A Yellowjackets yuletide
Few would argue with the image of Christmas as the most musical time of the year. Yet for years, the standard wisdom regarding Christmas albums was: “Don’t do them.” The limited sales window, the narrowly focused programming (which allowed little room for more potentially profitable original material) and the expense and distraction of taking recording time from other projects tended to diminish any interest in holiday projects.
Since holiday items nonetheless managed to be recorded over the years (often as singles in the pre-CD era), most record companies already have plenty of catalog Christmas items from the past that can be profitably packaged and repackaged annually.
But in recent years, a new perspective has taken over. Yes, November-December repre- sents a limited sales window, but they keep coming back every year. And since most familiar Christmas carols are well beyond copyright, the possibility of earning royalties from new arrangements is ever present.
That said, however, there’s another reason why jazz musicians like to perform Christmas music: the sweet, chorale-like, occasionally modal harmonies of carols are wonderful springboards for improvisation. Additionally, such holiday songs as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” have the sort of lyrical poignancy most favored by jazz vocalists.
With all the new Christmas-related albums that are now beginning to flow, it’s fun to look past the most visible selections toward the more offbeat but no less appealing items in both jazz and world music.
The Yellowjackets have contributed tunes to several holiday compilations in the past, but “Peace Round: A Christmas Celebration” (available at www.yellowjackets.com) is their first full-length collection of Christmas numbers. They have remained well within the orbit of tradition in the selection of most of the material -- primarily carols such as “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The First Noel.”
In doing so, they also showcase their best straight-ahead skills, occasionally adding a spicy tinge of groove to the roving, rhythmic foundation provided by bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Marcus Baylor, enhanced by stretched-out, melodically driven improvising from pianist Russell Ferrante and saxophonist Bob Mintzer.
The music is even more creatively expansive in a Satie-like rendering of the English canon “Peace Round,” a touching version of “First Noel” featuring singer Jean Baylor, and the atmospheric “In a Silent Night,” clearly inspired by Joe Zawinul and Miles Davis. Not exactly the funk-driven, high-energy effort many associate with the Yellowjackets, “Peace Round” is something more layered and, in many respects, more fascinating -- a classic example of musicians enchanted by the magic of Christmas music.
Not your usual holiday sounds
Other offbeat Christmas albums, from both jazz and world music, are equally fascinating, equally recommended:
Phil Woods, David Liebman, Bob Dorough and others
“The Reasons for Christmas Project” (PATH)
The area around the Poconos and the Delaware Water Gap is the home to a surprisingly large number of first-rate jazz artists. This folksy album brings a few of them together in performances to benefit homeless families via the Pocono Area Transitional Housing organization. Several tracks are devoted to performances by enthusiastic amateur choruses, etc. But the album also features a superb rendering of “White Christmas” by saxophonist Woods and the underappreciated pianist John Coates Jr., a compelling take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by the Liebman group and a lovely new Christmas song, “Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful If Christmas Came,” written and sung by the inimitable Bob Dorough. (The album is available from www.cdbaby.com or www.reasonsforchristmas.org.)
“This Christmas” (Declare Music)
San Francisco-based singer Clairdee is not particularly well known beyond the Bay Area, but she has put together an engaging collection of Christmas numbers for her second CD. Her choice of tunes ranges well beyond the usual holiday lineup, embracing Charles Brown’s “Bringing in a Brand New Year,” Thad Jones’ poignant “A Child Is Born,” Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and Horace Silver’s “Peace.” Clairdee’s warm-toned vocals are backed by a talented array of Bay Area players, featuring lovely fluegelhorn work from Dmitri Matheny and warm, embracing arrangements, mostly written by keyboardists Ken French and Jon Herbst.
“Comfort and Joy: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” (Rounder)
With so many carols tracing to the Anglo-Celtic tradition, it’s not surprising that performances by Celtic artists -- of traditional as well as less familiar holiday selections -- sound so convincing. This second collection of holiday music from Rounder features the articulate voice of Maddy Prior (singing “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” and 19th century tunes “The Boar’s Head” and “My Dancing Day”), the fine Celtic ensembles the Boys of the Lough and Cherish the Ladies, singer Robbie O’Connell and a handful of other instrumental and vocal ensembles. The performances slip with foot-tapping ease and hymn-like smoothness into the spirited rhythms of jigs and reels.
“Winter Kolednica: Seasonal Carols From Slovenia” (Naxos World)
There’s not much that sounds familiar in this 29-track collection, but it’s all intriguing. Some tunes dance with the jaunty rhythms of the diatonic accordion and the dulcimer. Others shiver with the clanging of chimes, and still others are a cappella expressions, sung solo and in chorus. Beneath some of the piquant harmonies and sudden rhythmic shifts there is a constant undercurrent of devotion and community -- a sense of the world village that transcends boundaries of language and politics: exactly what Christmas should be all about.
“Yulesville: The Other Tinseltown”
“Under the Mistletoe: Reindeer
“Cool December: A Warm and Fuzzy Winter” (Shout! Factory Records)
Speaking of collections from record companies’ deep catalogs, here’s a trio of releases that has a little something for everyone’s Christmas taste. It would be possible, in fact, to simply slip all three into a CD changer and let them play straight through (or perhaps in shuffle mode) for a really complete Christmas Eve entertainment. Some special (and unusual) highlights: On the “Yulesville” album, Dean Martin’s “Winter Wonderland,” Lionel Hampton’s “White Christmas” and -- yes -- Tiny Tim’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” On the “Mistletoe” album, Carmen McRae’s “The Christmas Song,” Aretha Franklin’s “Kissin’ by the Mistletoe” and Ann Hampton Callaway’s “Manhattan In December.” On the “Cool December” album, Pearl Bailey’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Billie Holiday’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Sleigh Ride.”