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XMAS I: Bela Fleck, Spyro Gyra, The Gospel Christmas Project, Holly Cole, Nova Contemporary Jazz Orchestra

C. Michael Bailey By

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Not all holiday releases are for the pedestrian listener. Some albums require a commitment to stick it out long enough to find out if the music is inaccessible or simply an acquired taste on its way to becoming a holiday classic.

Here are five holiday recordings that are well off the beaten path...or not.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Jingle All The Way
Rounder Records

If "Jingle Bells" does not scare the life out of you, then none of selections on Jingle All The Way will. "Jingle Bells" and "What Child is This/Dyngyldai" may be looked at two ways: they are either bold art rendered in an uncompromising fashion or entirely misguided approaches to holiday music. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between. That said, banjoist/pianist Bela Fleck and his merry Flectones are creative wizards making havoc over the holiday landscape.

"Silent Night" begins anything but. Electric bassist Victor Wooten establishes a throbbing groove through which Fleck weaves some intricate banjo filigree. Reed player Jeff Coffin provides the melody in wonderfully quirky fashion. "Sleigh Ride" is a driving hybrid of Golden Earring, Earl Scruggs, and Sidney Bechet. Jed Clapett would play this by the cement pond. "The Christmas Song" and "Twelve Days of Christmas" get as close to a "standard" reading as anything on the recording. "Twelve Days" sounds like pianist Uri Caine at his mad scientist best, Fleck proving he is a similar musical polyglot.

Fleck's Bach is fresh as moonshine and comfortable as rum eggnog. His interpretation of "Ich Will Nur Zu Ehren Leben" from Christmas Oratorio is a continuation of the creative vein he started with Perpetual Motion (Sony, 2001). Flip-side to Bach is Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy," which is propelled single-handedly by Victor Wooten's modulating bass line. "Danse of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" has never sounded so clever and bright, Coffin's bass clarinet perfect in its reedy role. The surprise of the disc is Joni Mitchell's "The River." Fleck and company end the disc on an almost serious note with Mitchell's American hymn.

Visit Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on the Web.

Spyro Gyra
A Night Before Christmas
Heads Up Records

Think Spyro Gyra and one thinks of an intelligent and edgy eutectoid of jazz with every other genre, successfully arranged and performed. Think Spyro Gyra and holiday music and one might tremble at the thought of one more anemically rendered adult contemporary Christmas disc to further encourage neural tangles in the pleasure centers of our brains. A Night Before Christmas proves that nothing could be farther from the truth. The band endeavored to produce a mainstream offering, and succeeded splendidly.

The collection opens with an "O Tannenbaum," resting on Scott Ambush's bubbling bass. Jay Beckstein's alto saxophone purloins the melody in a winter warm dryness. "Winter Wonderland" pairs Beckstein's tenor saxophone with Julio Fernadez's precise guitar playing in a swinging arrangement of the Bernard/Smith classic. Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" is given lengthy introduction by pianist Tom Schuman before being picked up by Beckstien's alto. Bonny B's drums quietly thunder in support.

The disc has several vocals. The original "It Won't Feel Like Christmas" is capably sung by Christine Ebersol. The Manhattan Transfer's own Janis Siegel duets with Bonny B on a sexy "Baby Its Cold Outside." Bonny B goes on to croon "The Christmas Song," bringing it off with the best of them. Guest Dave Samuels adds the silver bells of his vibraphone to an excellent "Carol of the Bells," sharing a duet with Schuman's piano. Beckstein provides the reedy, high saxophone as a finishing touch. A Night Before Christmas will satisfy both the traditionalists and progressives in the jazz world and proves a strong holiday offering.

Visit Spyro Gyra on the Web.

The Gospel Christmas Project
The Gospel Christmas Project
CDC Records

The Gospel Christmas Project is a loud and proud collection of religiously-based carols spun out in 21st century gospel style. Greatly influenced by Mahalia Jackson, The Gospel Christmas Project updates that Queen's gospel approach and vision. The Gospel Christmas Project is far more Gospel Mass Choir than A Capella Quartet. The sound is immense and joyful.

Brainchild of musical polymath Andrew Craig, The Gospel Christmas Project was conceived as a vehicle for a host of young vocalists, including Alana Bridgewater, Andrew Craig, Kellylee Evans, Chris Lowe, Jackie Richardson, and Sharon Riley. Their presence studs this disc with fine, sometimes exceptional performances. The English carol "In The Bleak Midwinter" is transformed into a gospel-tinged ballad by Craig's deep and expansive piano playing and is ably sung by Chris Lowe. "What Child is This," another English carol, is given an almost new age treatment with Alana Bridgewater singing with great commitment and grace, making this a very listenable contemporary treatment.

Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" rarely translates into a contemporary groove but as arranged by Andrew Craig does exactly that. The group pulls off a powerful statement of the classic that should be in no way offensive to the more conservative listener. Mahalia Jackson's "Go Tell it On the Mountain" is tenderly introduced by Hammond B-3 specialist Richard Wilson and in duet by Jackie Richardson and Alana Bridgewater. In tribute to Jackson, all four singers chime in on "O Holy Night." Craig's arranging talent shows a deep loam of creativity in this song.

"Once In Royal David's City/Away in the Manager" seems an unlikely vehicle for a gospel band, but these two tried and true carols come about well. Chris Lowe's soulful voice paves the way for Alana Bridgewater in their duet that mixes the musical fragrances of frankincense and myrrh. The Gospel Christmas Project is an exciting and joyful celebration that is nevertheless quite specific in its appeal. This may not be Christmas music for everyone, but it's wonderful.

Visit The Gospel Christmas Project on the Web.

Holly Cole
Baby, It's Cold Outside
Koch Records

The only thing that is cold or rather cool about singer Holly Cole's Baby, It's Cold Outside is the aesthetic hipness of the music. Cole is anything but cool in her approach to an interesting holiday collection. Her coy, hip, breathy sexiness permeates every song on the disc, saving even the misguided performance of the title track (which sounds more Sound of Music than Dean Martin).

The disc is divided between traditional fare (Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas time is Here" and Mel Torme's "Christmas Song) and new considerations (the traditional "What is this Lovely Fragrance" and Merle Haggard's "If We Make it Through December"). Also divided are the formats used. Cole fronts everything from a single musician (bassist Dave Piltch on the superb sexy "Sleigh Ride") to the little big band ("'Zat You Santa Claus" and "Wildwood Carol").

Cole throughout is hiply detached on the lighter pieces like the almost free form "Sleigh Ride" and the lullaby "What About Me," and densely committed on others like "If We Make it Through December" and the pastoral "What is this Lovely Fragrance." "Sleigh Ride" is the must-hear on the recording, capturing Cole in the environs that made her famous as a popular/jazz vocalist. The only question that remains is what took Holly Cole so long to consider a holiday disc?

Visit Holly Cole on the Web.

Nova Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
An Odd Christmas
Nova Jazz

An Odd Christmas fully channels the spirit of the late drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich. That is, this collection of holiday favorites is arranged and performed with such artistic certainty and swagger as to make proper church women blush. The disc opens with "Watch Out!," an arrangement of "Santa Claus is coming to Town" by lead trumpeter John Ahern. Drummer Dave Perry gets a lengthy workout on the song, which swings so hard that critics will have to apply for workers' comp for the whiplash they will sustain. Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" receives a light jazz treatment comforted with electric piano and bass clarinet. Charmin Michelle's possesses a little girl's voice that enchants the piece. Gary Berg's harmonica give just the right bouquet to the song.

"Prayer (For The Common Man)" is loosely structured after Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." "Prayer" is slowly cheerful, setting an introverted holiday spirit. The horn charts shimmer. "Wassailing" gets an almost marching band treatment from alto saxophonist Bob Byer's arrangement. Guitarist John Hyvarinen is allowed a long circuitous solo that is delicate and rounded.

"An Odd Christmas," in two parts, is a swirling jazz transmogrification of several carols and is presented in odd meters. This is one nifty bit of big band arranging by Perry, that translates well both as holiday classics and jazz perfomances. Hyvarinen opens the second part with a plaintive "Christmas Song," going on perfom unison soli with the reeds in 11/4 time. No mean feat! "Winter Wonderland" has the return of Charmin Michelle with similar results heard on "Christmas Time is Here." "Little Drummer Boy" allows some intersting cymbal work by Kevin Dammen. The melody is taken a bit flat, creating a compelling tension that pearmeates this entire set of Christmas favorites.

Visit Nova Contemporary Jazz Orchestra on the Web.

Tracks and Personnel

Jingle All The Way

Tracks: Jingle Bells; Silent Night; Sleigh Ride; The Christmas Song; The Twelve Days of Christmas; J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio - Ich Will Nur Zu Ehren Leben; Christmas Time is Here; Linus and Lucy; Jingle Bells [Reprise]; The Hanukkah Waltz; Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies; What Child is This/Dyngyldai; O Come All Ye Faithful; Medley; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; River.

Personnel: Bela Fleck: banjo, electric banjo, piano; Jeff Coffin: flute, bass clarinet, saxophone; Future Man: synthesizer, percussion; Victor Wooten: electric bass; Sean Quirk, Alash Ensemble: vocals; Andy Statman; mandolin, clarinet; Edgar Meyer: double bass.

A Night Before Christmas

Tracks: O Tannenbaum; It Won't Feel Like Christmas; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time Is Here; Baby It's Cold Outside; Carol of the Bells; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; First Noel; Silent Night; This Christmas; Christmas Song.

Personnel: Jay Beckenstein: saxophones; Julio Fernandez: guitars; Tom Schuman: keyboards; Scott Ambush: bass; Bonny B: drums, vocals (5, 11); Christine Ebersole: vocal (2); Janis Siegel: vocal (5); Dave Samuels: vibraphone (3, 6).

Gospel Christmas Project

Tracks: O Come All Ye Faithful; The First Noel; In The Bleak Midwinter; It Came Upon The Midnight Clear; What Child Is This; Hallelujah Chorus; Hallelujah Postlude; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Go Tell It (live intro); Go Tell It On The Mountain; O Holy Night; Once In Royal David's City/Away In A Manger; organ interlude; Hark The Herald Angels Sing; Little Drummer Boy; Infant Lowly, Infant Holy; I Saw Three Ships.

Personnel: Jackie Richardson, Alana Bridgewater, Sharon Riley, Kellylee Evans, Chris Lowe, Andrew Craig: vocals; Faith Chorale: gospel choir; Andrew Craig: piano and synths; Richard Wilson: Hammond B3; Collin Barrett: bass guitar: Kofi Ackah: percussion; Mark McLean: drums; Peter Kadar: synths.

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Tracks: Christmas Time Is Here; Baby, It's Cold Outside; The Christmas Song; Santa Baby; I'll Be Home For Christmas; 'Zat You Santa Claus; If We Make It Through December; Christmas Is; Wildwood Carol; Sleigh Ride; What Is This Lovely Fragrance?; Never No; What About Me.

Personnel: Holly Cole: vocals, shaker; Ed Robertson: vocals; Johnn Johnson: alto flute; Johnny Johnson: soprano saxophone; Guido Basso: flugelhorn; Aaron Davis: piano, celeste; David Piltch, George Koller: bass; Mark Kelso: drums, snare drum; Brian Barlow: cymbals, percussion, chimes.

An Odd Christmas

Tracks: Watch Out; Christmas Time is Here; Prayer; Two Scandahoovian Carols; Wassalling; Winter's Muse An Odd Christmas (Part One); An Odd Christmas (Part Two); Winter Wonderland; Joyful Joyful; Drummer Boy.

Personnel: Bob Byers: alto saxophone, flute; Scott Johnson: alto saxophone, flute; Bill Burton: tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet; Paul Peterson: tenor saxophone, flute; Mike Kirkava: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Johs Ahern: lead trumpet; Tim Martin: trumpet; Todd Matheson: trumpet; Andrew Shellengarger: trumpet; Mike Larson: lead trombone; Craig Lawless: trombone; Larry McCabe: trombone; Ike Wagner: bass trombone; John Ayvarinen: guitar; Bruce Pedalty: keyboards; Pete Karstad: bass; Dave Perry: drums; Kevin Dammen: drums; Harry Jovet: percussion; Gary Berg: harmonica: Daryl Bourdreaux: percussion; Jaun Plascencia; piano.


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