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.”


Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CDs and DVDs from Peggy Duquesnel, Roy Orbison, Julie Cain and Favorites from 2013

December 21, 2013

For Last Minute Shoppers Only

(We Need All the Help We Can Get)

By Brian Arsenault

 Peggy Duquesnel

All I Ask For Christmas (CD Baby)

There’s a real neat Christmas music album that for whatever reason I didn’t get around to reviewing. Peggy Duquesnel’s All I Ask For Christmas is the complete package.

You get a CD of instrumental Christmas classics because she’s a first rate pianist and arranger as well as a fine singer. So you also get her singing some Christmas tunes you will know and some she composed on a second CD. There’s a jazz feel here, great sidemen and enough Christmas music to get you through dinner and keep you awake until desert.

One more plug also for Jonathan Butler’s Merry Christmas to You. A warmer Christmas album you will not find. Great by the Fire.

Wall to Wall Roy

There’s just a whole lot of newly released Roy Orbison stuff available. I previously reviewed The Last Concert recorded heart breakingly only two days before he passed. It’s great. Included are a DVD of his last interview and performance videos.

The biographical DVD In Dreams is also just out with more performances and interviews with many of his admirers from the music world. The impressive Black and White Night wherein Roy performs with many of those admiring giants of rock is also available.

You could give an Orbison orbiter the Christmas of a lifetime.

Worth Searching For

If you can find it, get one of the truly remarkable if under appreciated albums of the year — Little Lonely (Julie Cain). She sings of the America where most people live — poignant, insightful, unsparing but very, very caring. Quick to laugh, long to lament. A truly original American voice in all ways. Willie, Cash and Emmylou at their thoughtful, poetic best walk some of the same streets. To read my review of Little Lonely click HERE.

More From 2013

The more I think about it the less I like “Best Of” lists. There are so many ways for works of art to be good (or bad) that saying one or another is “best” tends to diminish other fine stuff out there. That being said, a few of my favorites from 2013:

- Cheryl Bentyne with and without Mark Winkler

- George Benson’s Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole

- The reissue of the amazing Jimi Hendrix Experience Purple Box Set. The stuff from the Paris concert alone is worth the hefty price.

- Vinyl reissues from The Rolling Stones, especially the early stuff and the amazing Exile on Main Street.

What else are you gonna buy coming down the stretch?

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


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.

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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.”


Quotation of the Week: Christina Rossetti on Christmas

December 22, 2012

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“Love came down at Christmas; love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas, stars and angels gave the sign.”

- Christina Rossetti

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To read more Quotations of the week click HERE.


Live Jazz: The Ron Jones Jazz Influence Orchestra with April Williams at Vitello’s

December 18, 2012

By Don Heckman

On the way home from Disney Hall Sunday, the traffic on the 101 magically – and unexpectedly –  opened up, and we suddenly realized we could reach Vitello’s just in time to catch the second set by the Ron Jones Jazz Influence Orchestra.

Call it an unusual sequence – from the Christmas music of Bach and Vivaldi, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, to a big jazz band in action.  And “big” is precisely the right word for this organization, which expands the usual 17 to 18 piece big band instrumentation to 22 players, including a French horn section.

Add to that the announcement the evening would include an extremely rare performance by singer April Williams, whose management of Vitello’s Upstairs Jazz Room has established one of the Southland’s important new jazz venues.

April Williams with the Ron Jones Jazz Influence Band

April Williams with the Ron Jones Jazz Influence Band

Combined, it was all too good to miss.

Vitello’s was jammed when we arrived, the tables and booths overflowing with listeners, as the Jones players filled the stage from one side of the room to the other. Fortunately we found a nook where we could sit, drink some wine, and prepare to expand our evening of Christmas music from Baroque to bebop.

Not all bebop, that is.  But plenty of it in the vigorous soloing of players such as saxophonists Fred Selden, Pete Christlieb, Doug Webb and Gene Cipriano, pianist Alan Steinberger, trumpeter Bob Summers and trombonist Bob McChesney.

Most of the music in the set, however, was dedicated to Christmas songs, arranged to apply the rich tonal resources and jazz-driven rhythms of the 22 piece ensemble to the familiar canon of Christmas classics.,

“It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” arrived in a lushly harmonized medley with “Silent Night.”  Contrastingly, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” surfaced with a briskly jaunty rhythmic underpinning, driven by Dave Tull’s energetic drumming.

Thad Jones’ lovely “A Child Is Born” was next.  It hasn’t become a Christmas classic yet, but it should.  Especially via the beautifully arranged version by the Jones Influence Orchestra, with musically touching contributions from pianist Steinberger.

Johnny Mandel’s Grammy- and Academy Award-winning “The Shadow Of Your Smile” generated yet another perspective. Not exactly a Christmas item, it added a unique touch to the fascinating program via an arrangement featuring the fine French horn playing of Tawnee Lillo and Jean Marinelli.

The performance peaked with the arrival of April Williams on stage with a puckish smile on her face, clearly in the mood to have fun.  And she did, singing Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule,” making the most of lyrics announcing the arrival of St. Nick:

           “From Coney Island to The Sunset Strip
           Somebody’s gonna make a happy trip
          Tonight, while the moon is bright.”

Clearly enjoying every moment she had with the backing of the Jones Jazz Influence Band, April topped off the number with a call for everyone to:

“Have a Yule that’s cool
Yeah, a cool Yule.”

It was the perfect climax to an evening that had begun with Bach and Vivaldi and wound up with big band jazz, all of it illuminating the far-ranging musical inspiration that Christmas has created over the centuries.  And there’s still another week and a half to hear even more Christmas music before the joyous day arrives.

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To read the iRoM review of the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Disney Hall click HERE or scroll up.


Live Jazz: Cat Conner and Gene “Cip” Cipriano at the Out Take Bistro

December 16, 2012

By Don Heckman

Studio City, CA.  Jazz performances don’t get any more up close and personal than the bi-weekly appearances of Cat Conner and Gene “Cip” Cipriano at the Out Take Bistro in Studio. City.  At their performance on Friday night, singer Conner and saxophonist/clarinetist Cipriano, with the aid of guitarist Jim Fox, were comfortably ensconced in a convenient corner of the venue’s main room, surrounded by clustered tables and enthusiastic listeners positioned virtually within an arm’s reach of the musicians.

The trio made the most of the intimacy, singing and playing with the sort of rich expressiveness one might experience at a living room jam session.  And with less than two weeks until Christmas, Cat and Cip further enhanced the mood of musical intimacy with a program overflowing with holiday songs.

Cat Conner and Gene ("Cip") Cipriano

Cat Conner and Gene (“Cip”) Cipriano

Among the highlights: Cat’s fun-loving take on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” her warm reading of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the whimsically instructional behavioral warnings of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”  Add to that Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas,” sung with the too-rarely heard, scene-setting verse.

Here, as elsewhere in a pair of generous sets, Cat’s interpretations were rich with musical eloquence.  The sweetness of her sound, combined with her gently swinging rhythmic phrasing, recalled some of the big band girl singers of the ‘40s and ‘50s –  Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Shore among them.  But always done from Cat’s unique creative perspective.

She sang Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” accompanied only by Fox’s fluent guitar lines.  On other tunes – “Caravan” among them – she dueted with the laid back, woody tones of Cip’s persuasive clarinet lines.  The far-ranging program also featured her equally engaging interpretations of a pair of  familiar Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini items – the film song, “Charade” and the Academy Award winning “Days of Wine and Roses” – as well as an unusual view, with lyrics, of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas.”

Cat Conner, Gene "Cip" Cipriano, Jim Fox and Dick Nash

Cat Conner, Gene “Cip” Cipriano, Jim Fox and Dick Nash

And there was more, all of it done with Fox’s guitar work providing  superb, on the spot arrangements.  Add to that Cip’s atmospheric counterlines on clarinet and tenor saxophone.  Further enhancing the program, the group was joined – halfway through the set — by trombonist Dick Nash, whose buoyant style was a dynamic addition to the evening’s instrumental versions of tunes such as “Georgia On My Mind” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

Call it an appealing way to hear first rate jazz artists in a cozy, appropriately spontaneous setting.  Cip and Cat’s performance schedule calls for appearances at the Out Take Bistro every other Friday night.  And if you can’t wait another two weeks to hear them in action with their gifted musical associates, check out Cat’s debut CD, Cat Tales, which also features the presence of the gifted pianist/producer, the late George Mesterhazy in one of his last performances.


Here, There & Everywhere: Sing! Sing! Sing!

December 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

Christmas caroling was a regular seasonal activity in my young life.  Growing up in an Eastern Pennsylvania rust belt city, singing carols while slip-sliding our way across icy sidewalks was as necessary to the holiday as going to Mass on Christmas eve.  In a way, it was an equally necessary counter to the darker side of what we’d done on Halloween, when enacting tricks was a lot more common than  asking for treats.

All of which went through my mind last night when Faith and I took our lovely ten year old granddaughter, Maia, to the Victorian Mansion for “Candlelight Carols” by Judy Wolman, Howard Lewis and “Sing! Sing! Sing!”  And one couldn’t have asked for a more delightfully atmospheric setting to join in a holiday music singalong than the elegant wood-paneled room that jazz fans will recall as the former site of the much-missed jazz club, “The Vic.”

At the beginning, Wolman reminded me that she, Lewis and their group of singers had been doing these holiday celebrations for 20 years.  Not only that, of course, but also their continuing programs of participatory jaunts through the rich musical landscape of the Great American Songbook.  (Programs devoted to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and others are already scheduled for 2012.)

The “Candlelight Carols” program characteristically reached out to embrace the Songbook – with selections from Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — as well as a collection of traditional carols.  And the format was as comfortable and inviting as a holiday evening in a close friend’s living room.

Lewis introduced each number with some fascinating background, often including nuggets of insight into the song, as well as its creators.  Then Wolman — a superb piano accompanist, backed by Chris Conner’s bass, Dick Weller’s drums and some warm melody-making from harmonica player Ron Kalina – led the way into the song.

Maia

The audience, using lyric sheets provided by Wolman, sang along enthusiastically, sometimes even more than that.  And our granddaughter, Maia, not especially familiar with all the standards, nonetheless applied her already burgeoning musicality to every song, singing, smiling, enjoying every minute of this engaging new experience.

And what a collection of songs it was: “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “My Favorite Things,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”  As well as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel” and much, much more.

Between the singalong segments, individual singers from the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocal ensemble – Chuck Marso, Anita Royal, Jackie Manfredi and Ruth Davis – soloed.  And songwriter Jim Mann presented a brand new Christmas song, “Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!”

The sidewalks weren’t icy, and there was no snow in the forecast as we left the Victorian.  But the wind was blowing, and, as we walked hand in hand to our car, the words to one of the evening’s songs – with their perfect holiday sentiments — kept coming to mind.

           “The wind is blowing

           But I can weather the storm

            What do I care how much it may storm?

            I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”


Live Jazz: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at Disney Hall

December 21, 2011

By Don Heckman

Who would have thought that Tuesday night’s Disney Hall performance by jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli would wind up in a singalong with the entire audience joining in on “The Twelve Days of Christmas?”

The answer is anyone who’s ever seen Pizzarelli, his trio, and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, in action.  Together, they have created some of the jazz world’s most consistently engaging entertainments.  Like Louis Armstrong, Dave Frishberg, Dizzy Gillespie and Mose Allison, among others, they’ve done so in an irresistibly swinging  jazz setting.  As they did on Tuesday.

Their set was especially enlivened by the blending of seemingly dissimilar songs into lyrically pointed combinations.  Not quite medleys, they were more like a contrapuntal tossing back and forth of words and music.  The pairing of Irving Berlin’s “The Best Things Happen When You Dance” and Bobby Troup’s “Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast,” for example, was a perfect opportunity for Pizzarelli to play the seducing male to Molaskey’s reluctant female.  On another blend, Molaskey accurately noted the co-dependency aspects of the lyrics to “I Want To Be Happy” (“But I can’t be happy, until you’re happy, too”), while Pizzarelli responded casually with “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

And there were other blends, equally pointed in their own ways: Stephen Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Eyes” with Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda”; Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco.”

Backed by the solid support of pianist Larry Fuller (whose soloing was one of the evening’s musical highlights), bassist (and brother) Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Tony Tedesco, the vocal excursions were balanced by plenty of opportunities for Pizzarelli’s high flying guitar lines to solo, often in unison with his vocal scatting – notably so on “Sleigh Ride.”  Molaskey, a Broadway star in her own right, applied her warm and supple voice to a touching reading of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” and Pizzarelli touched on the real meaning of the holiday with an equally moving “Count Your Blessings.”

But back to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  It almost seemed like another of his throwaway lines when Pizzarelli proposed a singalong of the old classic, assigning the melody of one of the days to each of the many individual audience areas.  And there was faltering along the way, especially from some of the smaller sections.  But, unexpectedly, it all came together – with the upper center section offering a near-professional version of “Five golden rings” – and the others responding with, at the very least, plenty of enthusiasm.

As I suggested above, it wasn’t exactly what one expected at a jazz concert.  But it was delightful, nonetheless.  As was the balance of this utterly enjoyable evening. Call it a musical Christmas present from the Pizzarellis – a Christmas present to remember.

Photo courtesy of the Pizzarellis.


Holiday CD Reviews: Some Golden (Not So) Oldies

December 14, 2011

By Faith Frenz

Winter celebrations are upon us.  And aren’t we all digging deeply into our saved treasures,  surrounding ourselves with the holiday memories tucked away in our homes and our hearts, enriching and sharing the love and warmth we all need and crave?

As always, holiday time is arriving in the darkest of days and the wonder of the full moon.  Time to think about who we are, our heritage, our spiritual beliefs, our loved ones here and gone.  Time to rejoice in that spirit, and share in the wonder of the gift of life which is all too transient.

For me, Christmas is redolent with fragrant memories:  The search to find the perfect fir tree on a snowy evening.  The incomparable transcendence of  singing the Messiah in  a choir.  The poignant remembrance of sitting at the piano next to my grandfather, Peter Frenz, while he taught me to sing “Silent Night” in his native language… “Stille Nacht.”

Music and fragrance hold those memories for us all, which is why I want to share a few of my favorite holiday CDs — accumulated over the past few years, but all still readily available at Amazon and elsewhere.

The Canadian Tenors

The Perfect Gift (Decca 2010)

 Currently on tour before sold out audiences, the ravishing sound of the voices of the four Canadian Tenors — each uniquely different – is an intensely emotional experience to hear. On this year old holiday CD, they bring their exceptional blend of vocal talent to songs of worship and inspiration. One of the most moving songs is “Instrument of Peace”, a Christian prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi,  and not often heard.

All the songs are supported by lush orchestrations with choral backgrounds, and it’s almost impossible to select any one of the selections as more outstanding than the others.  But I do have my personal favorites: “O Holy Night”,” Silent Night”, “Ave Maria” , “Oviens Emmanuel.”  And, especially, a really memorable melody, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  My advice is this — do not just buy one or two Mp3s of this CD.  The album needs to be experienced in its entirety.

Chris Botti

December (Columbia 2006)

 First recorded in 2002, December was reissued in 2006.  And now, almost a decade after its initial release, it has become a classic. Botti is that rarity — a trumpet player who plays his instrument as a vocal expression, as though he were singing through his horn.  And it’s not surprising that he is the number one selling jazz instrumentalist, continually touring the world, his albums produced by veteran hit-maker Bobby Colomby, his trumpet featured on several widely seen PBS fund-raising specials.

The album is chockful of classic Christmas carols along with a few popular holiday tunes. Among the highlights: rich, emotional renderings of “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night,” recorded in London.  And, here, as well as on the Canadian Tenors’ CD,  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which — played without the original words, in Botti’s expressive style — perfectly suits the season

Diana Krall

Christmas Songs (Verve 2005)

 Diana Krall, aided by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, takes the opportunity to display her diverse talents with this collection of holiday golden oldies, done with a jazz twist.  The result is a program of familiar items overflowing with playfulness, sentiment, and humor. From the stirring, Clayton-Hamilton big band textures (“Let It Snow”), to lush orchestral sounds (“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas”), to Krall’s familiar small, swinging group backing (“White Christmas”).  Add to that her lovely  interpretation of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” and “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas,” in touching versions arranged and produced by Johnny Mandel.

Christmas Songs concludes with a moving rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings, Instead Of Sheep.”  It’s not a  traditional holiday song, but how appropriate it is — not just  for the holiday season, but for every season. A charming personal footnote to this very special album.

Sting

If On a Winter’s Night (Deutsche Grammophon 2009)

 The album notes call this “a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries.”

It was introduced with this video in 2009 and utterly captivated me.

And with good reason.  Take a look:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFAleFnbRgw

When I received the CD, I listened to it every day for at least a month. The journey is drawn from traditional music of the British Isles, and the music was performed and recorded on Sting’s estate in Tuscany. Although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure there are those, like me, who will love the gentle, traditional folk style medieval madrigals, played on authentic string instruments such as the lute and harp. For those individuals I say take the journey.  It’s mesmerizing.

Apparently many others have had similar reactions.  In 2010, If On A Winter’s Night won the award for best music at the “Time for Peace” humanitarian film and music awards in Paris.

Take 6

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Heads Up 2010)

 An irresistibly happy and bouncy collection of holiday songs by this award-winning a capella group Take 6 is a collection of amazing singers who combine jazz, gospel, r&b and doo-wop into a truly unique sound.  “Sugarplum Dance” from The Nutcracker, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from Dr Seuss, and “I Saw Three Ships” stand out for their unique interpretations of familiar holiday music.

But the simple truth is that virtually every piece, traditional or otherwise, becomes something new and special when Take 6 take the song – and you — for a musical ride.

Yo-Yo Ma & Friends

Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical 2008)

Any musical event featuring Yo -Yo Ma is a treasure, since his  classical roots and joyful spirit shine through everything he touches. The intentions of this production, which was a TV show in 2008, are stated here:  “Imagine a musical party inspired by the holiday season.  A party that celebrates the universal hopes, dreams and joy animating seasonal festivals the world over  That is what brought Yo-Yo Ma together with a remarkable group of friends – some new, some old – to create Songs of Joy & Peace.

The recording is star-studded with musical vignettes from the Brubecks, the Assad family, Chris Botti, Diana Krall, James Taylor, Joshua Redman, the Silk Road Ensemble, and many more.  Despite the eclectic variety and lack of continuity between the numbers, the cello of Yo-Yo Ma is the glue that brings cohesion to this ambitious event packed with such diverse talent.

My personal favorites are  a few gems: James Taylor’s sweet version of “Here Comes the Sun,” the gorgeous duets with Chris Botti on “My Favorite Things”,and “Old Land Syne,” and the Lennon/Ono song “Happy Xmas”, performed by Jake Shimabukuro on the ukulele  There are many more, but you’ll need to hear the album at close contact to choose yours.


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