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5 Jazz Christmas Albums For 2012

The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra's new album is called <em>Christmas Time Is Here</em>.
Courtesy of the artist
The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra's new album is called Christmas Time Is Here.

There's a certain intensity of spirit in jazz and improvised music, to the point where it occasionally aligns with religious worship. You especially see it around Christmastime, when certain musicians who happen to be Christians purpose their craft in observance of the season.

Of course, sometimes jazz musicians just like playing familiar songs.

Here are five records, all from 2012, which run the gamut of Christmas jazz. From deep meditations on the holiday's narrative to more offbeat ways to get into the spirit, inventiveness isn't a scarce resource this winter.

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5 Jazz Christmas Albums For 2012

Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

"Children Go Where I Send Thee"

From 'Christmas Time is Here'

Where can you find jazz in Knoxville, Tenn.? You might start at the University of Tennessee, which employs folks like world-beating saxophonist Gregory Tardy and the leader of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, trumpeter and arranger Vance Thompson. For its holiday record, the big band welcomes guests like alto saxophonist Tim Green (who takes a solo here) and Hammond B-3 specialist Dan Trudell. Thompson also put together traditionally brassy and bold charts of Christmas classics, with a few dashes of spicy something-else. This version of the spiritual "Children Go" was inspired by Chris Potter's quartet arrangement, and features two different choirs from two different churches.

The Respect Sextet

"Hypochristmutreefuzz"

From 'Respect in Yule'

The Respect Sextet, a New York unit dedicated to improvised music of many stripes, has a decidedly offbeat Christmas repertoire. Early Sun Ra doo-wop, The Band, Loudon Wainwright III, Sir John Tavener, Thelonious Monk's unreleased "A Merrier Christmas" and even a Chanukah medley ("a solemn nod to Eli and Josh's yearly dreidel games") are all invoked. For the execution, the string section known as the JACK Quartet and the chamber-music group known as Ensemble Signal both play bit parts. It all sounds irreverent on paper, but the depth of these arrangements, however tongue-in-cheek they stray, prove that this sextet has respect for its material. Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg is a clear touchstone for this approach, and the band does his "Hypochristmutreefuzz" — not really a Christmas tune, but it's all good — with hard-charging elan.

Jay Hoggard

"We Three Kings/What Child Is This"

From 'Christmas Vibes All Thru The Year'

The Connecticut vibraphonist and composer Jay Hoggard has recorded more than 20 albums as a leader. For his latest, he draws upon the Christian tradition in which he was raised — his father was a clergyman — for a universal message surrounding all the good things of the season. Joining Hoggard are fellow respected veterans James Weidman on organ and Bruce Cox on drums. That combination of instruments creates spaciousness on a program of traditional songs and original meditations. The trio's take on "We Three Kings" and "What Child Is This" (a common setting of "Greensleeves") clips right along, a minor waltz of solemn swing.

The National Jazz Trio Of Scotland

"Jingle Bells"

From 'National Jazz Trio of Scotland's Christmas Album'

The National Jazz Trio of Scotland isn't a trio; you could argue whether it's jazz, too. But it is largely the brainchild of one Bill Wells, who plays some piano and keyboards and coordinates samples to construct spare soundscapes. He's also re-harmonized Christmas favorites and recruited a handful of great singers to deliver decidedly restrained, then multitracked recitations. The result is reminiscent of Sheila Jordan in "You Are My Sunshine," or pianist Ran Blake working with vocalists, which is to say it's unlike any other Christmas record out there.

Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship

"Song of Simeon - Nunc Dimittis"

From 'Song Of Simeon: A Christmas Journey'

Atlanta saxophonist Will Scruggs gets a musical assist from a jazz combo and an extended horn section on his new Christmas album. He also gets a theological assist from his father, Rev. C. Perry Scruggs. Together, they've all taken hymns and folk songs and set them in a suite carefully sequenced to represent key elements of the Christmas story. The title track refers to the fulfillment of a prophecy, as depicted in the biblical canticle of Simeon; musically, it features Brian Hogans (known better as an alto saxophonist) on piano, Dan Baraszu on guitar and special oomph from the backing horns. It also grooves a whole bunch.