I hate the holidays.
The easiest and most diplomatic reason is that I spent eighteen years in retail management, and the holidays didn’t mean Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men for me and my co-workers. It meant working long hours with no extra pay, best exemplified by this oft-stated motto: “In our company, bonus is actually two words.” I spent one miserable December managing a Toys ‘R’ Us, and my bosses expected me to pitch a tent in the warehouse for a month—especially when the holiday hours expanded to 24/7 in the second week of December.
I’d really feel the twist of the corporate knife in my back on the day we’d return from Thanksgiving and the store Muzak was suddenly shifted toward the same ten songs from Burl Ives, Julie Andrews and Mannheim Steamroller. The only respite from this madness was an occasional track from Bill Melendez’ extraordinary A Charlie Brown Christmas, the only holiday album I’d consider owning. But it says a lot that I don’t. I…just…can’t.
When I first started receiving holiday CDs to review—back in August, dagnab it—my first response was “Boy, do you have the wrong guy.” To my surprise, I found three new releases that are truly worthwhile from a musical standpoint. For the first time in my life, I have an acceptable response for house guests who look at my music collection and ask, “Can you put on some holiday music?”
Yes. Yes, I can.
Chris Pasin and Friends’ Baby It’s Cold Outside (Planet Arts 301714) is exactly what you’d expect from a trumpeter who has worked with legends such as Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles and Mel Torme. It’s classy and hip, and it features strong performances from contemporary jazz stalwarts such as pianist Armen Donelian, bassist Ira Coleman, drummer Jeff Siegel, bassist Rich Syracuse, guitarist Peter Einhorn and vocalist Patricia Dalton Fennell. While the overall tone is comfy, warm and a bit sexy— this is music best enjoyed in front of a roaring fire with someone you love — it’s more faithful to jazz traditions than holiday ones. That’s why I can enjoy it without triggering my retail PTSD.
That’s important to someone like me, a bah-humbug type who wants to hear beyond the corny familiarity of tunes like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Does a bossa nova version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” sound enticing? It is, and it’ll make you grab a dance partner—preferably one who’s already been hittin’ the eggnog pretty hard—and embarrass yourself in front of your friends and loved ones. The title track stands out as the most fun, with Pasin and Fennell improvising the traditional lyrics into an actual conversation, one that’s full of wit and charm. “Greensleeves,” perhaps my favorite holiday tune since it can be appreciated without the religious context, is perhaps a little too somber, but Donelian’s exquisite work on piano saves the day.
Pasin’s muted trumpet, however, is the thread that holds this collection together. His lyrical and expressive style elevates these tunes above the sentimentalism that often plagues Christmas songs. And yes, you do get a fabulous rendition of “Christmas Time Is Here,” which means I can go yet another year without buying that Charlie Brown album. I’m covered for now.
Jason Paul Curtis’ These Christmas Days is a little more problematic when it comes to earning my respect and admiration. This big band approach to holiday music sounds a little too much like “A Very Special Christmas with Michael Buble” at times, but it distinguishes itself in several interesting ways. First, Curtis avoids the old chestnuts (see what I did there?) and offers eight original compositions plus two unusual covers –“The Way You Look Tonight” and “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for the) Man with the Bag”. It’s fascinating to read about Curtis’ reasons for penning and/or including each song in this collection —“Came Winter” is a tribute to George Michael, who passed away on Christmas Day in 2016, and “Christmas Clear” is devoted to his wife and how he first fell in love with her during the holiday season.
Curtis also stretches the family motif by including his young daughter Isabella on “December Again” and “I Want Snow.” Her voice is clear and sweet and the father-daughter chemistry on these songs is palpable. Curtis based these songs on such precious memories as picking out Christmas trees, or singing in the car on the way to spending the holidays with family. There’s an innocence in these duets that’s almost uncommon, and it certainly underlines the importance of creating memories with loved ones, which in my mind is the single biggest reason to celebrate.
Finally, Curtis is backed by two stellar swing outfits — Swinglab and Swing Shift. The former is a smaller ensemble and is perfectly suited for the more intimate and romantic tunes, while the latter and much larger group is designed for, well… swinging from the chandeliers with tinsel hanging out of your pockets. I prefer the bigger, more raucous approach since it’s just more fun (plus Swing Shift is a little more generous with the stellar jazz solos). These Christmas Days is certainly corny in places, and a little too wholesome for a libertine such as me. But every once in a while I crave a Prairie Home Companion sense of the old-fashioned, just to cleanse my palate, and Curtis delivers.
Just to mix things up, I’ve included a Hanukkah album. I have to be honest — this is the only Hanukkah album I own, so I have no basis of comparison. But here’s the thing — Eyal Vilner’s Big Band’s Hanukkah brings “traditional Hanukkah songs to the swing era, blending jazz with Jewish and Middle Eastern music.” I gotta admit that sounds fantastic, like something I need to play for my Jewish friends just to see the expression on their faces when they recognize “Maoz Tzur,” “Sevivon (the Dreidel Song)” and “Mi Yemalei.”
Israeli Eyal Vilner is relatively new to the jazz scene, but in a few short years he’s become one of the biggest names in New York City when it comes to Big Band. He’s played with jazz giants Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Jimmy Owens, so he knows how to swing. It’s a thing of beauty to watch him deliver these five songs with such exuberance–“Oh Hanukkah,” for instance, sounds like it was a monster hit for the Andrews Sisters once upon a time, and “Mi Yemalei” is cast with a menacing aura that sounds straight out of an Elia Kazan film back in the ‘50s.
While Hanukkah may not trigger the holiday spirit in the same conventional way as the other two albums, it’s certainly the most satisfying in terms of musical ambition. (If I played this for my holiday house guests, someone would probably ask me to play something a little more “Christmas-y” instead.) But there’s no denying that this is the most important and interesting work of the three, something designed for secular fellows like me who want to mix things up and challenge the suburbanites. My only complaint is that Hanukkah, at twenty minutes in length, is an EP. Its genius goes by in a flash. I’d like to see Vilner expand these ideas into something even more ambitious. Since he’s young and just getting started, I’m sure it will happen one day.
Which of these three albums will I actually play in my home when the guests arrive? That’s easy — the Chris Pasin album will put everyone into the holiday mood far quicker than the other two. The Curtis album will require a little bit of an explanation to my guests as to why they don’t recognize all of the original compositions, and let’s face it — I usually don’t even want to talk to people during the holidays because, you know, ecccch. An appreciation of Hanukkah will depend upon a) being Jewish or b) being intelligent and open to new ideas — especially when it comes to musical hybrids.
All three albums have immense strengths and should appeal, in one way or another, to people who love music more than the holidays… people like me who usually can’t stand the stuff.