Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 321: bill frisell, ‘when you wish upon a star’

BillFrisell-WhenYouWishUponAStar-Cover72How fitting that the first musical voice you hear on When You Wish Upon a Star, Bill Frisell’s sublime new sampler of retooled film and television scores from decades past, doesn’t belong to the celebrated guitarist. What greets us initially is the lone viola of longtime Frisell ally Eyvind Kang as it all blows through the late summery unrest of Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird theme. Fear not, though. Frissell’s light but ominous guitar lines soon dance along with a rhythm section that, throughout the album, efficiently balances its sense of adventure with loose solidarity. What results is a ballet of sorts – one tempered and elegant that reaffirms Frisell’s status as one of today’s most fearless yet majestically understated guitar stylists.

In some ways, When You Wish Upon a Star can be seen as an extension of Frisell’s love of vintage Americana, an inspiration so wonderfully expressed on such past albums as Nashville and Beautiful Dreamers. That explains the merry clang the guitarist summons during the Bonanza theme, a tune that varies not in its clarion call lyricism and Western-informed joy, but in the stampeding rhythm section of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. The same spirit propels the album-closing Happy Trails, the classic sendoff anthem that, with Petra Haden’s multi-tracked vocals and the wiry slo-poke strut of Frisell’s guitarwork, sounds more like a serenade by Mary Ford or the Andrew Sisters than a saddle chat with Roy Rogers.

By combining the two ensemble settings that pervade the majority of his recordings – jazz combo and progressive string quartet/quintet – and then opening the scope of his repertoire to include the global reach of Hollywood, Frisell has stretched his Americana highway into infinity.

Take for instance, a reimagining of the theme to the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. With Haden taking over the vocal lead established initially by Nancy Sinatra and Kang modestly establishing the tune’s Asian undercurrent, Frisell creates a portrait of vintage cinematic splendor where he is as much a spectator (in terms of how much room he lends to his bandmates) as a leader.

In perhaps its most masterful strokes, When You Wish Upon a Star juggles extremes. A nine minute medley of themes Nino Rota composed for The Godfather is pure wonder – a mix of gypsy flourishes, jagged guitar torrents, a strong noir undercurrent and a rhythm section whose restlessness beautifully intrudes on the music until it settles under a groove by Frisell and Kang during the closing love theme.

The other extreme is measured by When You Wish Upon a Star’s title song in an arrangement that correctly reveres an inherent innocence enough to ultimately utilize it as a lullaby-like admission to the album’s inward celebration of Hollywood past.

critic’s pick 320: aoife o’donovan, ‘in the magic hour’

aoife o'donovanOn her sophomore solo recording, Aoife O’Donovan ruminates on wonder and loss in a way that their proximity to each other all but vanishes. Some songs breeze with ease, others bear a marked chill. But the demarcation between the spirits and emotions here with us today and those that have seemingly left us are exquisitely blurred. So begins one of the most enchanting releases of the young year.

A veteran of the Americana ensemble Crooked Still, numerous all-star collaborations (most notably, the Goat Rodeo Sessions) and an splendid 2013 solo debut disc called Fossils, O’Donovan designed In the Magic Hour as a requiem of sorts for her 93 year old grandfather, enforcing along the way a connection to an Irish heritage that runs deep in the singer’s roots. But In the Magic Hour isn’t a Celtic session in the least. It’s a set of 10 songs presented as a gallery of portraits with musical strokes as defined and whispery as the lullaby-like tone of O’Donovan’s singing.

In a way, such a deceptively fragile framework brings up the most obvious but misleading comparison facing O’Donovan – namely, Alison Krauss. True, both singers share a delicacy and obviously plaintive appeal. But comparisons largely disappear after that. Since O’Donovan pens her own material (she wrote eight of In the Magic Hour’s 10 songs and co-wrote a ninth, Hornets, with Sarah Jarosz), her voice becomes a more deep seeded component of the album’s musical fabric.

That’s especially apparent on Donal Og, curiously the only traditional tune on In the Magic Hour. It rolls in on a wistful electric/acoustic wash like a night wave at low tide. Amid O’Donovan’s hushed chant of a vocal is the distant, stoic voice of her grandfather. What results is gentle but ghostly séance of a song told with quiet yet powerfully emotive strength. A similarly reserved restlessness pervades The King of All Birds where “family photographs, relics I’ve found” swirl abound in a subtle duststorm of banjo, strings (provided by the always inventive Brooklyn Rider) and O’Donovan’s lightly luscious singing.

The sense of reflection brightens with the twilight pop of Magic Hour, which opens with chiming keyboard chatter that could have sailed out of Pet Sounds. Perhaps O’Donovan’s most effortlessly effective blend of love and loss, the tune tags imagery of her grandfather’s distant voice (“singing far away like an evening star”) with visions of an even more personal mortality (“death is a lonely bride”).

It all sounds rather morbid, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. In the Magic Hour may delve into meditations that can’t help but seem weighty. What O’Donovan creates, however, is music that truly sounds lighter than air – and that is magic, indeed.

cincinnati pops orchestra with rosanne cash, over the rhine, aoife o’donovan, dom flemons, comet bluegrass allstars and joe henry, ‘american originals’

american originalsImagine being seated in the spacious Cincinnati Music Hall swept up on an Arctic January evening last year by the warmth of the Cincinnati Pops. What would be the first human voice you might expect to serve as accompaniment for a program of music celebrating Stephen Foster? Chances are it wouldn’t be Joe Henry. Yet there he was, producer extraordinaire and composer with a surrealist tenacity that suggests David Lynch more than the cherished 19th century Americana composer. Henry’s elegant yet still slightly dangerous reading of Oh Susannah serves as the lead tune to a 74 minute performance recording called American Originals.

Henry, of course, is a roots music scholar and his inclusion in such a program – along with the participation of such like-mined Americana stylists as Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan and Carolina Chocolate Drop co-founder Dom Flemons, among others – makes American Originals several tiers above the usual orchestral pops presentation. Pops shows, practically by definition, gear toward accessible sounds and styles removed, often severely so, from an orchestra’s usual classical orbit. Still, striking up a dance card like this raises the bar for pops-oriented programming while enhancing the stylistic theme at hand – in this case, Foster-era works – with leanings to folk, gospel, blues and pre-bluegrass country in ways both credible and complimentary.

The most immediate ringer here is when Cash lets her regally clear but reserved voice wash over My Old Kentucky Home. It’s a moment that lets the lush cohesion of the Cincinnati Pops under the direction of John Morris Russell serve as a stirring, gorgeous backdrop for the clarity of Cash’s vocal work. Sentimental? Absolutely. But by playing to the scholarly strengths of the performers, this rendition yields a quiet authority that underscores everything generations (especially generations of Kentuckians) have embraced about the song.

But there is so much more to American Originals, including the delicate, lullaby like reading of Slumber My Darling by O’Donovan that reaffirms her reputation as heir apparent to the Americana throne seemingly vacated in recent years by Alison Krauss. Flemons also has a field day when the orchestral pageantry of Ring, Ring the Banjo pares down into the rugged intimacy of banjo and bones. A pair of Cincinnati favorites, Over the Rhine (in a warm but brittle reading of Hard Times Come Again No More) and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars (in a Copeland-like revision of Amazing Grace with O’Donovan), round out the bill along with a suitably militaristic arrangement of The Battle of Freedom the Cincinnati Pops takes on without the guests.

But the show stealer goes to Cash, who transports Beautiful Dreamer straight to the heavens with the sumptuous orchestral support. What results is music both timeless and wondrous, a snapshot of an American ideal that has grown only more lustrous with age.

critic’s pick: david bowie, ‘blackstar’

Blackstar_album_coverHalfway through the nine minute, album-opening title tune to Blackstar, David Bowie briefly steps out of a maze. Up to that point, the song is an icy meditation, an alien chant echoing with electronic chatter and neo-Eastern (or simply otherworldly) yearning. But during a brief refrain, Bowie reverses coarse and lets a ray of pop sunshine beam out of the haze. It’s a tease, of course. But experiencing this momentary but beguiling outburst is akin to hearing Frankie Valli erupt out of a Philip Glass composition. It’s that strange and that fascinating.

Much of Blackstar echoes such a similarly darting and quirky mindset. Released last week on Bowie’s 69th birthday, the record differs considerably from the more elemental and rock directed The Next Day, the singer’s 2013 comeback album after a decade long disappearing act. Blackstar is one of the more abstract but ambient albums Bowie has constructed. Amazingly, it’s also one of his most listenable.

The hubbub surrounding the recording sessions was that the singer had utilized a pack of New York jazz rats, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin (whose credits include Gary Burton, Dave Douglas and Steps Ahead) as his studio band. But Blackstar is no more a jazz record and than it is a rock outing. It echoes the more anti-pop corners of such late ‘70s Bowie classics as Low and Heroes, right down to the guitar whine breezing through the otherwise summery strains of synths, sax and harmonica that close out the album during I Can’t Everything Away that mimics Robert Fripp’s gelatinous ooze on Heroes’ title tune from nearly four decades ago.

In some instances, Blackstar may seem bleak and distant – a scrapbook of sparse soundscapes built around varying rhythms, McCaslin’s myriad sax sounds and Bowie’s often chant-like singing. But the music is continually rhythmic. No matter how spacious, fractured or contained it becomes, a peculiar lyricism remains. You hear it in the slow, desperate arc that hangs over Lazarus and the way McCaslin sounds like a solemn but soulful foil. The rhythm is translated into a more elemental groove during ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, where a sax and drum rampage flesh out a reticent encounter (“she punched me like a dude”) while keyboard orchestration rushes under the frenzy like a cavern river. The purposeful crack and echo in Bowie’s voice during the initial verse of Sue (or in a Season of Crime) sounds like an interplanetary yodel while Dollar Days warms up Blackstar ever so slightly with its piano/sax design and the light resignation of Bowie’s singing.

Still, such peculiar hints of accessibility don’t change the overall wintry spell cast by Blackstar. At once artfully organic but still full of electric abstraction, the music is seemingly icy to the touch but thaws into delicious cool once you invite it in.

(This review was written and filed the day before the announcement of David Bowie’s death on Jan. 10. No revisions were made.)

critic’s pick 317: king crimson, ‘thrak – 40th anniversary edition

thrakThe wheezy melancholy that kicked open Thrak upon its release in 1995 couldn’t have sounded less like King Crimson. It began like a string quartet playing on a cranked up Victrola but with a sort of easy animation that made the serenade sound like the soundtrack to a 1940s radio drama.

Then the avalanche hit. Two guitarists, two drummers and, in effect, two basses roared to life with an accelerated melody than alternated between thunderous, almost danceable rhythm and a chiming refrain that reached to a more ambient level of prog-related bliss. The resulting title of this album-opening detonation tune couldn’t have been more succinctly apt: VROOOM.

A newly remastered Thrak comes to us as one of the first official album releases of 2016. But don’t get too hung up on dates. Though just over 20 years old, the original Thrak brought King Crimson to life again after a decade-long hiatus. This new edition, boasting a wildly crisp stereo mix by Jakko Jakszyk (co-guitarist and vocalist of the current Crimson incarnation) and Robert Fripp (guitarist, founder, chieftain and the only mainstay member of the band’s many lineups) as well as several DVD audio impressions (including a 5.1 Surround Sound mix I got to hear over the holidays that is truly imposing in its clarity), comes with the subtitle of 40th Anniversary Edition. That refers to Crimson’s inception in 1969. The reissue series that began with the milestone anniversary of that event still remains several recordings short of completion.

What is important, though, is getting a chance to hear Thrak again with fresh ears and a several hearty tweaks. It’s an album full of glorious racket that brought together Crimson’s full 1980s lineup – Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford (a holdover from the band’s early ‘70s roster), bassist Tony Levin and Northern Kentucky native Adrian Belew as a second guitar piledriver – with a pair of players Fripp had more recently collaborated with – former Mr. Mister drummer Pat Mastellotto and stick player Trey Gunn.

What resulted was perhaps the most musically diversified record in the Crimson canon. VROOOM and its hot-wired reprise piece VROOOM VROOOM recalled the power chord strut of such earlier Crimson epics as Red while the title tune let Bruford and Mastellotto loose on a furiously exact percussion rumble. Then there was Belew, who offered a pair of gorgeous neo-ballads (One Time and Walking on Air) that blended his flair for Beatle-esque reflection and Fripp’s guitar ambience. Topping it all was Dinosaur, a giddy Belew-led rampage that groved with youthful vitality even as its lyrics mocked Crimson’s weighty legacy (“I’m a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones”).

Thrak sounded great then and roars with even more beastly clarity in this retooled and ultimately ageless-sounding edition.

critic’s pick 306: john abercrombie, ‘the first quartet’

john abercrombieThere is an assessment within the bio materials accompanying John Abercrombie’s The First Quartet that the three vintage albums making up the box set stand as “seminal documents” in the development of the guitarist’s abilities as a bandleader. If anything, “seminal” is an understatement in this music’s resurfacing.

Cut in rapid succession between 1978 and 1980, the trio of recordings making up The First Quartet certainly chronicle Abercrombie’s rise from a solo and collaborative performer for ECM, the Munich-based label that came to define a heavily impressionistic slant on what was then contemporary jazz (the package is the latest in the label’s Old and New Masters series). The band Abercrombie assembled came initially from established affiliations with bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. Later came the addition of esteemed pianist Richie Beirach, who the guitarist met upon moving to New York.

But The First Quartet also serves an extraordinary dual purpose. First, for those unfamiliar with Abercrombie or even to the ECM sound as it existed 35-plus years ago, this set is an ideal primer. The musicianship’s overall scope is light and lyrical but spacious in a way that unites elements of fusion and even chamber music. Upon first listen, Abercrombie’s guitar tone is atmospheric enough to recall Pat Metheny’s early records. The comparison is further underscored by the way Abercrombie locks into ballet-like exchanges with Beirach (whose ECM records as a leader are equally deserving of an Old and New Masters treatment) and the way the latter, in turn, buoys his more melodic phrasing to the rhythm section. But where Metheny (who also recorded for ECM at the time) was more fusion based, this music from Abercrombie shifted between echoes of bop and rich yet lightly accented ensemble orchestration.

The other big achievement of The First Quartet will appeal to longtime Abercrombie fans. None of the set’s recordings – Arcade (1979), Abercrombie Quartet (1980) and M (1981) – have previously received a domestic release on compact disc (Arcade was available briefly as a Japanese import). They have been out of print completely for years, so hearing them again on CD is a bit of an occasion.

None of the music sounds at all dated– a testament to ECM founder Manfred Eicher’s crystalline production as well as to the entire design of the compositions, from the mysterious bounce on Arcade’s title tune to the light but restless swing of Stray (from Abercrombie Quartet) to Beirach’s gorgeously plaintive set up for Abercrombie’s darting guitar chatter on the M finale song Pebbles.

It all makes The First Quartet an enticing welcome to novice fans as well as a series of brilliant missing chapters for diehards. Either way, the music it contains is nothing short of enchanting.

the best recordings of 2015

It was, as Sinatra coined, a very good year for popular music. Not the disposable programmed product that often topped the charts and took home the awards, but honest and organically cultivated pop, rock, soul and – in one of its most surprisingly artful runs in ages – country.

We heard formative artists break through with their finest work, new acts astound with their debut records and some still-vital music being generated by a few old, and in some instances, forgotten names.

Here then is my critic’s pick look at the best popular music recordings of 2015, presented in no particular order. All should be considered equals.

rhiannon+ Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow is My Turn – It’s difficult to overstate how involving this recording is. Known as one-third of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens teams up with Americana chieftain T Bone Burnett to pursue an organic, roots-informed soundscape that covers blues, folk, gospel and even country. But at the helm is a voice that remains profoundly clear, regal and soulful.

alabama shakes+ Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color – As arresting as the Shakes’ 2012 debut album was, Sound & Color is far wilder. It whips the soul charge of Brittany Howard’s singing into a psychedelic cocktail of torrential funk and deep pocket grooves. She channels James Brown one minute and croons like Billie Holiday the next. But the fury and serenity of Sound & Color always sounds blissfully original.

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free+ Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free – Something More Than Free boasts the lightest and perhaps sweetest tone musically of any record Isbell has cut. But it’s not built on the promise of happy endings. These are songs seasoned with folkish invitation and country intent. As such, much of the album flirts with combustion as it confirms Isbell’s status as a masterful Southern storyteller.

keith richards+ Keith Richards: Crosseyed Heart – Not so much a studio album as it is a block party, Crosseyed Heart shows off the ragged Richards as a Stone still on a roll. The album discovers warmth within the darkest recesses of rock ‘n’ roll, yet it boasts everything from sun drenched reggae to a boozy duet with Norah Jones. This is the work of a defiantly` cheerful and ageless spirit.

Chris-Stapleton-Traveller+ Chris Stapleton: Traveler – As you read this, Lexington-born, Pikeville-reared Stapleton is the hottest thing in country music. But what’s important about Traveler isn’t the singer’s celebrity status or even his Kentucky roots. What matters is the rich, refreshing sense of pure country tradition, laced with Southern soul, fueling this sublime record.

leon-bridges-coming-home1+ Leon Bridges: Coming Home – He sounds like the reincarnation of Sam Cooke, full of old school soul finesse surrounded by gorgeous and tastefully reserved arrangements. Like Cooke, Bridges’ first love was gospel. While there is an undeniable spiritual cast to much of Coming Home, what sells the record is the singer’s exquisite sense of cool, clarity and unpretentious charm.

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material+ Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material – The Texas born singer spins yarns of family, smalltown life and restless romance that have long been thematic staples of country music. But Musgraves is also a subtle rebel. Her music champions a human level of imperfection that rings out any sense of false sentimentality, leaving songs filled with humor, candor and sobering reality.

devil music+ Randall Bramblett: Devil Music – Some four decades into his career, Bramblett remains one of the South’s keenest song stylists, but also one of its most neglected. Devil Music is simply more of the same – songs full of often restless human narratives wrapped in grooves and hooks where soul, rock and funk accents glisten. In Bramblett’s case, the Devil you know seriously rocks.

los lobos gates of gold+ Los Lobos: Gates of Gold – Los Lobos remains such an astoundingly unassuming band that it becomes sadly easy to overlook the expert albums it continues to release. Gates of Gold is another quiet triumph – reflective and contemplative at one end, richly rocking at the other, along with the odd twist of Tex Mex and psychedelia that makes their songs so distinctive.

amy helm+ Amy Helm: Didn’t It Rain – A record of effortlessly loose vigor and drive, Didn’t It Rain conjures the kind of rock and soul feel Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat cooked up for Warner Brothers Records over four decades ago. But her singing is also infused with rhythmic, Woodstock-driven groove and gospel-esque fervor, not to mention her own scholarly confidence.

critic’s pick 305: bruce springsteen, ‘the ties that bind – the river collection’

bruce_springsteen_ties“We drove on, fueled not by the future but by a past we could never touch.”

So recounts Bruce Springsteen during The Time That Never Was, one of the many unearthed gems that make up The Ties That Bind – The River Collection, the third and finest in a series of boxed set re-examinations of The Boss’ most pivotal albums. That’s a telling line in many ways as Springsteen’s early songs were consumed with the restlessness of youth and how it led into an uncertain and often darker adulthood.

The original 1980 double LP The River, which takes up two of the seven discs on The Ties That Bind, instigated that search with steadfast confidence. On the surface, the record was full of celebratory rockers that represented a thematically lighter and musically looser slant than the music from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge Town, the album that slammed the door shut on Springsteen’s youth. Out in the Street, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), Hungry Heart, Sherry Darling, Cadillac Ranch, Ramrod, Crush on You and more – The Boss had fashioned enough rock ‘n’ roll cheer during these sessions to make The River sound like a frat party.

But there was also a different darkness from different outskirts pervading The River. You heard it in such somber remembrances as Independence Day, The River, Point Black, Stolen Car, and the piece de resistance finale, Wreck on the Highway, whose shattered images disturbed even from a seemingly safe distance.

That, of course, only tells what we already know. The Ties That Bind is a remarkable broadening of The River. The remainder of its considerable contents include the original single disc version of the record yanked from release by Springsteen, complete with tunes like Be True that would surface later only as B-sides, and a full disc of outtakes.

The latter is the real find. While some of its contents have surfaced through the years on bootlegs, B-sides and other boxed sets (most notably, 1998’s Tracks), their inclusion on The Ties That Bind nicely flesh out the original record’s balance, as in the pairing of the boardwalk instrumental Paradise by the C with the anthemic pop romance of Mary Lou.

But the rarities – the pensive, piano-led Night Fire, the turbulent Chain Lightning (a pre-cursor of sorts to State Trooper from 1982’s Nebraska) and the Byrds-like Party Lights – are masterful works representing the spirits of E Street past. Toss in three DVDs that encompass an inexhaustible concert from Tempe, Ariz in 1980 and a full documentary and you have a powerfully insightful look into Springsteen’s ascension into megastardom.

From familiar hits to hidden treasures, The Ties That Bind offers joyride on a River truly gone wild.

critic’s picks 304: nick lowe and los straitjackets, ‘the quality holiday revue’ and rhiannon giddens, ‘factory girl’

Normally, you wouldn’t catch me dead recommending a digital recording over a physical, CD version of a music product. It’s a matter of principle. Sadly, that rule goes out the window on two new releases by Rhiannon Giddens and Nick Lowe teamed with Los Straitjackets. Aside from a very limited vinyl run tied to Black Friday/Record Store Day promotions, both recordings have only been issued digitally. Then again, add in the convenience of quick downloading as opposed to another trip to the mall during the final days of the seasonal shopping marathon and it’s pretty tough not to recommend these two little gems.

quality holiday revueThe Quality Holiday Revue revisits British pop vet Lowe’s concerts this time last year with the instrumental party pros of Los Straitjackets. In part, it brings the music of Lowe’s 2013 Yuletide album Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family to Life in a performance setting. But with the surf-inclined sounds of Los Straitjackets at his back, new live renditions of the gospel-heavy and roots-rock saturated Children Go Where I Send Thee, the hapless crooner Dollar Short of Happy (performed as a solo serenade), the jolly rocking The North Pole Express and Lowe’s own jet-setting Christmas at the Airport possess an animated drive that wasn’t always registered on the studio versions.

But The Quality Holiday Revue has a lot more on the menu. Los Straitjackets takes the wheel for a surf and ska treatment of Linus and Lucy while Lowe excavates a few gems from his ‘70s (I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass) and ‘80s records (Ragin’ Eyes and Half a Boy and Half a Man) that the Straitjackets crew have a field day with. The highlight is a super fun reading of the 1965 Uniques hit Not Too Long Ago that Lowe and his masked men convert into a tasty hybrid of British and American pop.

giddens-factory-girl-450sqGiddens’ Factory Girl is an EP companion piece to her remarkable solo debut album Tomorrow is My Turn (which, in case it isn’t already, should be in every household). The five T Bone Burnett-produced tracks include Underneath the Harlem Moon (a regal version of the 1932 jazz celebration by Ethel Waters), a stark and sadly topical take of the working anthem title tune, the original Moonshiner’s Daughter (a kind of equal opportunity tale of a rum-runner) and That Lonesome Road (a jubilant slice of Sister Rosetta Tharpe-inspired salvation).

The killer, though, is Mouth Music, a cross-cultural mash-up of Celtic inspired lilting, American beatboxing and, at its conclusion, outrageous scatting. Leave it to Giddens, the breakthrough solo star of the year, to sound so confidently but profoundly soulful on a tune without uttering a single word.

critic’s pick 303: jazz at lincoln center orchestra with wynton marsalis, ‘big band holidays’

big band holidaysAt the very onset of Big Band Holidays, the new Yuletide album by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, two requisite initiatives are set in motion. First is a sense of playfulness, an essential exponent in providing any sense of invention to tunes that have been recorded and interpreted with merciless frequency. The other is instrumental command, a crucial element to a jazz take on holiday music and an attribute the Lincoln Center orchestra, with chieftain Wynton Marsalis still at the helm, has displayed abundantly through the years.

Both collide the instant the album-opening take on Jingle Bells swings into action. Perhaps the most overcooked of all Christmas classics, the tune commences with a piano roll from Dan Nimmer that sounds like a mash-up of Count Basie sass and Jelly Roll Morton locomotion. Bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson then stir up the rhythmic pot before a chorus of muted horns dash in to underscore the band’s most steadfast influence, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding heats the music further with roaring blasts while the ensemble fully ignites in giddy exchanges. In just over two minutes, the whole party has concluded, the audience on this concert recording applauds and Marsalis offer his usual stoic summation of what we have just heard: “We are the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Talk about making spirits bright. The festive mood never relents from there, although Marsalis isn’t the only one playing Santa. Saxophonist Victor Goines’ arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sneaks a snippet of Welcome Christmas (from How the Grinch Stole Christmas) into its intro before Cecile McLorin Salvant joins the orchestra for a serenade of lush, hushed cool. For sheer invention, Rene Marie helps set a mood for ‘Zat You, Santa Claus? that befits Halloween more than Christmas. Gregory Porter also pilots a bountiful but nicely mannered dose of the blues that cues the orchestra’s collective sass on Merry Christmas Baby.

Marsalis has shown a fondness for holiday music ever since his early quintet cut a Creole-inspired cover of We Three Kings for the excellent 1981 collection God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen (an essential holiday record). Here Ted Nash revamps the tune again with a deep percussive drive and a calliope of reeds that honk about like geese as the melody constructs and deflates. Nash’s later soprano sax solo drives the more spacious section of the arrangement with Coltrane-ish fervor.

Bringing the whole party home is What Child is This? arranged by Marsalis alumnus and current Lexingtonian Wycliffe Gordon. It’s built around another sleek and exact vocal performance by Salvant and a rolling round of brass that sounds soulful, solemn and more than a little mysterious.

« Previous entries

Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | About Our Ads | Copyright