Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler

Another Jazz Piano Christmas 2011

Detail from cover of Geri Allen, A Child Is Born. i i

hide captionDetail from cover of Geri Allen, A Child Is Born.

Motema Music
Detail from cover of Geri Allen, A Child Is Born.

Detail from cover of Geri Allen, A Child Is Born.

Motema Music

Every year, NPR Music puts together a radio special called A Jazz Piano Christmas, drawing together top jazz pianists live on stage. This year, a number of fine jazz pianists went ahead and just made their own Christmas albums.

This isn't all the good holiday-themed improvised music out now (John Zorn Christmas album, anyone?) but we endorse it for all your family-gathering, present-accumulating and eggnog-swilling purposes — and perhaps some deeper listening, too. Here are five tracks from a few of the standout Christmas jazz albums released this year, and a bonus from a record set to come out early next year.

Another Jazz Piano Christmas 2011

Geri Allen cover art

Geri Allen

  • Album: A Child is Born
  • Song: Angels We Have Heard On High

Pianist Geri Allen released a solo piano album last year full of dark and rich sonorities, driven by abstract and mysterious logic. Her Christmas album retains those flavors — it's largely solo piano, with some other keyboards and singing voices thrown in here and there — except on the Christmas carol songbook. A former piano student of Geri Allen's recently marveled to me how strongly you can hear Allen's "voice" on these familiar tunes, and I agree. "Angels We Have Heard On High" is a good illustration: The left hand tells you that it's Allen on the bench, and the undulation of the right hand improvisation says she means business. It makes this record more than interesting — it feels rather personal, too.

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  • "Angels We Have Heard On High"
  • Album: A Child is Born
  • Artist: Geri Allen
  • Label: Motéma Music
  • Released: 2011
 
Harry Connick Jr. cover art

Harry Connick, Jr. Trio

  • Album: Music from The Happy Elf
  • Song: The Happy Elf

Harry Connick, Jr.'s The Happy Elf began life as a song on Connick's 2003 holiday record, where a big band assisted him in singing from the perspective of one of Santa's particularly exuberant helpers. That spawned an animated TV special, a stage musical, a children's picture book and now this piano trio record, which collects some of the material from the preceding multimedia productions. The title track maintains the infectious groove of the original (courtesy of Neal Caine on bass and Arthur Latin on drums), while reminding us that the well-kempt crooner has earned some serious musicianship, too.

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  • "The Happy Elf"
  • Album: Music from The Happy Elf
  • Artist: Harry Connick, Jr. Trio
  • Label: Marsalis Music
  • Released: 2011
 
Ellis Marsalis cover art

Ellis Marsalis

  • Album: A New Orleans Christmas Carol
  • Song: Little Drummer Boy

The patriarch of a certain prominent jazz family, pianist Ellis Marsalis (who taught the aforementioned Harry Connick Jr.) made a Christmas record in 2002. After a few revisions and additions, Marsalis the father has released A New Orleans Christmas Carol anew on his own label. All the new blood is nice, though to these ears, the original version of "The Little Drummer Boy" still signifies the flavor of New Orleans awfully well. In a neat trick, the drummer boy on this record is Ellis' own — i.e. his son Jason Marsalis, whose snare parades in with a bit of funk in its step.

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  • "Little Drummer Boy"
  • Album: New Orleans Christmas Carol
  • Artist: Ellis Marsalis
  • Label: Elm Records
  • Released: 2011
 
Marcus Roberts cover art

Marcus Roberts Trio

  • Album: Celebrating Christmas
  • Song: Jingle Bells

Drummer Jason Marsalis returns, this time raining rimshots on a rough-and-tumble romp through "Jingle Bells." He's playing here in the trio of pianist Marcus Roberts, whose mastery is one of sophisticated surprise. (Bassist Rodney Jordan is not to be forgotten about either.) The trio puts together new arrangements of familiar songs which are clean and nice to listen to; they're also full of understated playfulness. "It's a fun song and it's easy to see why it's been so popular over the years," Roberts writes of "Jingle Bells." He is probably suppressing a half-smile.

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  • "Jingle Bells"
  • Album: Celebrating Christmas
  • Artist: Marcus Roberts Trio
  • Released: 2011
 
Oliver Jones cover art

Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee & The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir

  • Album: A Celebration In Time
  • Song: Hymn to Freedom

Here's a record which unites three Montreal musical institutions incarnate. There's Oliver Jones, the scene's pianistic eminence; Ranee Lee, the vocalist of renown; and the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, the vocal ensemble founded by Trevor W. Payne. (In fact, all three were at the Choir's debut concert nearly 30 years ago.) Their Christmas record ends with a song which isn't specifically a Christmas carol. It does capture the uplifting spirit of the season, though, and being a signature composition of piano giant Oscar Peterson, it salutes another great artist of the Montreal black community.

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  • "Hymn to Freedom"
  • Album: A Celebration In Time
  • Artist: Various Artists
  • Label: Justin Time
  • Released: 2011
 
Come Sunday cover art

Charlie Haden & Hank Jones

  • Album: Come Sunday
  • Song: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Come Sunday, the forthcoming duo record by bassist Charlie Haden and the late great pianist Hank Jones, isn't a Christmas album per se. It is their second set of hymns, spirituals and folk songs — and it includes two old Christmas carols. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" never strays far from the tune, which is fine; Haden is a master of melody, and Jones was a man of exquisite touch in every note. That song, as well as "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," are available before the full record comes out in early January 2012 — an early Christmas gift of sorts.

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  • "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"
  • Album: Come Sunday
  • Artist: Charlie Haden/Hank Jones
  • Label: Emarcy
  • Released: 2012
 

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