Music for a Cool Yule
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Music for a Cool Yule: New Holiday Disc Reviews
by Thomas Cunniffe and Janine Santana


Geri Allen’s music has always demanded close listening, and her holiday CD, “A Child Is Born” is no exception. This is not an album to play in the background while trimming the tree, but rather music for listening while contemplating the spiritual meaning of Christmas. Allen challenges the listener with inventive re-imagined versions of familiar carols, and with intriguing musical cameos that portray the Gema melodies of Ethiopia. While essentially a solo piano album, Allen overdubs (or simultaneously plays) a virtual orchestra of keyboards including Fender Rhodes, farfisa, clavinet and celeste. There is also a brief spoken word chant by Farah Jasmine Griffith, and two short originals with female chorus. On one track, Allen and sound designer Jamieo Brown create an unique soundscape combining Allen’s piano rendition of the ancient chant “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with sampled tracks by the Women of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective of Alabama. Yet this CD is at its best when it is just Allen and the piano as she creates breathtaking improvisations in tribute to God.—Thomas Cunniffe 


Grammy Award winner Henry Brun from San Antonio, Texas knows how to throw a vivacious, swinging Latin jazz Christmas party! I dare you to try to hold still or be blue when listening to "A Very Latin Christmas". As Brun states in the notes, “Here is OUR version of Christmas music” and “This is THE party CD!” All tunes are classic European and North American Christmas Carols and popular songs represented in Latin jazz and Caribbean folkloric rhythms.  I can’t imagine this not being a favorite in every Latin jazz lover’s holiday collection with its vibrant, re-imagined carols interpreted through gurachas, bombas, danzons, mambos, cha chas and percussive swings. The recording contains such delights as an arrangement of Clare Fisher’s “Morning” converted into “Es Navidad” (It’s Christmas) with Spanish and English lyrics by co-producer and vocalist Judi Deleon and “O Ven Emanuel” arranged by Travis Davis into an elegant Danzon. Mr Grinch of Dr Seuss fame is represented as “Señor Grinch” in an appropriate, slinky Guaracha flavor. The cover design by Deleon is as playful as the music it protects; Papa Noel in his ’54 convertible, wearing his red bandana and a toting a conga in the back seat…on the beach…is A Very Latin Christmas scene indeed! –Janine Santana



From north of the border comes "A Celebration in Time", a collaboration featuring pianist Oliver Jones, vocalist Ranee Lee and the Montreal Jubilation Choir. The three entities are closely knit: Jones studied piano with Oscar Peterson’s sister Daisy, who was a co-founder of the MJC; while Jones and Lee have worked together for several years. Jones, Lee and the choir each perform three pieces on their own before collaborating on the final track, Oscar Peterson’s stirring “Hymn to Freedom”. Jones fares best on his three features, leading his trio through spirited versions of “We Three Kings” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, and performing a solo medley of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear”. Like Peterson, Jones has astounding piano technique and seemingly endless imagination. Lee is an inventive singer and her improvised variation on “The Christmas Waltz” reveals a sophisticated harmonic sense. Her voice is similar to Sarah Vaughan, and she swings well, even when she has to compete with the busy, over-arranged settings by her pianist, Taurey Butler. One of the choir’s pieces is taken by the Daphnée Louis Singers, a Haitian quartet of female singers. Their Caribbean medley of “Gras Bondye” and “Seigneur J’élève Ton Nom” seems out of place until the choir returns three tracks later with a reggae version of “Little Drummer Boy”. The choir’s version of “Silent Night” features a soulful lead vocal by Dayhana M. Santos. The only downside of the choir cuts is the grating “smooth jazz” alto saxophone of Dan Martel. Otherwise, this is a fine—if less than great—holiday offering.—Thomas Cunniffe


Michel Legrand’s “Noël! Noël!! Noël!!!” seems to exist in two different eras. Legrand’s old-school orchestrations for big band and strings are as fluffy as a French pastry, with all kinds of extra sweetness that really isn’t necessary, but still delicious. These arrangements back up a diverse mixture of contemporary singers including Jamie Cullum, Madeleine Peyroux, MIKA, Carla Bruni (the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy), Ayo, Imelda MayEmilie Simon and (of all singers) Iggy Pop. Cullum gets into the swing of things with his Sinatra-like swagger on “Let It Snow”, and Peyroux, seemingly stuck in a late Billie Holiday/Peggy Lee style, matches the orchestral style on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. “White Christmas” features an inspired pairing of the similar voices of Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright, and May’s “Silent Night” has an impressive chorus in French. MIKA sails through “Vive le Vent”, which turns out to be an elaborate fantasy on “Jingle Bells”. The album also includes a new Legrand carol “Noël d’Espoir” (“Hope Christmas”), which is sung in French by Peyroux, Simon, Bruni, Wainwright and Pop. Ayo and Pop seem to be the most out-of-place in this album, with Ayo never seeming to take ownership of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and Pop’s wide vibrato and unsure time hampering his version of “Little Drummer Boy”. Like many all-star albums, this one seems to be less than the sum of its parts. I can’t help but think that this album would have been twice as effective with half the number of stars.—Thomas Cunniffe


Any Christmas jazz album that starts with a quote from “Giant Steps” is bound to get your attention. Austrian vocalist Elisabeth Lohninger’s CD “Christmas In July” does just that and then adapts Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song” to the changes of the Coltrane classic! Needless to say, it takes an adept imagination and razor-sharp ears to create such a unique juxtaposition, but Lohninger and her band pull it off admirably. Pianist Walter Fischbacher created this arrangement as well as most of the other tracks on the album. The carols come from all over the world and Lohninger’s performances encompass nine different languages! (Translations can be found here.) There are at least as many musical styles present, and the band, which also includes guitarist Axel Fischbacher (no relation to Walter), bassist Johannes Weidenmüller and drummer Ulf Stricker, plays everything from jazz to reggae to funk with great conviction. Axel Fischbacher’s solo work ranges from hard-edged rock to straight-ahead jazz to acoustic folk, and Walter Fischbacher’s linear piano solos sparkle with inventiveness. Weidenmüller is a fine duet partner for Lohninger on the intro to the French “Petit Papa Noël” and Stricker generates plenty of thunder, even when playing with brushes. Lohninger has an expressive voice with superb diction and excellent pitch (she teaches voice and ear training at the New School in New York, and it’s obvious that she practices what she teaches!). Her scatting, while underutilized on this recording, is quite creative and tasteful. This album is not too “warm and fuzzy”, but it is an excellent introduction to these fine musicians.—Thomas Cunniffe


The legacy of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France has manifested into several “gypsy jazz” ensembles. Some, like the Hot Club of Detroit, have expanded the genre to include later compositions, while others seem content to re-create the duets of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt night after night. Doug Munro’s group, La Pompe Attack, seems to be somewhere in the middle. The repertoire includes music written after Reinhardt’s death, and the arrangements are within the Hot Club style. His CD, “A Very Gypsy Christmas” was recorded live in the studio, and it features violinist Howie Bujese, clarinetist Ken Peplowski and vocalist Cyrille Aimée rotating in the spotlight backed up by guitarists Munro and Ernie Pugliese and bassist Michael Goetz. Bujese and Munro are both experienced players who play in many different styles, so it follows that both play within the style but have their own approaches to the models of Grappelli and Reinhardt. Peplowski’s smooth clarinet is an effective contrast to the rough-hewn guitar of Munro and the two weave beautiful intersecting lines on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. Aimée (listed here as Cyrille-Aimée Daudel) is a delightful young vocalist with a sound somewhere between Norah Jones and Stacey Kent. Her cheery vocals and playful scat highlight “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”. There is a clever arrangement of “We Three Kings” that alternates between triple and duple time, and even “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is treated in a loping gypsy jazz arrangement. This is a fun, charming album worth picking up.—Thomas Cunniffe



Here’s a great idea that bears repeating: a collection of 10 brand-new Christmas songs written in the classic style with intelligent lyrics, catchy melodies and understated arrangements. Guitarist Chris Standring and vocalist Kathrin Shorr have created a winning folio of delightful songs and on their album "Send Me Some Snow" they perform  alongside talented sidemen including pianist Mitchell Forman, bassists Larry Steen and Dan Lutz, harmonica/woodwind specialist Dino Soldo, and drummer David Karasony. The arrangements and production are first-rate, but they are mere backgrounds to the songs themselves, which Shorr delivers with an elastic, rough-on-the-edges, soulful sound. All of the lyrics are secular, and while some of the lyrics echo familiar holiday themes, Standring and Shorr’s best efforts come when they take on an alternative perspective. Such is the case with “Dear Santa”, which may be the first Christmas song to take the viewpoint of Mrs. Claus, who has the same wish every year: to be with her man on Christmas Eve. This album should be required listening for any musician planning a holiday CD. I hope that several of these new Christmas gems turn up on other holiday albums in the coming years.—Thomas Cunniffe



Matt Wilson's deep, dark sense of humor is evident throughout "Christmas Tree-O", especially in its unorthodox playlist. This CD may contain the only straight-ahead jazz versions of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Mele Kalikimaki”, and certainly the strangest rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus ever committed to disc. Yet, for all the inspired zaniness on the jacket and on the disc, there is solid musicianship throughout the recording. Playing tenor and soprano sax, as well as clarinet, bass clarinet, piccolo and toy piano (!), Jeff Lederer takes the lion’s share of the solos, balancing his improvisations between straight-ahead blowing and wild free rants. Wilson augments his drum kit with sleigh bells and timpani, and juxtaposes the crisp sound of his snare with the highly melodic pitches of his tom-toms. Bassist Paul Sikivie provides solid support throughout, with effective arco playing in the stunning medley of Albert Ayler’s “Angels” and the carol “Angels We Have Heard On High”, and a bouncy two-beat in the klezmer-gone-wild “Mele Kalilimaki”. The arrangements by Lederer and Wilson rethink classic songs like “Christmas Time Is Here” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to surprising and delightful effect. Wilson’s liner notes recommend playing the disc while cooking, decorating or motoring to Grandma’s house, but in truth, this disc is best saved for the hippest of your holiday friends.—Thomas Cunniffe