Christmas CDs: Matt Wilson, Matassa/Anderson

The other day a man who acted on last year’s Rifftides recommendation of Carla Bley’s Carla’s Christmas Carols let me know that he was disappointed in the album. Indeed, he was offended by it. In the review, I described the “tenderness, wit, harmonic brilliance, wide dynamic range and wry sense of nostalgia” in Bley’s arrangements of traditional holiday songs. My friend said that he likes his Christmas songs straight, without “all those minors.” I refrained from a discussion of the importance of minor chords, scales, keys and intervals.
If you don’t mind adventurism, including minors, in holiday music, Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O (Palmetto) gives you plenty of it. To 14 traditional songs and a couple of modern classics the drummer brings his customary humor, infectious swing, ingenuity with assorted percussion instruments and—now and then—good-natured raucousness. Wilson’s trio mates are saxophonist-flutist-clarinetist Jeff Lederer and bassist Paul Sikivie. Lederer is on tenor sax in “Winter Wonderland” and the band has MatWil Christmas.jpgthe sound and feeling of Sonny Rollins in his Way Out West and Village Vanguard trio days of the 1950s. With Wilson using bells, the music combines prayerfulness and avant garde abandon in a medley of Albert Ayler’s “Angels” and the traditional “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The liberated spirit of Christmas present continues with vigor in Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here.” As the three waltz with lighthearted seriousness through “The Chipmunk Song,” Lederer’s soprano sax takes the chattery title role. In “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Lederer’s bass clarinet and Sikivie’s bass generate an atmosphere of menace that Wilson penetrates with deft brush work.
Through “Snowfall,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, and all the others, Wilson, Lederer and Sikivie decorate familiar music with unconventional ideas. The album has the comedy of “Mele Kalikimaki” as a polka with a bonkers clarinet solo, and “Little Drummer Boy” as the bebop vehicle for a wonderfully structured short Wilson drum solo. Alternating wildness and calm, Wilson and company inject irony into Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” but the CD also has lyrical readings of “Snowfall” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” This is the most stimulating Christmas collection I have heard this year.
Greta Matassa & Clipper Anderson, And to All a Good Night (Origin).
To ears accustomed to hearing the same holiday songs again and again, Matassa’s and Anderson’s repertoire is fresh. The composer and lyricist credits include familiar names—Johnny Mandel, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Victor Young, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini and Irving Berlin. But the Mandel-Bergman “A Christmas Love Song,” Bacharach’s and Hal David’s “Christmas Day” or Bill Mays’ and Mark Murphy’s “November in the Snow” have not been played ad nauseum in department stores and super markets. Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings” may be the most familiar song here. Yet, despite its origin in the movie classic Holiday Inn, it is not often included inMatassa & Anderson.jpg Christmas collections.
Matassa is one of the best-known vocalists on the west coast, Anderson one of the most respected bassists. They have been a team for several years, with Anderson singing and playing in live appearances. Now, on record he makes it clear that he is a substantial vocalist with admirable timbre, intonation and phrasing. In his duet with pianist Darin Clendenin on “Count Your Blessings,” for three minutes Anderson can make you forget that Bing Crosby owned the song. Matassa shines here, bringing restraint to the tender songs, art-song refinement or her signature bluesy passion to others. She polishes facets of all of those attributes in the medley of “It’s Christmas Time” and “Sleep Well, Little Children.” Clendenin and drummer Mark Ivester join Anderson’s powerful bass in the rhythm section. Susan Pascal is on vibes in three pieces. Ivester’s two young daughters add the charm of their voices to Matassa’s in “Where Can I Find Christmas?”

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  1. says

    In his memoir “No Minor Chords: My Days in Hollywood,” André Previn tells of a Hollywood studio executive who asked why a certain film score sounded strange. One of his flunkies replied that it was because the composer used “minor chords”. Therefore, the executive issued an edict prohibiting the use of “minor chords” in his studio’s film scores.
    Re Christmas carols, try to imagine how “Carol of the Bells” or “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” among others, would sound without minor chords.
    (The Previn book is a delight. Among the other adventures he recounts from his studio days as a teenaged wunderkind is booting an opportunity for romance with Ava Gardner. Here’s a link to the book—DR)