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