A 5-Star Yule, Except for ‘Boogie Woogie Santa Claus’
Ever since October, Christmas compact discs have been accumulating on my desk, many of them with frequently overlapping repertoires.
A survey of 10 typical jazz-oriented albums revealed “The Christmas Song” and “Silent Night” in the lead with seven versions each, “God Rest Ye” with six, “Little Drummer Boy” with five and several others with four. After one has been listening for an entire day, the mind might numb were it not for a few exceptional items, listed below on a downward sliding scale:
**** 1/2 INNER VOICES “Christmas Harmony” Rhino
Organized and arranged by Morgan Ames, Inner Voices might be called the women’s answer to Take 6. The group, singing a cappella on all but four of the 17 songs, is aptly named: the innate vocal soul of the participants (Ames, Clydene Jackson Edwards, Carmen Twillie and Darlene Koldenhoven) emerges in a holiday spirit of incomparably blended beauty. Every type of song is here, from the religious (“Ave Maria”) to pop (“White Christmas”) and blues (“Merry Christmas Baby”). Al Jarreau guests on “Cherry Tree Carol.” One half star off for including “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” but in this rap-wracked world, these women are a strand of four pearls rising above a sea of mud.
**** JOE WILLIAMS “That Holiday Feelin’ ” Verve
With backgrounds ranging from simple piano (the remarkable Ellis Larkins on three tunes) to dectet (with several fellow Basie alumni), Williams offers one of his rare low-key collections. There is a loose, effortless “Winter Wonderland” and a calypso-flavored “Kissing by the Mistletoe.” It will be hard to conceive of a more felicitous blend of melodic elegance (Thad Jones) and lyrical imagery (Alec Wilder) than “A Child Is Born,” its mood set by an exquisite Norman Simmons piano chorus.
*** VARIOUS ARTISTS “Yule Struttin’: A Blue Note Christmas” Blue Note
Half of the 14 tracks are piano or guitar solos by, inter alia, Eliane Elias, Joey Calderazzo and Benny Green; Stanley Jordan, John Hart and John Scofield. There is also a rumping, stumping “Jingle Bells” by Count Basie and his band, presumably never before issued, taped at Birdland in 1961. The rest are small-group cuts with Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Rick Margitza et al. A curiosity is a recently discovered Thelonious Monk tune, “A Merrier Christmas,” presented as a Benny Green piano solo, then as a Dianne Reeves vocal. Suddenly, too, Monk is revealed as a lyric writer, and we’ve heard worse. (We’ve heard “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.”)
** 1/2 VARIOUS ARTISTS “A Jazzy Wonderland” Columbia
A disparate set, fluctuating from perfect to perfunctory, this is awash with Marsalises; it’s a veritable Wynton Wonderful. That, in fact, is his selection; his father, Ellis, plays “This Is Christmas” as a piano trio item; brothers Branford (heard in two cuts with Harry Connick Jr.) and even trombonist Delfeayo (with trumpeter Marlon Jordan on “Little Drummer Boy”) contribute to this family affair. The prodigious young organist Joey De Francesco doubles on trumpet on “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” The rest, aside from Tony Bennett’s “White Christmas,” is expendable except for admirers of Nancy Wilson, Kirk Whalum and a couple of other popular favorites.
Of the countless Christmas reissues, several from the Capitol catalogue stand out:
Nat King Cole’s “Cole, Christmas & Kids” is mainly aimed at the under-12 set that is worth your while if only because he was the first ever to roast chestnuts on an open fire on behalf of the team of Mel Torme and Bob Wells, composer and lyricist of “The Christmas Song.” The production booklet is carelessly done: Pete Rugolo’s name is misspelled, and one tune is listed as “Brahm’s (sic) Lullaby.” We all know old Johannes Brahm, right?
Peggy Lee’s “Christmas Carousel,” like the Cole, was recorded between 1949 and 1960. It includes five attractive Lee originals. “Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas” with Ralph Carmichael’s orchestra and chorus, and Lou Rawls’ “Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!” both stem from 1967.
“From the Creative World of Stan Kenton Comes . . . A Merry Christmas!” possibly wins the longest Christmas album title honors. It harks back to the days (1961) when the band included several hybrid instruments called mellophoniums. As with so much Kenton, this album an acquired taste.