2001 Christmas Jazz Roundup

Holiday Jazz Roundup
‘Tis the season…
by Mark Ruffin

This holiday season, jazz musicians are giving the gift of Christmas music in abundance. Not in recent memory has there been so much new recorded Christmas music. Saxophonist Dave Koz may have the best new smooth jazz Christmas disc, “A Smooth Jazz Christmas“, but the honor for best overall new Christmas album this season has to go to “A Nancy Wilson Christmas“. Miss Wilson created a little buzz in the Chicago area jazz community about six weeks ago when she blew into town for a few days to record her next album. The buzz centered around the upcoming release with pianist Ramsey Lewis, and her new Christmas album, which arrived to the media about the same time.Miss Wilson’s Christmas record features many inventive and imaginative arrangements of holiday chestnuts, including some gorgeous Brazilian rhythms. Miss Wilson is not only a fine voice, but is joined by a number of very fine guest stars including the underrated New York Voices, pianist Monty Alexander, legendary flute player Herbie Mann and others.

Two other new straight ahead Christmas album this year include an incredible compilation of old favorites and a new re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” A group calling itself the Classical Jazz Quartet, featuring arrangements by Bob Belden, performs the Tchaikovsky’s work with the care and technique of the group they’re patterned after, the Modern Jazz Quartet They consists of Stefon Harris on vibes, veterans Ron Cater and Kenny Barron on bass and piano respectively, and Lewis Nash on drums.

“The Very Best of Christmas Jazz,” is a knock-out new 14 song compilation featuring John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Count Basie and others. What makes the collection priceless is the inclusion of Louis Armstrong’s very funny “Zat You, Santa Claus?” It’s also noteworthy because a couple of gems are mined from the historic Chicago Chess Records vaults, including early recordings by Ramsey Lewis and Kenny Burrell.

The two best Latin jazz Christmas albums also includes a group recording and a compilation of a variety of artists. “Playboy’s Latin Jazz Christmas,” has contemporary recordings from Shelia E, Poncho Sanchez, Arturo Sandoval, and other Latin jazz stars, A more traditional Latin jazz Christmas is celebrated on the brilliant “Noel Caliente,” by the group Saudade.

Smooth jazz lovers really reaped a bounty of holiday musical cheer with new releases. In addition to Koz and Friends, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and vocalist Melba Moore each have new Christmas music out. Then there are three varied compilations that can play well at any festive seasonal gathering.

“Groovin’ Jazz Christmas” features Jeff Lorber, Doc Powell, Michael Lington and others. “Making Spirits Bright,” is a new collection, partially produced by guitarist Lee Ritenour and featuring his friends Will Downing, Gerald Albright, Marc Antoine, Al Jarreau, Joyce Cooling, David Benoit and many others.

Benoit is also on “Jazzy Christmas,” a disc that straddles the line between straight-ahead and smooth jazz. There are five different groups, each playing two tunes, including a trio co-led by Patrice Rushen and Stanley Clarke, and one featuring former Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson.

There are more new Christmas jazz disc, but these are unquestionably the cream of the crop. Happy Holidays and enjoy the Christmas music.