Every year, albums of Christmas music by jazz artists pop up in late October or early November, provide pleasure through the season, then are mostly forgotten. Once in a while, we get lucky with new releases that not only entertain us for the holidays but also leave music of permanent value. Think of Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (1960), Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (1964) or Alan Broadbent’s lush arrangements of Christmas songs for Scott Hamilton and strings (1997).
Here are brief impressions of 2013 Christmas CDs with the goods to make lasting contributions.
Ted Rosenthal Trio, Wonderland (Playscape)
Rosenthal’s Christmas album transcends the category. The pianist’s treatments of 10 songs from the holiday repertoire and a composition of his own produce music that will be as rewarding in August as it is when snow is falling. He keeps the listener engaged by way of the melodic invention of his improvisations, the substance and depth of his harmonic resourcefulness, and his teamwork with bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Tim Horner.
A few highlights: intriguing time-play in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes;” hints at “Blue Monk” in the melody of “Santa Claus” is Coming to Town;” the stately progress and enhanced harmonies of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;” “Silent Night” as a slow waltz; loping time a la Erroll Garner” in “Let it Snow.” Rosenthal’s one original composition, “Snowscape,” has an indelible melody that could have made it a standard in the days when songs got enough exposure to become standards. This is a delightful album.
Karrin Allyson, Yuletide Hideaway (Kasrecords)
It could be risky to program a Christmas album predominantly with unfamiliar songs. Karrin Allyson shuns risk aversion, and it pays off. Her collection has the expected—“The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Christmas Time is Here,” et albut little-known songs like Bill Evans’s “It’s Love, It’s Christmas,” Dave Frishberg’s “Snowbound,” Patty McGovern’s “I Like Snow” and new ones by Chris Caswell and Rod Fleeman help give the album its freshness. The primary ingredient in that regard, though, is the singer’s musicality; her phrasing, her ability to bend a note just enough to color a word’s meaning, judicious scatting firmly based in a song’s harmonies, the blend of knowingness and innocence in her voice, her own piano accompaniments on some pieces. Caswell solos effectively on organ, and there is fine work by guitarist Fleeman, bassist Gerald Spaits and drummer Todd Strait, Allyson associates from her Kansas City days. The boost from Allyson could give Fleeman’s minor-key “Christmas Bells Are Ringing” and Caswell’s “You’re All I Need For Christmas” a push toward becoming holiday perennials.
Manhattan Brass, Holiday (MB)
In this stunning album, five of the world’s leading brass virtuosos play Christmas music arranged by two of the world’s leading writing virtuosos. The pieces range from the “I Got Rhythm” felicities of Thelonious Monk’s “Stuffy Turkey” to the “Siciliana” from Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs And Dances, both transformed by Jack Walrath for the apparently limitless capabilities of the quintet. Carla Bley arranged “The Christmas Song,” “O Tannebaum” and “Jingle Bells,” among others. Her writing is occasionally wry, more often just plain gorgeous, The trumpeters are Lew Soloff and Wayne du Maine, the trombonists Michael Seltzer and David Taylor. RJ Kelley and Ann Ellsworth alternate on French horn. The brass artists negotiate the challenges set by Walrath and Bley not just with aplomb but with irresistible élan and wit. Meticulously arranged, the music nonetheless opens up for individual interpretation. It is a shortcoming of the liner notes that there is no track-by-track identification of the soloists, but seasoned Soloff listeners should have no problem pegging his sound and style.
Tim Warfield’s JazzyChristmas (Undaunted Music)
The youngish tenor and soprano saxophone veteran brings together like-minded players of his generation to find the improvisational possibilities in Christmas songs. They find them, aided by Warfield’s functional arrangements. The leader’s playing on both horns is impressive, as is the work of vibraharpist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Terell Stafford. Stafford, a scene stealer, makes “Little Drummer Boy” a show piece. Summoning the spirit of Dexter Gordon, Warfield shines on tenor in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” On soprano, he is daring as he stretches the form of Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall.” As usual, Harris is fluid in his lines and full of harmonic ingenuity. Cyrus Chestnut and Neil Podgurski alternate on piano, Podgurski holding more than even with the better-known Chestnut. Bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Clarence Penn play throughout, sturdy in support and with occasional solo touches. Joanna Pascale sings on three tracks, Jamie Davis on one. The vocals are not the album’s high points.