Tianna Hall & Chris Cortez,
(Blue Bamboo, 2013)

Manhattan Brass,
Manhattan Holiday
(independent, 2013)

Tim Warfield,
Jazzy Christmas
(Undaunted, 2013)

If you're looking for a Christmas centered around jazz, here are three possibilities for you, ranging from the off-beat to the reasonably traditional. All three seem to be on a journey to make Christmas and especially Christmas music new again -- which can be a daunting effort. After all, what does it take to make a chestnut like "The Christmas Song," found on two of these discs, fresh again?

The Manhattan Brass offer the oddest Christmas disc. Primarily a quintet -- two trumpets, two trombones and a tuba playing the bass parts -- these guys appear to be torn between the desire to celebrate Christmas and to destroy it. For example, the opening track, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," begins as a fairly traditional brass treatment of a Christmas song, the type of thing you'd hear performed by your local brass band in the town square, if your local brass band featured a trumpeter who was very fond of creating a wah-wah effect with his mute. After running through the tune once, though, the improvising begins and the band begins what can only be described as deconstructing the melody. A quick check of the credits shows that this is an arrangement by Carla Bley, one of America's leading avant-garde musicians and arrangers. True, she holds her impulses fairly much in check here, but, as a result of her and the band's work, an old classic does not become new as much as it becomes lost.

The second song, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," is entirely unrecognizable. It is given a Carribean-like, multi-tempo, jerky arrangement in which the tune disappears into the murk. I had to check the notes to see what song it was supposed to be.

The rest of the tunes are like this also. The melodies are warped and buried in the charts, which, frankly, try too hard. There's a difference between being original and being muddled. Maybe the problem stems from the fact that the holiday theme placed too many limitations on a brass band that wants to go deeper into the music. That seems to be the case here. The holiday theme keeps it from being jazzy enough and the jazz keeps it from being Christmassy enough.

That's not the problem with Tim Warfield's Jazzy Christmas. His band wants to play the songs, not reinvent them. A traditional jazz sextet -- sax, trumpet, vibes, piano, bass and drums, with vocalists on two tracks -- Warfield's band plays an accessible brand of bop, stating and building the themes and then running changes on them. The Christmas tunes serve as the themes to hang solos on and the players hue closely to the melodies while soloing, although they do stretch out. On the vocal treatment of "Let It Snow," they lose the magic a little, although I'm not sure what they could have done with this song other than let it go.

Their version of "Joy to the World" is a thing of beauty, though -- worth the price of the CD. The jazz fans among your Christmas guests will enjoy this one.

With Tianna Hall and Chris Cortez, we enter the vocal arena. Texas singer Hall and guitarist Cortez, a band leader on his own who also works with Hall on the road, have assembled a fine lineup from their respective bands and have come up with a jazz vocal album, which offers alternative versions of familiar holiday songs.

Hall has a fine voice and Cortez is a good guitarist. The charts support the songs and the opener, "Angels," gives every indication that we're in for a good time. The band floats in the background, the horn section chopping out chords as Hall sings the melody and a really nice trumpet solo leads to some nice guitar runs. Then Hall returns to take the song home.

They follow that with a pair of Vince Guaraldi tunes from Peanuts TV specials, "A Child is Born" and "Christmas Time is Here." Hall generates a nice tension because her vocal does not sound joyous; instead, she takes a bluesy approach that suggests a darkness beneath the lights of the holiday. The tenor sax solo reinforces the mood.

And then the trouble starts. Let's face it: I don't care how good a singer you are or how hot a guitar player you are, there is no way you're going to make "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" fresh again.

And that's the problem with this CD. Once they begin playing more familiar tunes, such as "The Christmas Song," "We Three Kings" and "Santa Baby," even the most devoted listener begins thinking about a cold beer or starts to wonder if there's anything worth watching on TV. You reach for a book. Noel is a mixed effort at best.

Manhattan Holiday tries unsuccessfully to cope with the familiarity. Hall and Cortex appear to decide that it can't be overcome, so they ride with it. It's a ride they wanted to embark on but one that I can't go all the way along with them on.

All I can say is that of these three discs, Tim Warfield's is the one that will spend the most holiday time in my player.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 December 2013

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