For more than a decade the Big Band Holidays concerts have been a New York City holiday tradition for jazz lovers and families. Every December the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and an all-star roster of guest vocalists explore the canon of holiday standards in performance at Lincoln Center. This collection is a sequel to the first Big Band Holidays record, which was released in 2015. It’s part of the Lincoln Center’s program of releasing performance recordings from its vaults on its new label, Blue Engine.
A highlight of this one is a previously unreleased performance of the holiday standard “O Tannenbaum” by the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, accompanying herself on piano and singing verses in English and German.
I’m not much of a fan of the holiday season in general (Thanksgiving excepted), and the vast majority of holiday music finds me reacting on a spectrum that runs from indifferent to mildly annoyed to seething with rage. However, I’m a big fan of big band jazz, which evokes the kind of nostalgia in me that apparently comes to most Americans at the sight of the first snowflake or the million-and-first rendition of the elevator-music version of “Silver Bells.”
So, first things first. “Tannenbaum” is one of the few Aretha Franklin performances released since her passing in 2018, and her surprise performance at the 2015 holiday concert was on brand, as you can hear.
Additional guests on Big Band Holidays II include some of exciting new voices in jazz: Catherine Russell, Veronica Swift, Denzal Sinclaire, and Audrey Shakir, as well as the solid instrumental players of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. That group starts things off appropriately with an instrumental version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a number I truly appreciate as a jazz standard – it just sounds like holiday-time in the city!
My favorites on this collection tend to be the instrumentals; it’s just the way I swing. But some of the vocal performances, arrangements, and the songs themselves are truly outstanding. Chief among them is “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag” featuring Veronica Swift and a superb trombone solo from Vincent Gardner. In the same vein and also lots of fun is Louis Prima’s classic “What Will Santa Claus Say? (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’),” with Catherine Russell singing, Paul Nedzela with a great bari sax solo and – well, it’s a Louis Prima song so expect a drum solo, and Ali Jackson is up to the task tastefully, with power on the toms and finesse on the hat.
Of the instrumentals, a standout is the truly majestic old spiritual “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” in a beautiful and lush arrangement by reed player Ted Nash with a soaring trumpet solo from Marcus Printup.
Now, if I never hear another rendition of Percy Faith’s ubiquitous “Sleigh Bells” it’ll be too soon. So it was with trepidation that I approached what is here billed as “Brazilian Sleigh Bells,” but I was pleasantly surprised. Bassist Carlos Henriquez has created a swinging and fun arrangement that’s barely recognizable as that old chestnut, with help from soloists Sherman Irby on alto sax, and bandleader Wynton Marsalis and Bruce Harris on trumpets.
The one that truly caught my ear, though, is an amazing Sherman Irby arrangement of Claud Thornhill’s “Snowfall,” that harkens back to Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” with its strident clarinet section backing Marsalis as he turns in a hard-bopping solo. The piece is alternately peaceful and threatening, the way a winter storm can seem from the inside.
To my ear the arrangements of the more traditional Christmas caroles like “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” don’t work all that well, but your mileage may vary. But for the most part this is a very enjoyable program of holiday music, even for a Scrooge like me. Props to Marsalis for crediting the arrangers on each piece in addition to the soloists. Available now digitally and on CD, and on vinyl in time for, well, you know.
(Blue Engine Records, 2019)