Sunday, December 21, 2014


Holiday Music Special

Many years ago I read that Christmas music outsells jazz -- a factoid that helped harden a prejudice against the stuff into a grudge. There are objectively worse things about the music, like the compulsions retailers feel to play it nonstop during the four (or more) weeks of the "season," as if doing so triggers Pavlovian reflexes to spend. I get some quantity of it every year. Sometimes I review it and pack it away, but mostly it piles up, and I have way too much of that. So this year I'm making an effort to clear the decks. Hopefully this won't encourage anyone to send me more next year.

Two ringers in the list below. Ezra Weiss' children's music doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, but was buried in the same pile, for similar reassons. However, Weiss' Before You Know It: Live in Portland made my A-list this year, so I figured I should give the older record a spin. The other is Eugene Marlow's Celebrations -- the only record below I can actually recommend. I was expecting a Jewish slant on the holidays, but the record didn't try to be ecumenical at all -- and was no doubt better for that. You can play it alongside Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah, but you can also play it any other time of year.

Hanukkah here is mostly an excuse to throw a latke dinner -- which we did last week. The way I make them is:

  1. Finely chop two onions. Put in a big bowl. Add three eggs.
  2. Peal and soak five baking potatoes, then grate them. (I use a coarse shredding food processor attachment, then chop them up further with the knife blade.) Mix them in with the onions and eggs, and add salt and black pepper.
  3. When your dinner guests arrive, use a couple large frying pans, and a mild vegetable oil. (I used corn oil this time.) Heat the oil, drop in a small scoop of potato, flatten it out. In a couple minutes, when they start to brown around the edges, flip them over. Serve them hot, with sour cream, applesauce, salted salmon, and chopped scallions. Repeat until you run out.

I make my salmon and applesauce. For the salmon, take a nice filet with skin on, sprinkle both sides with kosher salt, put in a bag and refrigerate at least 12 hours. Rinse, pat dry, slice thin. I think it's three tablespoons of salt for two pounds of fish.

For applesauce, I took three green delicious apples, peeled, quartered, and cored them, and put them in a saucepan. I added juice from half a lemon, plus a few drops of water. Covered the apples, and cooked until soft enough to mash easily with a fork. Then I added one tablespoon of brown sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon.

For Christmas Eve, I'll be cooking again, for what's left of my family here. Planning on what I call "Mom's Chinese" -- basically, the meal I made for her birthday shortly before she died: Szechuan fried chicken, dry-fried string beans, strange-flavor eggplant, fried rice, maybe some spare ribs braised in black bean sauce, something for dessert (probably date pudding). When I was growing up, Christmas was many things, but there was always lots of food, including various kinds of homemade candy. Big meals. Lots of people. Since she died, it's never been the same, and never will be.

One thing for sure: we won't be playing Christmas music.


Eddie Allen: Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (2009, DBCD): Actually no name credit on the cover, but Allen is the leader and arranger, plays trumpet along with Cecil Bridgewater, and is backed by French horn, trombone, bass, and drums. Song selection so standard it could be a high school assignment. Not sure if stating the head then improvising off it works as jazz but it does break the holiday tedium. B-

Chris Bauer: In a Yuletide Groove: Harmonica Jazz for the Holidays (2011, self-released): "Seydel harmonica artist," has two albums, the other Straight Ahead. Quintet with keybs, guitar, bass, and drums, plus a guest vocal from producer Rob Poparozzi. Standards, favors pop like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" but works in "My Favorite Things" and "Ave Maria." The very definition of chintzy, but the harmonica is a versatile lead instrument. B- [cd]

Alexis Cole: The Greatest Gift: Songs of the Season (2009, Motéma): A jazz singer with at least eight albums I've never heard, credits this "with family & friends" and throws in a plug for World Bicycle Relief. The friends include some names I've heard of (Don Braden, Alan Ferber, Jon Cowherd, Ike Sturm, Zach Brock). Climactic pop move: "Jesus is the best part of Christmas/365 days a year/Jesus is here." C+ [cd]

Nathan Eklund: Craft Christmas (2011 [2012], OA2): Trumpet player, leads a basic keyboard-bass-drums quartet, song credits range from Trad. to Guaraldi with one original. The trumpet leads are eloquent, but the two vocals detract. B- [cd]

Tobias Gebb Presents Trio West: Plays Holiday Songs, Vol. 2 (2009, Yummy House): Drummer-led piano trio, with Eldad Zvulun on piano and Meal Miner on bass. Short song list, but several tunes get two passes, with "We Three Kings" recast as a waltz, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" done in samba, and "O Tannenbaum" in funk and salsa variants. B [cd]

Milt Hinton/Ralph Sutton/Gus Johnson/Jim Galloway: The Sackville All Star Christmas Record (1986 [2014], Sackville/Delmark): Bass, piano, drums, soprano sax, listed roughly in what I take to be the rank order of their fame, although Galloway -- the only one still alive -- is a first-rate trad jazz player. (Or maybe it's just left-to-right to caption the cover picture.) Standard fare, not as rowdy as you'd hope -- seductively subtle, even. B+(*) [cd]

The Hot Club of San Francisco: Hot Club Cool Yule (2009, Azica): Group -- motto is "What Would Django Do?" -- has a dozen albums since 1993. Violin leads over the guitars, sometimes slipping into something pleasantly innocuous, but the guest vocals snap you back, even on the generic "Baby It's Cold Outside." B- [cd]

Knoxville Jazz Orchestra: Christmas Time Is Here (2012, self-released): A full-fledged big band, arranged and conducted by Vance Thompson, also listed as fifth trumpet. More listenable than most, at least until they add the choir(s). B- [cd]

Elisabeth Lohninger Band: Christmas in July (2011, JazzSick): Singer, has an appealing voice ready to swing and fluent in uncounted languages, backed by Axel and Walter Fischbacher (guitar and piano). Twelve songs from nearly as many countries, with a Mel Tormé tune from the US and "Stille Nacht" from Austria. B+(*) [cd]

Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble: Celebrations (2010, MEII Enterprises): Subtitle "interprets festive melodies from the Hebraic songbook," so not our usual Xmas album, but it does start with "Chanukah, O Chanukah." Pianist Marlow is a New York Jew who specializes in Afro-Cuban/salsa/bossa nova and his group spreads out the ethnic polyculture, including the marvelous Michael Hashim on sax. Ends with a 6:37 lecture on philosophy that bears repeating. A- [cd]

Ellis Marsalis: A New Orleans Christmas Carol (2011, ELM): A pianist from New Orleans, anyway, although not one particularly noted for the style. The patriarch of the Marsalis clan, his jazz career only emerging after his sons became famous, he decorates the usual tunes with marching drums, son Jason's vibes, and two singers I've already forgotten. B- [cd]

Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship: Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey (2012, self-released): Scruggs, from Atlanta, plays tenor and soprano sax, called his first album Jazz Fellowship and kept that as his group name. He explains: "Using ancient canticles, hymns, and folk melodies, I chose eleven pieces to formulate a layered chronology that illustrates the profound, spiritual mystery of the radical biblical story of the birth of Christ." Sounds ambitious, and I enjoyed the absence of trad Xmas fare . . . until it got woven in. B [cd]

Donna Singer with the Doug Richards Trio: Kiss Me Beneath the Mistletoe (2012, Emerald Baby): About half originals, mostly co-credited to husband Roy Singer (assume he's the uncredited duet partner on two songs), and I must admit I was touched by bassist Richards' song about leaving donuts for Santa Claus. The other half is split between spirituals and classic fluff like "Let It Snow" with something of a fetish for mistletoe. B [cd]

The United States Air Force Band: Cool Yule (2009, self-released): Big band, plus strings, some extras like oboe, a female vocal trio called the "Andrews Sisters" (quotes included), and a male barbershop quartet called the "Crew Chiefs" (again, quotes obligatory). Makes you wonder if they hadn't faked the death of Glenn Miller and kept him working at some "dark site" all these years. I'm tempted to slag them on principle, but frankly they could keep this band running for decades for less than a single F-35, and it would be a better use of the money. Highlight: the cha-cha "Auld Lang Syne" (and yes, that's as good as they get). B [cd]

Ezra Weiss: Alice in Wonderland: A Jazz Musical (2009, Northwest Childrens Theater and School): Been sitting on this, something I'd never expect to have any interest in, and still don't. But the story has a few touchstones I recognize -- mad hatters and decapitating queens and such -- and the music is not without interest. B [cd]