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XMAS IV: Let it Snow, Let it Snow...Chet Baker, Bela Fleck, Karen Wilhelm, The Boilermaker Jazz Band

C. Michael Bailey By

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...Let it snow! Stuck at home this Christmas? Here are four holiday collections to consider spinning with a fire in the fireplace and eggnog in the mug.

Chet Baker
Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album
Dinemec Jazz

This music, recorded in 1987 a few months before trumpeter Chet Baker's death, has been in and out of release since first hitting the streets. Its newest incarnation is as a music download. It is worth a listen if, for no other reason, than Baker possessed a tone perfectly sculpted for playing holiday classics. His martini-dry trumpet voice with softened edges easily slip in and out of these familiar melodies without losing any of the holiday cheer to straight improvisation. This is where Baker's relative lack of technique really pays off for him.

Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album was originally released under Baker's and alto saxophonist Christoper Mason's names. By all research, Mason left precious few footprints in the jazz world save for this recording. Mason possesses a bluesy, full-throated, bar-walking tone that is more Louis Jordan than Johnny Hodges. He provides an earthiness and organicity to this collection that contrasts well with Baker's cool-school approach. The opening "Silent Night" offers a microcosm of this by adding pianist Mike Pellera's sensitive gospel and blues sensibility. Pellera's informed blues playing gives this old German Carol an American humidity with interesting results.

In addition to the standard carols one might expect there is a smattering of spirituals. Their inclusion here pushes the envelope on what is and is not part of the holiday music canon—which is a good thing, because it keeps the sub-genre fresh. Particularly fine here is "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Mason is at his reedy blusiest-booziest introducing the piece. Baker, who does not have a blues bone in his body, provides the gentle foil to the spiritual, giving the performance a slightly off-kilter character. The same effects are wrought from "Amazing Grace" (given an up-tempo treatment) and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Chet Baker plays consistently like...Chet Baker. The trumpeter could always be counted on to provide an acceptable, sometimes even inspiring, performance regardless of the circumstances. This is one of the attributes that makes Baker's trumpet playing so listenable. Baker is a difficult artistic figure to come to terms with because he only allows terms that are his own.

Visit Chet Baker on the Web.

Bela Fleck
Perpetual Motion
Sony Records

Perpetual Motion has no more business being included in this holiday music series than "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has being included on Chet Baker's Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album. This is a collection of Baroque and early Romantic pieces composed by a who's who of those periods rendered with the aid of bluegrass instrumentation. The only way that this works is because of the sheer instrumental genius of Bela Fleck and those he asked to join him on this unique recording.

Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Paganini, they are all here, their spirits infusing the recordings. Fleck fears no composer. His most affective performances are on the tonally challenging pieces by Debussy ("Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum" from "The Children's Corner") and Chopin's Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor, which sounds downright Hebraic in the hands of Fleck, guitarist Bryan Sutton, and violinist Joshua Bell. Fleck's Beethoven is a revelation. The Adagio Sostenuto from the "Moonlight Sonata" is rustically tender. Beethoven's variations on "God Save the King" take on deeper and more nationalistic meanings when perfomed on banjo. It might have been a German elaborating a British theme, but the piece is all-American in delivery.

Perfection, or near perfection, must linger somewhere in our experience. Some things we encounter in art are simply so much better than the rest that simply saying that they are "good," "superb," or some other meaningless superlative is not adequate. Perpetual Motion is a perfect recording in the most perfect definition of the word. It offers fresh perspective to musically familar territory in a manner that introduces, teaches, and celebrates both musical genius long dead and virtuosic genius blazingly alive.

Visit Bela Fleck on the Web.

Karen Wilhelm
I Still Believe
Self Produced

I Still Believe arrived too late for last year's reviews and emerges here as a very storng addition to the standard jazz vocals holiday offering. Vocalist Karen Wilhelm, who hails from the City of Brotherly Love, belts this holiday collection with the best of them. Wilhelm's voice is durable and consistent with a dense midrange capable of holding up both the high and low ends. Her band is also reliable as are her arranngemments.

Wilhelm sings fron the center of the Christmas canon with slightly more secular carols than religious ones. Of note are "Let it Snow," "The Christmas Song," and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." The original "I Still Believe in Santa Claus" is cheerful and sprite. "Its The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" gives Andy Williams a run for his Holiday money.

I Still Believe is the most mainstream holiday collection reviewed this year. There is nothing to dislike about this recording.

Visit Karen Wilhelm on the Web.

The Boilermaker Jazz Band
Swingin' The Season
Self Produced

Jazz performance is such a potent means of conveying any number of emotions from joy and sadness to longing and nostalgia. The Boilermaker Jazz Band's Swingin' The Season very much taps into the nostalgia of Christmas of years past, in particular 1920s Chicago, where the liqour was illegal and the music was hotter than a two-dollar pistol. "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" begins like a speakeasy door opening into a warm, smoky interior where guitarist Eddie Condon and his gang are playing and clarinetist Benny Goodman decides to show up (with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke in tow) and duet with the local snake charmer, in this case Leannie Luvv.

Clarinetist Paul Cosentino and drummer Rick Strong introduce an absolutely jamming "We Three Kings." Pianist Mark Kotishion plays some tops barrelhouse piano. David Gavison's banjo lends all necessary authenticity to the Chicago Christmas, circa 1926. If a period piece was what the Boilermakers were trying to affect, they succeeded splendidly. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "White Christmas," and "Jingle Bells" smack of Dick Hyman vintage piano rags.

This is the most spirited and authentic holiday release this year. It is a sure thing for those looking for the Christmas canon treated with respect, but also in an historically accurate manner. Swingin' The Season is a Jazz Age Love Letter to the season...all juniper and cream.

Visit Boilermaker Jazz Band on the Web.

Tracks and Personnel

Silent Nights: A Jazz Christmas Album

Tracks: Silent Night (Original - Silent Night, Holy Night); The First Noel (Traditional English Carol); We Three Kings; Hark, The Herald Angels Sing; Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen; Amazing Grace; Come All Ye Faithfull (Original - Adeste Fideles); Joy To The World; Amen; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; Silent Night.

Personnel: Chet Baker: trumpet; Christopher Mason: alto saxophone; Mike Pellera: piano; Jim Singleton; Johnny Vidcovitch: drums.

Perpetual Motion

Tracks: Keyboard Sonata in C Major K. 159 - (Scarlatti); Two-Part Invention No. 13 - (Bach); Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum - (Debussy, from "Children's Corner"); Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor - (Chopin); Prelude From Partita No. 3 For Solo Violin - (Bach); Etude in C-Sharp Minor - (Chopin); Mazurka in F-Sharp Minor - (Chopin); Three-Part Invention No. 10 - (Bach); Melody in E-Flat - (Tchaikovsky;) Presto in G Minor I After Bach - (Brahms); Prelude From Suite For Unaccompanied Cello No. 1 - (Bach); Three-Part Invention No. 15 - (Bach); Moto Perpetuo - (Paganini); Keyboard Sonata in D Minor K. 213 - (Scarlatti); Two-Part Invention No. 6 - (Bach); Adagio Sostenuto From Moonlight Sonata - (Beethoven) Two-Part Invention No. 11 - (Bach); Seven Variations on "God Save the King" - (Beethoven); Three-Part Invention No. 7 - (Bach); Moto Perpetuo - (Paganini, bluegrass version).

Personnel: Bela Fleck: banjo; Bryan Sutton: steel string guitar; Joshua Bell: violin; Gary Hoffman: cello; Edgar Meyer: bass, piano; John Williams: guitar; Chris Thile: mandolin; Evelyn Glennie: marimba.

I Still Believe

Tracks: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!; It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year/Winter Wonderland; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; The Christmas Song; I Still Believe In Santa Claus; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; White Christmas; A Charlie Brown Christmas (O'Tannenbaum); Silent Night; We Need A Little Christmas; I'll Be Home For Christmas; What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?.

Personnel: Karen Wilhelm: vocals; David Kenney: piano and keyboards; Michael S. Etkins: acoustic and electric bass; Robert Fant: drums; Larry McKenna: tenor saxophone; Kaj Hansen: flute; piccolo, Chuck Gottesman: trumpet; Bob Carl: flugelhorn and trombone; Mark Cristofaro: percussion.

Swingin' The Season

Tracks: I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm; Let It Snow; We Three Kings; Winter Wonderland; Blue Christmas; Feliz Navidad; Home for the Holidays; Jingle Bells; Santa Baby; Boogie Woogie Santa Claus; I'll Be Home For Christmas; Holly Jolly Christmas; Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah; What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; White Christmas.

Personnel: Paul Cosentino: clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, vocals; David Gavison: Banjo, vocals; Gerry Gagon: trombone, background vocals; Mark Kotishion: piano, vocals; Leannie Luvv: vocals; Ernest McCarty: bass; Rick Strong: drums, congas, vocals.


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