the kind that get saved and pulled out every year, year after year.

But pianist Ted Rosenthal has crafted a gorgeous, deeply swinging set, Wonderland, that has the makings of a classic, its success dependent on—aside from the easy swing and the beauty of the playing and the cool interaction of this marvelous trio—the reverence/irreverence dynamic inherent in jazz.

These tunes are familiar, more so than even the Great American Songbook tunes. Everyone has heard "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." In the jazz realm, pianist Bill Evans did a take on the tune on his Trio 64 (Verve Records, 1964) set, laying it down straight with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian. Rosenthal, with bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Tim Horner, give the tune a true jazz personality, making it sound as if it evolved on a straight line from Thelonious Monk's classic "Blue Monk."

"Winter Wonderland" opens the disc, swinging—that word keeps coming to mind. The trio sounds loose, relaxed. Rosenthal improvises on the melody with aplomb; the trio interacts like three old friends, and at the end Rosenthal splashes down a sparkling glissando as if to say, "How 'bout that?"

"Silent Night" wouldn't seem fit for a jazz treatment, but it is with this trio, who take the quiet night into the wee hours. Rosenthal adds flourishes to this most profoundly traditional of Christmas songs, and Ueda and Horner follow the lead, adding their own soulful accents. The trio takes the "Angels We Have Heard On High" and has them fluttering around the heavens in a frantically up-tempo mode, then slips into "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" giving the tune a kicked back, drink in hand vibe that leads into Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Reed Flutes," with Horner's popping percussion making the dance sound like a Holiday rhumba.

This is an excellent album. Not an excellent "Christmas album," an excellent album, period. It could become one of the Holiday classics that spin out every year, and gets slipped onto the player in times in between.

Track Listing: Winter Wonderland; Silent Night; Angels We Have Heard On High; The Christmas Song; Dance of the Reed Flutes; Greensleeves; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Sleigh Ride; Let It Snow; Snowscape.

Personnel: Ted Rosenthal: piano; Noriko Ueda: bass; Tim Horner: drums

Title: Wonderland | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Playscape Recordings

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