DownBeat’s Yuletide Music Roundup
In the history of recorded Christmas music, there have been blizzards of album releases swept by the strong winds of “Jazz, Blues & Beyond.” Maybe 100 recordings, among the many thousands, retain a crystalline freshness each and every holiday season. At or near the top of the list are Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful Christmas, James Brown’s Funky Christmas and Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. Recent wonderments have been scarce but include Geri Allen’s 2011 album A Child Is Born (Motéma) and Carla Bley’s Carla’s Christmas Carols (ECM) from 2009. Christmas Eve this year finds a new bunch of albums under the decorated tree.
BY FRANK-JOHN HADLEY
The David Diggs-produced album Shades Of Christmas includes tracks from a trio led by Russell Ferrante (best known as the keyboardist for Yellowjackets), trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, trombonist Bob McChesney and other Californians who gathered around the Christmas tree for warm and engaging jazz or lite-jazz treatments of tunes like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.” Saxophonist Bob Mintzer, who is also in Yellowjackets, sits in with the Russell Ferrante Trio for the opening track, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
Amazon | iTunes
BY FRANK-JOHN HADLEY
Out back in Santa’s village, there’s a blues speakeasy where the jukebox plays tracks from the offbeat compilation Santa’s Got Mojo 2. Provocative singer Shakura S’Aida wants her ashes hauled (“Be My Santa Claus”), and Harrison Kennedy waxes emotional about a child awaiting Santa (“Hot Cider Cinnamon”). One-man-band Paul Oscher makes no bones about the painful loneliness some people feel at Christmastime (“Christmas Blues”). On the nine other tracks, artists such as Fathead, Julian Fauth, Fruteland Jackson and Morgan Davis get their say, too. The bonus track is Mel Brown & The Homewreckers’ rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby.”
Amazon | iTunes
BY HILARY BROWN
Gary U.S. Bonds, the dance fever-inducing r&b singer who moved baby boomers back in 1961 with his hit “Quarter To Three,” has given holiday music a good ol’ fashioned rock ’n’ roll-shakeup in 2012. Even at 73, Bonds still wields his signature toe-tapping brand of gravelly, soul-soaked joie de vivre, and his new disc projects the same aura of vintage cool as his celebrated chart-topper. The album’s lively renditions of festive Christmas classics intermingle with one-off compositions by guitarist Paul Zunno for a retro-reminiscent holiday program. Bonds inserts a few crowd-pleasing, straight-shooting Christmas tunes into the mix: a girl group-backed version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and a street-corner doo-wop-inspired arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” Bonds also waxes Crescent City-style on “It’s Christmas In Nu Awlins,” as Zunno and drummer John Digiulio deliver some cooperative zydeco heat in December. The off-kilter holiday highlights include a Bo Diddley-flavored shuffle (“Christmas Is A Phone Call Away”) and an island-style, syncopated reggae groove session (“Santa Bring My Baby Home To Me”). With Bonds’ commanding vocals at the forefront, Christmas Is ON! will definitely induce yuletide cheer—and get your holiday party guests hand jivin’.
GaryUSBonds.com | iTunes
BY BOBBY REED
The Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship explores the mystery and wonder of the holiday season from a religious perspective with Song Of Simeon: A Christmas Journey. This two-part suite follows a Biblical/chronological narrative and incorporates ancient canticles, hymns and folk melodies. Scruggs—an Atlanta-based saxophonist who has worked with Natalie Cole and Cee Lo Green—has done his research, even recruiting his dad, who is a minister, to serve as the project’s theological advisor and write an essay for the album’s liner notes. But this project is a far cry from a dry Sunday-school lesson. The band’s vibrant arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” has a section that positively swings, and Dan Baraszu delivers an extended electric guitar solo that burns before he returns to the familiar melody with a very satisfying resolution. On this track, as well as “Ideo Gloria,” the core sextet demonstrates an impressive ability to build up musical drama and excitement. Scruggs’ gift for transforming ancient material to make it sound modern is especially evident on “T’was In The Moon Of Wintertime (The Huron Carol),” which utilizes a 16th-century French folk melody and is spiced up by Tommy Sauter’s acoustic bass solo. The title track, “Song Of Simeon—Nunc Dimittis,” opens with a head-bobbling groove that would make it a welcome addition to any set this band plays in the future, whether it takes place in December or July. The same is true for the band’s New Orleans-flavored version of the African-American spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” The celebratory vibe that runs through this 71-minute program is particularly strong in the album closer, an up-tempo version of “Joy To The World.” The liner notes’ scripture references, as well as the lyrics for every song (even though there are no vocals on this excellent album), add to the religious/scholarly aspect of the CD packaging.
WillScruggs.com | iTunes
BY FRANK ALKYER
The cover artwork for this gem reads, “Truth Revolution Records Presents Together: Musical Warmth For Winter Holidays.” I love the community of artists that brothers Zaccai and Luques Curtis have pulled together on their Truth Revolution Records label. It’s a musical family that shines on this disc, the most beautiful and original holiday recording of the year. The TRR roster and friends take fine turns, and plenty of risks, with old classics and some very cool originals. Trumpeter Nick Roseboro’s take on “Twelfth Century Carol” burns the tradition out of traditional. Little Johnny and Natalie Fernandez turn your holidays into an island dance party with a fantastic version of the Puerto Rican holiday classic “Hasta Aquí Llegamos.” The Curtis Brothers deliver a shiver-and-sigh original titled “Let Them Be Children,” featuring Albert Rivera’s inspired tenor saxophone artistry. Sarah Elizabeth Charles has a voice you’ll certainly be hearing a lot of in the future, as she proves on “Toyland.” Alto saxophonist Kris Allen melts into the groove on “O Come O Come Emanuel.” Giovanni Almonte and Reinaldo De Jesus bring their own lyrics and conga-driven flavor to “My Favorite Things.” And just try not to move to Mitch Frohman’s “Reunion Mambo.” Together has 16 tunes, and I’ll be playing them all this Christmas. Feliz Navidad to the TRR family, and thanks for the perfect gift.
Truth Revolution | TRR Store
BY FRANK-JOHN HADLEY
On Christmas Time Is Here, the Tennessee-based, big-band juggernaut that is the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra injects holiday favorites and surprising selections—such as the old spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”—with the right sort of swinging spirit, both reassuring and probing. With ace arranger-trumpeter Vance Thompson out front conducting, KJO steers clear of the mechanical routinism that characterizes much jazz revelry at Yuletide. Tenor saxophonists William Boyd and Greg Tardy, organist Dan Trudell (on Hammond B-3) and alto saxophonist Tim Green all display inventive fluency at any tempo. Vocals by Jill Andrews (on “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”) and two fine church choirs (on “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”) further gladden the listener’s heart.
KnoxJazz.org | iTunes
BY FRANK ALKYER
Kevin Mahogany has the perfect baritone to swing out the holiday classics, and he is beautifully complemented on The Christmas Album by the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. Mahogany sings on seven of the 14 tunes here, including “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “This Christmas,” “Let It Snow” and my favorite, “Santa’s Blues,” where his St. Louis barrelhouse roots shine. Don’t sleep on the seven instrumental cuts like “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Christmas In Rio” because the KCJO is a tight-knit surprise. This is one of those terrific regional big bands who deserve more touring opportunities, more recognition and, of course, more money in their stockings!
BY FRANK-JOHN HADLEY
Since 1965, millions of folks have made the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas part of their annual holiday tradition. With his disposition for drawing out the light lyricism in a familiar carol like “O Tannenbaum” or in his own seasonal compositions, the pianist succeeds in merging jazz, pop and classical for delightful results. Casual fans may not know the song titles to Guaraldi’s compositions “Linus And Lucy” or “Skating,” but they certainly know the melodies when they hear them. The newest reissue of this classic album includes two bonus tracks: “Thanksgiving Theme” and the Halloween tune “Great Pumpkin Waltz.” The CD booklet includes Peanuts artwork by animator Charles M. Schulz and a much-welcomed, informative essay by Derrick Bang, author of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano (McFarland).