This Week on Jazz Spectrum – A Sampler of Holiday Jazz

By Fritz Byers

Judging by the torrent of holiday jazz releases over the last decade, there must be a market for the genre. The remainder of this paragraph, discussing markets, genres, and artistic pandering, is being self-censored. That’s because the thoughts don’t apply to the holiday-themed music you’ll hear this week on Jazz Spectrum and Jazz Spectrum Overnight. Both shows are chock-a-block with great musicians having fun with, and finding fascination in, the familiar songs of the season. Elsewhere on the site, you’ll find the Jazz Spectrum playlist. If you can’t listen live, plunge in anywhere, and you’ll find engaging music.

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I’m hard-pressed to know if the units of music that I still call “albums” are viable in the, ahem, market. They may be nothing more but fodder for playlists, which I suppose is fine. Maybe a listener’s autonomy is no less to be valued than that of an artist.

Still, there’s something to be said for honoring the sense of artistic vision, the arc and flow, of the album as conceived by the musicians who created it. In that spirit, here are a few of my favorite things – specifically, holiday-jazz albums that present the sounds of the season in a particularly pleasing way.

  • Eddie Higgins – Christmas Songs. Pride of place goes to Eddie’s trio recording, because it has always struck me as the recording that puts the most “jazz” into holiday jazz. With the bassist Jay Leonhart and the drummer Joe Ascione, Eddie works out on some of the most familiar tunes in the repertoire. I hear far more improvisation – chord substitutions, an occasional reharmonizing, and some deeply satisfying solos – than is customary in recordings of this kind. The sequel – Christmas Songs 2, is a worthy companion disc. It is mostly trio tracks, with the bassist George Mraz and the drummer Ben Riley; the tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander joins for a couple of songs. Eddie made several wonderful trio recordings; a favorite is Haunted Heart, with Ray Drummond and Ben Riley. So if this recording leads you to his other work, terrific. 
  • Wynton Marsalis – Crescent City Christmas Card. I was surprised when I received this recording, back in 1989. By then, Wynton had already made a deep mark in the jazz world, especially with his dazzling 1985 album, Black Codes (From the Underground). And his seriousness of purpose, with the slightest tinge of intolerance, was already well-known.  But there he was on the cover, smiling widely beneath a Santa Claus hat. This release is consistent with that happy image – it’s a ton of fun, with vocals from Kathleen Battle and Jon Hendricks, New Orleans clarinet legend Alvin Batiste, and Wynton’s then-current stalwart band. There is fine music here. The affair closes with an eight-minute “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which Wynton narrates with evident whimsy and delight.
  • Ella Fitzgerald– Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. Well, of course. Who could resist the chance to hear Ella’s perfect intonation and articulation, applied with her characterstic joyous swing and the occasional rhythmic surprise? Russ Garcia’s orchestra supports Ella, playing the arrangements of the underappreciated composer Frank DeVol. 
  • Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass – Big Band Christmas. The Canadian valve trombonist Rob McConnell is a personal favorite for his many outstanding big-band recordings with the Boss Brass, spanning forty years, and for his dozens of other recordings with his outstanding groups, the Tentet and the Jive Five, and the occasional intimate trio setting. His arrangements here are, as you would expect, fresh, challenging, polyphonic, and kinetic. Five of the eleven tracks are medleys, which are particularly revealing glimpses of Rob’s sophisticated harmonic imagination. His arrangement of “My Favorite Things” is a delightful variation on the jazz magic John Coltrane brought to the tune. And his treatment of “Away in the Manger” is ravishing.

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