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 should do the trick. Critic Kevin Whitehead reviews.

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Music Reviews

Holiday Cheer With A Jazz Twist

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead says 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 request some ornamental mood music. For both groups, he reviews two new jazz brass albums - holiday cheer with a twist.

(Soundbite of song, "O Tannenbaum")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley's version of a Christmas tune we don't need to identify showing 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. But the odd bits give it a sense of mystery that suits the holy day but is rare in Christmas music. It might've 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. On �Jingle Bells,� you can just about see the horse pull that sleigh.

(Soundbite of song, "Jingle Bells")

WHITEHEAD: Sometimes, that classical brass quintet is joined or replaced by Carla 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 Basie and Monk.

(Soundbite of song, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town")

WHITEHEAD: Carla Bley 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.

The album to put on after hers 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 swing harder.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Eddie Allen with brother Carl Allen on drums. Eddie had 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Jingle Bells")

WHITEHEAD: Now it's not like Eddie 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. Here's the band's other top trumpeter, Cecil Bridgewater.

(Soundbite of song, "Let It Snow")

WHITEHEAD: �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 the Duke Ellington CD �Three Suites.� But you can't listen to that all week. Besides which, Eddie Allen's sextet makes those shopworn Xmas tunes so shiny you can forget you're listening to Christmas music and think you're just listening to music.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas. And he is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed �Carla's Christmas Carols,� by Carla Bley and �Jazzy Brass for the Holidays� by Eddie Allen.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. I'm Terry Gross.

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