Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some New Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck

Posted By on 12.14.10 at 02:48 PM

Matt Wilson
  • Matt Wilson
Given that jazz relies heavily on the common language of a standard repertoire, it's unsurprising that so much holiday music has been adopted by jazz artists. Many of the most famous prerock Christmas tunes have interesting harmonies and chord changes as well as unforgettable melodies—and they tend to be at least as deeply ingrained in the public mind as the most famous show tunes by Cole Porter or Jerome Kern.

Drummer and bandleader Matt Wilson, who's made his bones simultaneously respecting jazz tradition and thumbing his nose at it, explores this territory on the delightful new Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O (Palmetto), and I'm quite sure he's not making fun of the tunes he's picked—well, except maybe "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." He delivers a tart medley of Albert Ayler's free-jazz hymn "Angels" and the traditional hymn "Angels We Have Heard on High," and accentuates the silliness of "Mele Kalikimaki," a Hawaian Christmas ditty made famous by Bing Crosby, by giving it a polka feel. Wilson is joined by bassist Paul Sikivie and reedist Jeff Lederer, who's the real star of the show—he sounds like he had a ball chewing apart the shopworn melodies to songs like "Winter Wonderland" (which you can check out below) and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." The trio also covers some relatively modern songs, like John and Yoko's "Happy Christmas," Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here," and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (with Lederer on appropriately dyspeptic bass clarinet). No matter how comic or absurd the music gets, the playing is consistently excellent—this record is much more than a tossed-off seasonal novelty.

Wilson will play music from the new album—and doubtless some other holiday fare as well—on Wednesday night at the Jazz Showcase. He plays with a local band—bassist John Tate and reedist Caroline Davis—and guest singers Rebecca Sullivan and Rose Colella. Wilson says additional guests, including Pat Mallinger and Dan Trudell, may also sit in.

I've enjoyed a few other holiday albums this year, including Christmas (Tompkins Square), a concise collection of solo acoustic-guitar renditions of the usual suspects by Berkeley's Sean Smith. His clear inspiration here is John Fahey, whose 1968 album The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album stands as one of the greatest and most moving Christmas records ever made. Smith delivers spirited, unfussy performances that don't try to accomplish too much. He steers clear of show-offy technique (definitely for the best, since he's not a master of nonstop embellishment like Fahey), instead savoring the melodies and adding some lovely droning backgrounds here and there. Below you can listen to his version of "Joy to the World."

Codigo Records, current owners and administrators of the massive Fania Records catalog, have reissued both volumes of Asalto Navideño, originally released by trombonist and bandleader Willie Colon, singer Héctor Lavoe, and cuatro genius Yomo Toro in 1970 and 1973. The two albums come in a single package, which also contains a golden Christmas-tree ornament. To a non-Spanish speaker like myself, they simply sound like killer salsa albums that traverse an unusually broad range of Latin American styles—from the three principals' native Puerto Rico as well as from Panama, Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and the U.S. According to the liner notes Asalto Navideño is standard holiday fare in many Latino households, and the handful of original tunes in the collection address the complex realities of immigrant life. If you're new to these recordings and don't understand the lyrics, you'll likely find zero holiday signifiers except on the packaging—the music is good enough you'll want to listen to it year-round.

Matt Wilson, "Winter Wonderland":

Sean Smith, "Joy to the World":

Today's playlist:

Pit Er Pat, The Flexible Entertainer (Thrill Jockey)
Wilbur Sweatman's Original Jazz Band, Jazzin' Straight Thru' Paradise (Archeophone)
!!!, Strange Weather, Isn't It? (Warp)
Otomo Yoshihide, Blue (Weather/Headz)
Chris Abrahams, Glow (Vegetable)

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