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Holiday Cheer With A Jazz Twist

Two kinds of people consume Christmas music: those who actually like the stuff, and folks who need something listenable on hand in case seasonal visitors insist on some ornamental mood music. For both groups, two new jazz brass albums offer holiday cheer with a twist.

Carla Bley's version of a familiar Christmas tune like "O Tannenbaum" is just the thing to show how a wrong note in the right place can make all the difference. Her album, Carla's Christmas Carols, is sometimes sweetly and majestically unironic. The odd bits give it a sense of mystery that suits the holy day, but is rare in Christmas music. It might have been the year's weirdest Yuletide disc, if not for Bob Dylan.

Christmas music often features brass ensembles; it takes trumpets to announce the arrival of a king. Most of Bley's arrangements feature a brass quintet, and in "Jingle Bells," you can just about see the horse pull that sleigh.

Sometimes, that classical brass quintet is joined or replaced by Bley's piano and Steve Swallow's improbably tuneful electric bass. Bley is celebrated as a composer, but doesn't get her due as a witty and economical pianist in the tradition of Count Basie and Thelonious Monk. Here, she shows she can play the wrong right notes as well as the right wrong ones; she often balances lyricism and silliness like that. The way she walks a line between honest sentiment and amused detachment suggests one way to cope with the season.

Eddie Allen, Jazz Brass For The Holidays

The album to put on after that one is trumpeter Eddie Allen's Jazzy Brass for the Holidays; his tongue-in-cheek sensibility can be a lot like Bley's, but his arrangements for four brass plus bass and drums are bluesier, and they swing harder.

Allen played in Lester Bowie's drum-and-bugle corps Brass Fantasy, so he knows how to blow raspberries at old favorites. Trombonist Clark Gayton is right with him on that, especially in their take on "Jingle Bells." But it's not that Allen's sextet makes a joke out of everything. Jazz musicians interpret unlikely material all the time, and are no strangers to serious playing on light themes. The band's other top trumpeter, Cecil Bridgewater, proves that with his read on "Let It Snow."

Good as these two brass albums are, the gold standard for jazz Christmas music remains Billy Strayhorn's revamps of the "Nutcracker" on Duke Ellington's Three Suites. But you can't listen to that all week.

Besides which, Allen's sextet makes those shopworn tunes so shiny, you can forget you're listening to Christmas music, and think you're just listening to... music.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.