Saturday, December 14, 2013

Interlude: Holiday Sounds

I so rarely review Holiday CDs but, in a year when there have been so few "mainstream" Christmas albums, several jazz-related releases have crossed the threshold and are well worth your attention.

When you put pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Tim Horner together, the music has a swing, a lightness, a joy than transcends labels and styles.  On "Wonderland" (Playscape Recordings), the trio tackles several Holiday standards, classical pieces, folk music and one very handsome Rosenthal original.  Chances are good you've never heard a more uptempo version of "Angels We Have Heard on High" or a Caribbean-influenced Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Reed Flutes", yet these versions make you smile.  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is filled with longing while "Sleigh Ride" glides along merrily (the rhythm section swings ever-so-gently).  "Greensleeves" is such a pretty melody and Rosenthal's lush reading of the melody line opens up to a very handsome bass solo, all the while Horner's splendid brush work serves as a gentle breeze beneath his partners. There's quite a swagger to the blues-drenched version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and a joie de vivre to "Let It Snow", the piano gaily dancing atop the prancing rhythm section.

Classy and sassy, "Wonderland" is a treat from start to finish, a pleasing stocking stuffer any time of year.  For more information, go to

Manhattan Brass has been in existence over 2 decades; the quintet now includes R.J. Kelley (horn), Michael Seltzer (trombone), Wayne du Maine (trumpet), David Taylor (bass trombone) and Lew Soloff (trumpet), all of whom appear on "Manhattan Holiday" (self-released).  The album contains standards, classical works, the Mel Torme-penned classic "The Christmas Song" and a pair of Thelonious Monk tunes "A Merrier Christmas" and "Stuffy Turkey" I had never heard before (Monk supposedly never recorded the former piece.) The program features 6 arrangements by Carla Bley, pieces that the Brass recorded in 2008 (when Ann Ellsworth was the horn player) - to fill out the CD, Soloff asked trumpeter Jack Walrath and he responded with 5 more pieces that the ensemble recorded in 2011 (it was he who brought the Monk pieces to the program.) Ms. Bley's recorded her arrangements of Holiday standards, such as "O Tannebaum" and "Joy To The World", with the Partyka Brass Quintet and bassist Steve Swallow for the Watt label.  This CD opens with a New Orleans-infuenced arrangement (by Ms. Bley) of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" - that tune sets the pace for the program, with a touch of blues, a bit of irreverence and and a palpable joy in playing melodies.  One can hear that joy shining through the raucous take on "Little Drummer Dude" (based on "Little Drummer Boy")  - the horns take turns playing the staccato drum part and there is an Ellington-inspired break in the middle.  It's tough not to smile through Walrath's arrangement of Respighi's "Siciliana" which moves in and out of its classical mode to allow for short solos by all involved.

There's much to enjoy on "Manhattan Holiday" with the intelligent arrangements, the global scope of the music and the splendid playing of Manhattan Brass.  By the time you arrive at the lovely rendition of "Joy To The World" (arranged by Ms. Bley), you'll be moved. Any evidence of "Bah Humbug" should dissipate.  For more information, go to

  Saxophonist Tim Warfield's "Jazzy Christmas"(Undaunted Music) lives up to its name with 9 songs, many of which are traditional or standards - the bonus track, "The Dreidel Song", starts as a typical klezmer tune until the band swings the tune like a spinning top.  What a band!  The rhythm section, comprised of pianists Cyrus Chestnut (6 tracks) or Neil Podgurski (the remaining 4 tracks), Rodney Whitaker (bass), Clarence Penn (drums) and Daniel Sadownick (percussion), delight in these melodies.  The front line includes the leader on tenor and soprano saxophones, Terell Stafford (trumpet) and Stefon Harris (vibraphone) plus vocalists Joanna Pascale (3 tracks) and baritone Jamie Davis (a very fine take of "Oh Christmas Tree").

Highlights include a wonderful take of "Little Drummer Boy"; introduced by Penn's splendid drum solo, the song floats along atop Whitaker's strong bass foundation and features fine solos by Harris, Warfield (soprano), Stafford and Chestnut.  Ms. Pascale leads the band through a high-energy  "Caroling Caroling", her vocal lines shadowed by Stafford and Warfield.  "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is hardly restful as Penn and Whitaker push the band to play with fire. One hears a touch of John Coltrane in the waltz arrangement of "Joy To The World" and the leader's angelic soprano sax lines. The rendition of Claude Thornhill's classic "Snowfall", replete with sleigh bells and Penn's poly-rhythmic approach, is, at times, stormy (the interplay of Warfield's soprano with the drummer's fiery rhythms) yet sparkles with its creative interactions.

To find out more about Tim Warfield, go to

Each one of these CDs had something to offer listeners who enjoy "standards" that are given new and creative treatments.  Now, go give the gift of music!  Enjoy!

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