Woody Herman: Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

It consistently amazes me how arrangers could take a brand new song and create an interesting, original framework for a large ensemble like a big band on short notice. If only all Christmas songs were as wonderful as this one, and while it never became the monster hit that "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" became, this song has in fact grown in popularity to where it is now heard on many TV and radio commercials each year during the holiday season.

Those who know Neal Hefti only from his themes for The Odd Couple and Batman, and his instrumental pieces for Count Basie such as "Cute" and "Li'l Darlin'" may be shocked listening to this brilliant setting for The First Herd. While the introduction was originally much longer (and unfortunately is lost forever as Woody's book from that era was destroyed), enough of it begins this recording. Musicians will also be surprised that the first part of the arrangement is in the key of E, which creates an immediate intonation problem … for most bands. In the hands of these musicians, this music is lovely and exciting. A relaxed Herman vocal leads to a sudden modulation to Ab and a solo by Sonny Berman, who left us all too soon because of drug problems. Bill Harris takes up the solo as the background slyly shifts key, finally landing on D. The solo continues as the background shifts key again, with Herman returning in F. It looks like the setting may very well stay in this key, except that a series of loud, held chords finally end the piece … in the key of C!!!

Yes, pop records once sounded as powerful and beautiful as this one.

January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Diana Krall: Have Yourself a Very Merry Little Christmas

Am I the only one who thinks the gifted Diana Krall has a tendency to come across as being somewhat depressed? I guess this works for her. It's her version of the saloon singer. But I would like to see this woman let loose and kick off a shoe every once in a while. I think it would do her good.

Of course, she is talented beyond all reason. Aided by bassist James Genus and guitarist Russell Malone, Krall presents a very evocative jazz trio version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." There is no heavy lifting here. Instead, the trio plays it in a slow blues. Krall's slightly smoky vocals are perfect, and her piano solo is requisitely charming.

Give me a comfortable couch, a warm apple cider and a depressed deeply gifted female jazz musician singing Christmas songs, and I am set for the season.

December 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Anita Baker: The Christmas Song

This Anita Baker performance appears on the wonderful Jazz to the World CD, which was put together in 1994 to aid the Special Olympics. I highly recommend it. There are a few tunes that more than border on Smooth Jazz. (Excuse me while I burp up my eggnog.) But, it is a Christmas record. Even I can't be a humbug on this one.

Baker's rendition of "The Christmas Song" was recorded live in December 1994 at President Bill Clinton's Christmas Concert in New York City. That explains why the applause wasn't as gracious as it should have been. There weren't a lot of knowledgeable music fans in that crowd. That's not a political statement, just a comment on all the freebies that must have been handed out.

Though Baker has dabbled on the jazz outskirts from time to time, she has never fully jumped in, which is too bad. I know she has sold millions of records with her R&B soul. But it would have been nice if the jazz community could claim her as one of its own. She has a beautiful instrument that never fails to captivate. Her performance in front of a big band on this night was no exception. The woman has it all down. She has beautiful enunciation and mesmerizing phrasing. And most important, Baker conveys messages. She is so good on "The Christmas Song" that you could listen to this wonderful interpretation on July 4th and still think it was Christmas.

December 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Frank Sinatra: Jingle Bells

What could be better than listening to Sinatra sing a swinging "Jingle Bells" every Christmas season? Nothing. For years, however, I was convinced there was an audio mistake on this cut. At the 1:25 mark, Sinatra sings "jing-jingle bells" The double syllable comes so quickly that it sounds just like it used to when a phonograph needle would repeat a groove on a used LP. (I feel so old.) To hear that sound on a CD, though, was confounding. So I finally took time to investigate the apparent glitch. It turns out Sinatra simply needed another beat to make things work musically, so he gave us an extra half a word. I wouldn't put up with that from just any croon-crooner. Merry Christmas!

December 01, 2008 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis (featuring Bob Dorough): Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)

The cynical, bah-humbug "Blue Xmas" was probably not what Columbia executives had in mind in 1962 when they asked Miles Davis to record a track for a planned Christmas jazz compilation album. Davis turned to Bob Dorough, whom he had met in Los Angeles in the late '50s and would have sit in with his band to sing "Baltimore Oriole." Miles dug Dorough's hip, laid-back singing style. Dorough left L.A. with a song in hand, met with Miles and arranger Gil Evans, and was soon in the studio with Miles's sextet singing the incendiary words to "Blue Xmas."

Miles in his autobiography ungraciously dismisses the whole affair: " … they thought it would be hip if I had this silly singer named Bob Dorough on the album with Gil arranging … The less said about it the better, but it did let me play with Wayne Shorter for the first time…." Actually, Evans's arrangement of the short track is quite representative, the horns and even the bongos skillfully enhancing the effect of Dorough's guileless vocal. "When you're blue at Xmas time / You see through all the waste / All the sham, all the haste / And plain old bad taste … It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy." This is indeed a Christmas song for those who hate Christmas, and you even get a Coltrane-like Shorter solo as an extra added bonus, or stocking stuffer, if you will.

November 12, 2008 · 2 comments

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Michael Franks: Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Jazz to the World is my favorite Christmas CD. I like jazz and I like Christmas. Lots of times these hybrid holiday "[name a genre] Plays Christmas Classics" albums come off as corny affairs. Not so for this CD produced by jazz executive Bruce Lundvall and Bobby Shriver for the benefit of the Special Olympics. It is full of engaging interpretations presented by a varied cross-section of outstanding jazz performers.

If Michael Franks had been born 30 years sooner, it is quite possible that it could be his voice you hear on some of our most admired Christmas songs. His voice is full of the wonder of a young child, yet possesses the intonation and chops of a seasoned jazz crooner. With apologies to Gene Autry, Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and other iconic holiday performers, Franks's expressive voice would have been perfect for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and so many other holiday favorites. The all-star jazz band on this cut doesn't have much to do, but they and Franks make the tune swing enough to justify its inclusion on a jazz record. Franks did release his own Christmas album in 2004 named Watching the Snow. It contained no recognizable standards, however.

Many of you may know of my disdain of anything that reeks of Smooth Jazz. (Pardon me while I gag.) There are moments of smoothness in this cut and some of the others on Jazz to the World. Every year, in honor of the holiday season, I declare a moratorium with regards to my total and complete hatred of Smooth Jazz. I do this out of respect for my family and social community and for fear of being called a grinch. But the fact is that I don't expect jazz musicians to play their guts out on Christmas carols. I want them just to have fun like everyone else. A strongly spiked eggnog or two usually helps me get over the guilt of not being 100% consistent.

May 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Herb Alpert & Jeff Lorber: Winter Wonderland

This is one groove-laden version of "Winter Wonderland." It is the opening cut from the Christmas all-star compilation Jazz to the World. DeWayne Smith's throbbing funk bass prominently introduces the cool swing of this head-bobbing performance. He and drummer Mason maintain a steady rhythm. The fusion keyboarder Jeff Lorber plays holiday-seasoned chords and fills in some space with ornamental accents. Herb Alpert sounds like Miles Davis on this cut! In fact, at times he sounds like Miles from his Tribute to Jack Johnson fusion days! I am not kidding. It is quite a surprising treat. It has almost become a tradition in my house that this is the first song heard in our Christmas rotation every year.

May 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Matt Savage: Father's Day

Matt Savage

The problem with being a prodigy is the same as everything else about childhood: you're bound to outgrow it. And then what? Pianist Matt Savage is the latest in a long line of jazz prodigies that includes Mary Lou Williams, Buddy Rich, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Cyrus Chestnut and Eldar, although Savage's acclaim has surpassed theirs at a similar age. What distinguishes Savage even among prodigies is his disability. One of fewer than 100 so-called "prodigious savants" in the world, Matt has, thanks to various therapeutic regimens and his and his family's fortitude, heroically overcome Pervasive Developmental Disorder, a high-functioning form of autism. At age 3, Matt couldn't stand the slightest noise, much less music. By age 7, he was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, soon to be launched into such media celebrity as only People magazine and NBC's Today show can confer. (As violinist Edith Eisler has perceptively written, "Even a prodigiously talented child becomes a 'prodigy' only by being put on public display.")

By early 2008, however, with release of the 15-year-old's eighth CD, Hot Ticket: Live in Boston, a note of caution was definitely in order, for not every prodigy who dazzles as a child finds a place as an adult. There've been some spectacular burnouts, such as pianist Ervin Nyíregyházi, whom Schoenberg called "the new Liszt" but who ultimately wound up listing badly on L.A.'s Skid Row. Moreover, Matt Savage is fast approaching an age where people will stop marveling at such precocity in a developmentally disabled boy, and start comparing this engaging young man to his peers, such as Eldar. That's where it gets thorny.

As the catchy, good-natured shuffle blues "Father's Day"—a representative track from Hot Ticket—makes clear, gifted as Matt Savage is, his music comes nowhere near the hype so lavishly bestowed upon it. With occasionally erratic execution and attendant lapses in rhythmic concentration, Matt's performance is very much what you'd expect from a poised, talented 15-year-old, but by no means justifies all the "genius" accolades swirling around him with the speed of a well-oiled PR machine.

Only time will tell whether Matt Savage can withstand the perils of prodigy and attain artistic maturity. For now, we can but celebrate his remarkable spirit, and wish him all the best.

January 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song

Partridges, as ground-nesting seedeaters, have no business in pear trees, unless they're waiting for said fruit to fall and yield its seed. Or maybe they're hanging out for acoustical purposes, to amplify the marginal snickering that passes for partridge birdsong. Certainly they can't compete as singers with Nat King Cole—who could? As for "The Christmas Song," Rudy Reindeer prefers Nat's first recording, despite its being long shelved in favor of remakes with syrupy strings. In any form, though, it's the coolest possible yuletide greeting, with Jack Frost nipping at your nose and partridges dressed like Eskimos in pear trees.

November 30, 2007 · 0 comments

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Vince Guaraldi: O Tannenbaum

"I think that I shall never see," wrote Leonard Feather (1914-1994), dean of Anglo-American jazz critics, "a review as lovely as a tree." Well, okay, maybe it wasn't Leonard Feather. But the sentiment is beyond reproach. Not even the finest review can match a tree in loveliness, especially a Christmas tree. And yet, consider the life of a Christmas tree. "Nasty, brutish and short," said Thomas Hobbes. Well, okay, maybe he wasn't talking about Christmas trees, exactly. But that sentiment too is beyond reproach. We cut them down in, let's face it, the prime of life. We bind their branches and cart them off ignominiously to vacant lots to be sold to complete strangers, who schlep them home and prop them in a corner. Throw up a few lights, toss around some tinsel icicles, and stick an old Styrofoam star on top. And within days, tear it all down. Unwanted and thankless, the tree is dispatched to meet its maker at the local recycling center. Is that any way to treat a tree? What have they ever done to us, aside from providing oxygen to breathe and piquant pine scents to savor? It's a crying shame.

Perhaps that's what Vince Guaraldi was thinking during his wistful, unaccompanied, out-of-tempo intro. Or maybe he was musing about the song itself, which has suffered through enough identity changes to be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. First it was "O Tannenbaum," a German folk tune, which is all well and good if you learn German, but who has that kind of time? Then the gods of war conscripted it into a U.S. state anthem, "Maryland, My Maryland," where it served as pro-Confederacy propaganda to no avail. (Maryland not only stayed in the Union, they kept the song. After all, no reason to waste a perfectly good tune.) Later it was repackaged as a yuletide carol, "O Christmas Tree," which is how Vince Guaraldi found it in 1965 when he adopted the perennial orphan into his jazzy score for the animated TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.

After concluding his pensive intro, Guaraldi glides into an easygoing 4/4 statement of the theme, then improvises three boppishly funky choruses. And, in the true spirit of Christmas, he even gives bassist Fred Marshall two solo choruses of his own. In measure to be jolly, Vince returns to deck the halls with boughs of holly and restate the theme, which has by now become, in his graceful hands, "Merryland, My Merryland."

No, we shall never see a review as lovely as a tree. But celebrating the holidays with this quietly joyous track, as toasty as a solar-heated sauna on a sunny December day, just might be the next best thing.

November 19, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jackie Cain & Roy Kral: Auld Lang Syne

When three French hens showed up for the gig, they were informed as delicately as possible that the summons had been for three French horns, not hens. They stuck around anyway to hear Jackie & Roy's sextet—which included an equal number of men and women. (In jazz, the French hens knew, gender parity is a rarity.) Jackie & Roy's sprightly rendition of the traditional Scottish ode sung at midnight on New Year's Eve sought to "ring out the old, swing in the new" and encouraged revelers to "bop away at work and play." The French hens clucked their approval, and when the clock struck 12, bopped "Happy New Year!" in perfect 3-part harmony with the rest of the revelers.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ramsey Lewis: Here Comes Santa Claus

Nine ladies dancing, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer figured, meant one for him and one apiece for the other reindeer. Boogying to Ramsey Lewis's cover of singer/songwriter Gene Autry's "Here Comes Santa Claus," however, seemed like a stretch. But when someone handed Rudy a copy of Mr. Autry's Cowboy Commandments (1930s), which included telling the truth, keeping your word, respecting women, children, elders and animals, helping those in need, working hard, obeying the law and (get this!) disavowing racial and religious intolerance, Rudy was impressed. As for Ramsey, this track cultivates the same funky soil that yielded his mid-'60s pop hits. Look at those reindeer dance!

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Lambert, Hendricks & Ross: Deck Us All With Boston Charlie

If you think seven swans a-swimming is a tongue-twister, try singing along with LH&R's spoof of "Deck the Halls" à la Walt Kelly's cartoon carolers (Pogo Possum, Albert Alligator, et al.):

   Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
   Walla Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo!
   Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
   Swaller dollar cauliflower Alleygaroo!

Annie Ross sounds like Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie—the dowager soprano desperately in need a stocking stuffed down her throat. Fine fun.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Jimmy McGriff: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Eleven pipers piping are peachy for pipe organs, but the Hammond B-3 has no such plumbing. It's as electrified as Mrs. Claus's reaction to this song about Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Mrs. C. didn't work and slave 364 days nonstop so Santa could fly about on Christmas Eve to be kissed by strange women! Santa's protestations that the red smudges on his cheeks were from the cold night air, and that the lady in the song kissed her hubby, who was merely playacting Kris Kringle, fell on deaf ears. Why, if Santa hadn't saved an especially nice gift for his missus, he'd have never gotten back into the house. And it does get nippy outside at the North Pole on Christmas Day!

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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Duke Ellington: Jingle Bells

Ten lords a leaping plus a Duke, Cat and Rabbit shake up "Jingle Bells" (1857) by James Lord Pierpont, who wasn't really a Lord, but an American commoner. For that matter, Ellington wasn't technically a Duke, Cat Anderson was feline only in name, and Rabbit Hodges nibbled his lettuce on sandwiches, not in gardens. Even so, this is the leaping-est "Jingle Bells" ever, with lordly solos by Duke, Brown, Hodges, Nance, Gonsalves and Hamilton. Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, swinging all the way, oh what fun it is to hear Duke's big band play.

November 16, 2007 · 0 comments

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