Christmas CD Review: Jennifer Leitham’s “Future Christmas”

December 10, 2014

By Devon Wendell

A truly daunting task for any jazz musician is to create a Christmas album that both swings for the jazz lovers and appeals to a mainstream audience. If anyone can pull off this feat with ease, intelligence, and originality, it’s Jennifer Leitham and her dynamic trio, consisting of Andy Langham on piano, Randy Drake on drums, and Leitham on bass, vocals, sleigh bells, and water drops.

Jennifer Leitham

Jennifer Leitham

Future Christmas opens with a brilliant trio instrumental version of “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Leitham’s virtuosic double bass playing shines throughout this standard. Her harmonically complex, fluid, yet often delightfully tough and percussive attack on the bass has made her one of the instrument’s greatest practitioners in the jazz world for several decades now.

The lyrics to “Future Christmas (The Global Warming Winter Holiday Blues)” ask the important question “Where is the snow?” Not just on Christmas but anytime? Leitham’s lyrics on the present and future dangers of global warming sound light-hearted but address this subject seriously. The music is superb. Leitham’s bowed bass solo dances around the song’s melody and weaves in and out of Langham’s piano comping. Drake’s subtle drumming locks in the groove and leaves plenty of solo room for Leitham and Langham. Leitham’s singng voice has a sultry and smoky feel to it which is a fine addition to the trio’s sound. This is especially prevalent on Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts chestnut “Christmas Time Is Here.” The dissonant starkness of Leitham’s bass solo on this piece makes it truly an album highlight. The production is stellar.

On “Feels Like Home For Christmas,” “Nature’s Blessing,” and the exquisite “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” it feels as if you’ve known the distinct style and sound of this trio your entire life. The sound embraces the listener with soul and mastery.

Leitham’s tonally precise bowing is awe-inspiring in its adventurousness. Andy Langham’s fluid bop tinged piano work can follow Leitham anywhere she dares to venture.

The band’s chemistry is felt on “Little Drummer Boy/Big Bass Girl,” Leitham’s swinging twist on a Christmas classic. Randy Drake solos along with Leitham on this number. As Drake shows off his diverse drumming skills, Leitham complements every accent and phrase, and then launches out into the stratosphere with her bass on top. “Winter Wonderland” showcases Langham’s Bud Powell flavored piano chops.

The album’s highlight is definitely the legendary Bob Dorough’s “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern.)” The realistically bleak lyrics are matched by Leitham’s hilariously sinister vocals. Dorough’s witty and sly sense of humor as an arranger and lyricist fits the overall sound and feel of this album like a glove.

“Jingle Bells” features another stellar trio performance. It is obvious that these musicians should be playing together and can communicate musically on an intimate level that only truly great jazz players can.

The album finishes with an endearing bass a cappella reading of “O Tannenbaum.” Leitham gets deep inside of this familiar melody and explores new ground without deviating from the music’s thematic qualities. Jennifer Leitham’s Future Christmas is truly a holiday album for the ages. It swings, warms the heart, and displays some inspired musicianship that will delight her strong fan base and attract plenty of new listeners.

* * * * * * * *

The Jennifer Leitham Trio celebrates the release of “Future Christmas” at Catalina Bar & Grill on Monday, December 15.


Brian Arsenault Takes on Christmas

December 4, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

The most surrealistic experience imaginable was available to all on the evening three weeks before Christmas Eve. You simply had to switch back between your local NBC affiliate and CNN from about 8 p.m. on.

There was Mariah Carey, she of mixed racial heritage, singing “All I Want for Christmas is You” (rather badly) with some cute black kids all in white dancing behind her. It was the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting on Channel 6. Switch to CNN and there are a lot of black protestors, with some whites sprinkled in, lying down on the West Side Highway because no cop was indicted in the death of Eric Garner.

.

Seeing Lady Gaga sing with Tony Bennett (rather well) should be surreal enough for any Holiday Season. There’s a huge story going on in the streets of Manhattan. And so called NBC newsman Matt Lauer is introducing pop singers doing Christmas diddies. But you can’t break the night’s role, can you?

There’s so called CNN newsman Chris Cuomo leading a protestor to say what Chris Cuomo wants him to say. The question is so long and so directional that the guy would have to be a Cambridge debater to say something else.

Then there’s the Eric Garner video which caused all the stir. What can you do to bring down a 350 pound man who declines to be arrested? Then again, why is this happening at all? Over loose cigarettes. I understand that once cops place somebody under arrest they ain’t leaving till the suspect is in custody. But couldn’t you just keep talking and maybe issue a citation?

Eric Garner

We heard so much about how cameras on cops would make all the difference. The President is even ready to pay for it. Did it help here?

And what am I to make of the report that the senior officer in charge on the scene was a black female sergeant. And couldn’t they give the guy some oxygen when it was so apparent “I can’t breathe” wasn’t a bluff?

So back and forth I went with my remote control. Happy people watching Christmas tunes by their favorites. Unhappy people marching and marching, seemingly aimlessly at times, passing all the lights and fancy windows of New York City during the Holidays.

Now Fox News and MSNBC jump in. We got a Congressman on Fox saying the cops did absolutely nothing wrong and that we have to respect the grand jury system. We got a legal system “expert” on MSNBC characterizing the Staten Island DA as only politically motivated and saying our grand jury system is rotten and should be abolished.

The head spins, the mind boggles and I can’t find one voice, not one, who says what is needed is a change of heart. It is the Christmas season and there is almost a void of goodwill toward men.

Atheists put up billboards mocking religion just because they can and believers respond with something less than Christian forgiveness. Ho ho ho.

A Cleveland cop shoots a kid who’s brandishing a toy gun that sure looked real after taking about two seconds to decide to fire. Now we find out that cop resigned from a smaller city’s force right before he was about to be fired for emotional instability. Yet the smaller town cops didn’t tell the big town’s cops. Your cells scream for a drink or a sedative.

I don’t know exactly what happened in Ferguson. Probably even those involved don’t know precisely any more. Memory wraps itself around what it needs to be and what the lawyers say.

I do know that I always told my two sons, white as white can be, that if a cop stops them for any reason it should be “yes sir, no sir.” That no 16 year old ever got far with an officer by being a smart ass. If the cop did wrong, we’ll deal with it down the line, I said.

Of course, there’s no dealing with it later if your kid gets killed, is there?

We’re on the precipice of a great divide here. Changing the grand jury system won’t fix it. Launching another endless investigation won’t do it. Stricter law enforcement and more vigorous protests won’t do it. All these things have been tried to one extent or another.

There’s a story about the legendary Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach, a white Jew, and Bill Russell, an African American activist before white people knew what that was. Bill was supposed to be “difficult” but Red’s theory was “I’ll treat you like a man, you’ll treat me like a man and we’ll go from there.” They became not just championship coach and player. They became lifelong friends.


A Christmas Jazz Tale

December 23, 2013

A Christmas Jazz Tale

by Don Heckman

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the gig was running late;
No sugar plums, no candy canes, just another overtime club date,
Holidays are work days in a jazz musician’s life,
A chance to make some extra bucks to take home to the wife.

Chanukah’s over, Kwaanza starts tomorrow,
The Ramadan fast just ended,  and I’ll forget the others to my sorrow.
If you want to make a living in the music world these days,
You’d better learn to celebrate in many different ways.

The clock slowly turned toward the midnight hour,
As we played a jazzed up version of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
We labored on, “White Christmas,” “Frosty” and “Silent Night”;
And I wondered if we’d still be jamming “My Favorite Things” at first light.

But we finally got lucky, as the leader kicked off the last medley.
The singer mauled “The Christmas Song,” a version Mel would have found deadly,
We did the “Jingle Bell Mambo” and the “Drummer Boy Bossa Nova,”
And wrapped it all up, with a rock “Hallelujah” coda.

I packed my horn, gave the guys my best wishes and headed into the night.
The streets were dark and quiet, the stores closed up tight.
Not that it would have mattered, since the gig barely paid the rent,
And whatever I could afford for presents had already been spent.

I walked through the falling snow, filled with memories of Christmas past,
Of marching bands and Christmas parades, of lighted trees and times too good to last.
And I wondered if my kids, when adulthood beckons,
Would remember their holidays with the same sweet affection.

My footsteps led me home to a house warm and cozy,
Where my wife and my children lay innocently dozing.
So I sat for a while in the late night still,
Watching the snow fall gently on the hill.

When I suddenly heard a familiar sound in the distance,
A rhythm section swinging with hard driving persistence.
But this one was strange, something I’d never heard before,
A brisk and spirited clatter I can only describe as hoof beats galore.

Then a new sound, one both familiar yet odd,
Called out through the snowflakes, like a leader commanding a squad.
“On Trane! On Dizzy! On Monk! On Duke!
On Sonny! On Bird! On Miles! On Klook!”

The next thing I heard was just as amazing,
A set of riffs, hard-swinging and blazing,
Played on an instrument that was new to me,
The sting of a trumpet, the silk of a sax, the tone of a bone, all blended with glee.

I ran to the window to see what was coming,
And was met with a sight incredibly stunning,
What looked like a bright red ’57 Chevy,
Pulled through the sky by eight reindeer in a bevy.

They landed in my yard and the driver leaped out;
Grabbing a pack from the back he quickly turned about.
I blinked my eyes at this strange apparition,
His cheeks like Dizzy, his smile like Pops, as natty as Miles, a man on a mission.

“Call me Father Jazz,” he said as he came through the door, “musicians are my specialty.
I’ll even make a stop tonight with a little something for Kenny G.”
Then, opening his pack, he lightly danced to our tree,
Placing presents beneath it, ever so gently.

“There’s a drum set for Alex,” he said, “that kid has great time.
And a guitar for Allegra, ’cause the songs she writes are so fine.
And the books and the wristwatch you wanted for your wife,
That you couldn’t afford, living a jazz musician’s life.”

This is way too weird, I thought, it must be a dream;
Something like this is too good to be what it seems.
“Oh, it’s the real deal,” said Father Jazz, with a riff-like snap of his fingers.
“You’re on my list of serious jazz swingers.”

Moving to the doorway he turned back for a final review:
“And if you’re wondering why no box has been left for you,
It’s because your present has already been given.
You know what it is? It’s the spirit that makes your imagination so driven.”

“Musicians like you know that the gift of music is the gift of love.
It’s a gift that can only have come from above.
And those non-jazz Beatles had it right, for all our sakes,
When they said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’.”

He bounded lightly through the snow to his flying red Chevy,
Blew a celestial riff on his amazing horn — so heavy!
And urged his team forward with a rallying command,
“On Dizzy! On Bird! On Miles! On Trane!”

As his eager steeds rose into the winter sky,
Father Jazz called out one last stirring cry.
Looking down with a radiant smile and a farewell wave:
“Stay cool, Bro’ and keep the music playing.”


Christmas CDs: Tim Warfield, New York Voices, Jonathan Butler, Karrin Allyson

December 4, 2013

Of Spirits Bright

 By Brian Arsenault

The feast of Holiday music this year is as abundant as Tiny Tim’s Christmas table. After Scrooge woke up and saw the light, of course. Here are four shining stars to guide us home to Christmas.

Tim Warfield

Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas (Undaunted Music)

Tim and a whole bunch of great musicians’ (most to be named as we go along) undaunted music

To begin with, this is a terrific jazz album as well as Christmas music to delight the heart. You could play it with relish in June — it was actually recorded during summer months — but you might find yourself suddenly wanting to trim a tree.

From the start, on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” you first dig the playing: Warfield’s sax alternating with Terrell Stafford’s trumpet. Stefon Harris comes in on vibraphone, Neil Podgurski’s piano rounds things. This is a fine band playing fine jazz with Christmas “feeling.”

Warfield says “You have to believe in feeling, because that is the top of the hill in all of the arts.” Yeah. And on “Oh Christmas Tree” Podgurski’s piano intro wraps around you like a warm fire in the living room, Christmas tree in the corner. A fine vocal by Jamie Davis. Warfield’s tenor sax.

Caroling Caroling” is just joyous, all the instruments contributing. And drummer Clarence Penn sets a rollicking pace on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Tim has reminded us that “Relating to the African diaspora,… Music begins with the drum…”

So naturally there’s a fine rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” And “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” well, it’s not restful, it’s exuberant. Heck, the whole album is.

 New York Voices

 Let It Snow (12th Street Records)

If you have warm Christmas memories of childhood, this album may transport you there.

Bach’s Sleeper’s Wake (Ah, Bach) is the universal mother figure arousing a young sleepyhead on the big morning. It might also be a summons for sinners but that’s for another time.

Silent Night” is God’s a capella chorus.

We wish you a Merry Christmas” is all your friends who like that sort of thing gathered around a piano, caroling. Of course, your friends may not sing or play the piano as well, but in fond memories or with lots of good cheer they can.

The four New York Voices are those of Kim Nazarian, Darmon Meader, Lauren Kinhan and Peter Eldridge. Individually pleasing, over a quarter century they have come to blend them in a manner that seems to be of one mind. And soul.

On Christmas music, the effect is magical whether a capella or big band, whether jolly jumping or quietly meditative.

The “Silent Night” done here is angels on high. Four voices fill the room in a nearly orchestral manner. Send your troubles miles away.

Jonathan Butler

Merry Christmas to You (Artistry Music)

Soul seems especially appropriate for Christmas, which at its core is about soul in the big sense.

Jonathan Butler is about soul in the musical sense and comes right out of the gate with Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” somehow with more of a Stevie Wonder quality than Hathaway. Good enough either way.

Damn, or rather, Bless, this guy can sing. He also can compose and his “Merry Christmas to You” — a Christmas love song and there should be more of those — shows off both talents. He also plays guitar and most of the other instruments on the album.

His rich full voice on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” may draw a tear. Dreams matter too.

Nobody ever sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” like Judy Garland. She was always close to the pain implicit in the song and clung to its hopefulness in her battered but brave life. Yet Butler comes close.

He knew pain too growing up under apartheid in South Africa but he never lost hope either. Maybe you have to have some of the faith most of us have lost or decided is irrelevant in the modern world.

His is still a personal God. Of all the albums here, only his includes “The First Noel,” which is perhaps the most faith-based of the traditional carols. To hear him sing it is to go to the Church you may wish you had.

Oh, and for the big population control advocates among you, consider that Jonathan is the youngest of 17 children. Seems maybe miracles can come at any time.

Karrin Allyson

 Yuletide Hideaway (Kasrecords)

I think I may have heard a new addition to the Christmas songbook.

Karrin Allyson’s album opens with the title song which isn’t really about a physical place. It’s rather about where we hope to go: where reindeers blow a trumpet and there are skaters on a mirror pond. It’s a song that hopes for Christmas for grownups. And I think it will be heard by her and others for many future Christmases.

The second song, “Winter Oasis,” has that same quality. The search for a “place” called Christmas that the child in us embraces. Where we hope to stay for just a little while.

This whole album seems an effort at seeking that world. Ms Allyson has such a rich, expressive voice that we are happy to journey with her.

Arriving at “Winter Wonderland” we find it can be done in a restrained and soft manner when it is often done so brassy. Yet “Let It Snow” has all the bounce normally associated with the song.

Inventive and traditional. Nicely blended.

Her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has the gentle touch she brings to so much in the album. The band is especially strong here: Rod Fleeman’s guitar, Todd Strait on drums and sleigh bells, Gerald Spaits on acoustic bass.

There’s also a nice little tribute to Vince Guaraldi on “Christmas Time Is Here,” inseparable from the Holiday for all who have grown up, or are growing up, with Charlie Brown and the gang.

Warm as Nana’s quilt.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


CD Review: TriBeCaStan’s “New Songs From the Old Country”

November 12, 2013

TriBeCaStan

New Songs From the Old Country (Evergreene Music)

By Brian Arsenault

I’m a bit late getting to this gem and it is one. A rare gem that perhaps could only come out of New York — especially the “TriangleBelowCanalSt.” — where there is as much diversity as just about anywhere in the world.

Diversity of instruments — some I am not sure how to pronounce or spell. What’s a charango? Diversity of influences — from the frozen tundra of Mother Russia to the deserts of North Africa. All channeled through an American jazz sensibility with traces of bluegrass, blues and rock.

TriBeCaStan

I know. I’m not being clear enough. But it’s hard since there’s a good chance you’ve never heard anything like it before if you aren’t familiar with the band.

Eastern and Western rhythms intermingle. Stringed instruments from around the world are combined. Is that a flute? No a penny whistle. Maybe both.

It’s music that seems both terribly foreign and yet very comfortable. You might like playing it as a Holiday album, whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year. People might smile and start to dance a step or two. On the other hand, they may go ‘What the hell is this?’

A caravan moves across a desert before we decided to hate each other to death. Maybe after we stop.

You move from a room where an Irish folk tune is being played to a room full of jazz, then back again to the penny whistle and so on and so forth till you might feel a bit dizzy. Happy though.

Then you’ll be at the Circus’ Christmas party in Tinker Tailor singing something like the old Soviet national anthem.

You can cook to this music. I did. Breakfast. (Pancakes) But a bunch of Russians from an old movie may suddenly dance in your kitchen.

This is music that seeks the world but may not make it out of New York. It’s too unique. I don’t think we do unique any more.

Oh, it’s not flawless. The album drags a bit in the middle as if it’s running out of ideas and energy, starting to repeat, but then there’s a new surge of energy.

Adrian’s Leap” leaps to a bit of rock.

The Blue Sky of Your Eyes” brings bluegrass into play and shows that Delta harmonica has the same musical roots, a connection not often made.

Kecapi Rain” is maybe the most beautiful piece on the album. Soft rain falls. It’s warm.

Strings and pipes. A flute? I don’t know. I get confused and stop trying to pick out everything.

Let the soft warm rain fall.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


A Christmas Jazz Tale

December 24, 2012

A Christmas Jazz Tale

by Don Heckman

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the gig was running late;
No sugar plums, no candy canes, just another overtime club date,
Holidays are work days in a jazz musician’s life,
A chance to make some extra bucks to take home to the wife.

Chanukah’s over, Kwaanza starts tomorrow,
The Ramadan fast just ended,  and I’ll forget the others to my sorrow.
If you want to make a living in the music world these days,
You’d better learn to celebrate in many different ways.

The clock slowly turned toward the midnight hour,
As we played a jazzed up version of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
We labored on, “White Christmas,” “Frosty” and “Silent Night”;
And I wondered if we’d still be jamming “My Favorite Things” at first light.

But we finally got lucky, as the leader kicked off the last medley.
The singer mauled “The Christmas Song,” a version Mel would have found deadly,
We did the “Jingle Bell Mambo” and the “Drummer Boy Bossa Nova,”
And wrapped it all up, with a rock “Hallelujah” coda.

I packed my horn, gave the guys my best wishes and headed into the night.
The streets were dark and quiet, the stores closed up tight.
Not that it would have mattered, since the gig barely paid the rent,
And whatever I could afford for presents had already been spent.

I walked through the falling snow, filled with memories of Christmas past,
Of marching bands and Christmas parades, of lighted trees and times too good to last.
And I wondered if my kids, when adulthood beckons,
Would remember their holidays with the same sweet affection.

My footsteps led me home to a house warm and cozy,
Where my wife and my children lay innocently dozing.
So I sat for a while in the late night still,
Watching the snow fall gently on the hill.

When I suddenly heard a familiar sound in the distance,
A rhythm section swinging with hard driving persistence.
But this one was strange, something I’d never heard before,
A brisk and spirited clatter I can only describe as hoof beats galore.

Then a new sound, one both familiar yet odd,
Called out through the snowflakes, like a leader commanding a squad.
“On Trane! On Dizzy! On Monk! On Duke!
On Sonny! On Bird! On Miles! On Klook!”

The next thing I heard was just as amazing,
A set of riffs, hard-swinging and blazing,
Played on an instrument that was new to me,
The sting of a trumpet, the silk of a sax, the tone of a bone, all blended with glee.

I ran to the window to see what was coming,
And was met with a sight incredibly stunning,
What looked like a bright red ’57 Chevy,
Pulled through the sky by eight reindeer in a bevy.

They landed in my yard and the driver leaped out;
Grabbing a pack from the back he quickly turned about.
I blinked my eyes at this strange apparition,
His cheeks like Dizzy, his smile like Pops, as natty as Miles, a man on a mission.

“Call me Father Jazz,” he said as he came through the door, “musicians are my specialty.
I’ll even make a stop tonight with a little something for Kenny G.”
Then, opening his pack, he lightly danced to our tree,
Placing presents beneath it, ever so gently.

“There’s a drum set for Alex,” he said, “that kid has great time.
And a guitar for Allegra, ’cause the songs she writes are so fine.
And the books and the wristwatch you wanted for your wife,
That you couldn’t afford, living a jazz musician’s life.”

This is way too weird, I thought, it must be a dream;
Something like this is too good to be what it seems.
“Oh, it’s the real deal,” said Father Jazz, with a riff-like snap of his fingers.
“You’re on my list of serious jazz swingers.”

Moving to the doorway he turned back for a final review:
“And if you’re wondering why no box has been left for you,
It’s because your present has already been given.
You know what it is? It’s the spirit that makes your imagination so driven.”

“Musicians like you know that the gift of music is the gift of love.
It’s a gift that can only have come from above.
And those non-jazz Beatles had it right, for all our sakes,
When they said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’.”

He bounded lightly through the snow to his flying red Chevy,
Blew a celestial riff on his amazing horn — so heavy!
And urged his team forward with a rallying command,
“On Dizzy! On Bird! On Miles! On Trane!”

As his eager steeds rose into the winter sky,
Father Jazz called out one last stirring cry.
Looking down with a radiant smile and a farewell wave:
“Stay cool, Bro’ and keep the music playing.”


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