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Music Review: Joe Pass – Six String Santa

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From my earliest years, before I even developed a strong affinity for jazz, I always felt that jazz and Christmas went together hand in hand. Blame it on Vince Guaraldi and those annually broadcasted Charlie Brown Christmas specials on TV, but the relaxed, comforting tone of mainstream jazz seems to be a natural fit for the warm and familiar holiday standards. And of course, jazz loves standards.

Christmas jazz works best when it is reverent to those standards but still allows room for the cats to create. It's got to put listeners in a jolly mood, not hit them over the head with excessive display of chops nor get so low key for too long as to put them to sleep.

That's why I like Joe Pass' take on yuletide music, and he delivered the goods in the right measure on Six String Santa just two years before his death in 1994. Six String Santa is a congenial but persistently swinging set, not to mention providing me with an excuse to rave over this giant of jazz guitar.

Joe Pass is part of a line of guitarists that includes Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and Kenny Burrell. But Pass was probably the most technically advanced of them all. Nearly thirty-five years after its initial release, the rigorous jaunt through the jazz standards with unaccompanied guitar on Virtuoso still sounds nothing short of astonishing today.

And if Pass could pull off uptempo Hammerstein and Kern numbers with no backup, then taking on easygoing Christmas tunes in a quartet format should be a piece of cake for him. That quartet was Jim Hughart on bass, Colin Bailey on drums, and the overlooked stalwart John Pisano on rhythm guitar. As his regular band for a few years by this time, these guys developed a tight sound and good rapport that shines through on this album.

Take the first track "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," for starters. Pass and his nimble combo run through the theme (with Pass throwing in a passing reference to "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" for good measure) before launching into some perfectly played bop lines.

"O Christmas Tree" has a finger-snapping rhythm that goes back to small group pre-war jazz that Pass comps over with joy and brimming with interesting phrases.

The one track that does provide some of that Virtuoso feel is the unaccompanied "White Christmas." On it, Pass shows off his considerable ability to economically pluck the essential elements of a tune: the bass strings when the bass line comes into focus and the treble strings when it's time for the melody or the harmony to be stated, with precise single-note runs stuffed in-between.

The lone original "Happy Holiday Blues" is just as advertised, a basic twelve bar blues with a quote from "Jingle Bells" at the start to give it a holiday flavor. But since it serves as a nice pretext for Pass to stretch out over some basic chord progressions so who can complain? "Winter Wonderland" is effectively converted into a blues, too, as Hughart walks his bass while Pass expertly improvises all around the melody.

"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is a delightful two-guitar interplay between Pass and Pisano. "Home For The Holidays" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" are quiet pieces that provide a timely change of pace and contain Pass precise phrasing and gentle finger picking.

And so, Six String Santa has it all: confidence, sympathetic interaction and a carefree attitude that makes it a delightful listen whether you're paying close attention or just requiring the right background music to induce a swinging yuletide mood. While stuffing those stockings, stuff that CD player with Joe Pass' Christmas album. He's right for that special time of year and for the rest of the year, as well.

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  • “I always felt that jazz and Christmas went together hand in hand. Blame it on…”

    Kenny G was going to blame it out Kenny G’s holiday albums, “Faith” and “Miracles”. Both currently available on Amazon and at music retailer near you for the few of you who still don’t own them.

  • OK, may I have everyone’s attention please. I am about to attempt to contemplate Kenny G without falling instantly asleep. Here goes…

    Kenny Gzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzdammit.

  • Most of those with double digit IQs suffer the same self-induced narcolepsy. It’s a defense mechanism to protect the ego from staring into the abyss, which in turn leads to the inevitable awareness of one’s ignorance about the workings of the universe. Lucky for you, there’s Nascar and wrestling to keep your mind busy.

  • Coming soon from Abyss Press: The Kenny G Guide to the Workings of the Universe. From the publishers who brought you Carson Kressley’s World of Football.

  • Dr, and Kenny G presumes you are not one, Kenny G has discovered you live in Fresno (population 481,035 – Sa-lute!), so it’s not surprising you can’t contemplate the music of one of the best-selling jazz artists of all time. Kenny G doesn’t use washboards, jugs, or hog calls in his music. Kenny G hopes you enjoy Fresno’s cultural event of the season this weekend: the tractor pull.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    The comments thread has been rather amusing.

    On that note, Great Article! I totally agree about Vince Guaraldi’s masterpieces that were written for The Peanuts. Just hearing those tunes remind of that fantastic Christmas movie yet the music is so timeless & talented(for the lack of a better word).I look forward to checking out Joe Pass. Thanks for the advice. It’s just a shame to find out about a brilliant musician over 10 years after his death…

  • Boy, it took you long enough to come up with a response to that one, didn’t it? Probably needed a couple of days for your brain to re-set after having been turned to blancmange by your latest blast of the Permed One’s tootlings.

    Rather disturbing, too. Exactly how much time did you spend trawling through my past comments to find out where I live? Or did you actually visit my blog (shock horror!)?

    Actually, if memory serves me (and I sadly believe it does), Mr G has played Fresno in the past. We’ve also, in the past year or two, had Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr and Josh Groban, to name but a few. Billy Joel is coming next week. So it’s not quite the redneck cultural backwater you portray.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    *Oops* I meant to say that,“it’s a shame that I’m just finding out about this brilliant musician over 10 years after his death.”

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    after having been turned to blancmange by your latest blast of the Permed One’s tootlings.

    That’s some f*cking funny ass sh!te…Oh man, I have literally come to tears[seriously].

    *Good Stuff* ;>)

  • Thanks for the props, Brian. I must confess, Guaraldi’s soundtrack to that Peanuts Christmas special remains my favorite holiday album of all time. But for those looking for something a little less familiar and still very well done, this is a good one.

  • Kenny G was busy videoconferencing with Secy Rice over the past few days convincing Musharraf it would be best to step down. Kenny G does not have the free time Elkhorn Correctional allows you to spend on the Internet.

    Of course, Kenny G has played Fresno. The money of farmers and auto mechanics is as good as anyone else’s, but Kenny G certainly wouldn’t live there. Kenny G’s last appearance was at The Fresno Metropolitan Museum, whose most famous work is “Dogs Playing Poker” on black velvet. Kenny G hears the upcoming exhibition of deer-hunting bumper stickers is getting a lot of talk around the general store. They expect more people than showed up for the “I’d Rather Be…” license plate frame show

    Is anyone supposed to be impressed by that cutting edge line-up of artists? Glad they squeezed in some culture between the monster truck rally and the rodeo.

  • Impressive vocabulary, Brian. Kenny G will miss you around here when Masterpiece Theatre is on.

  • It seems I have a stalker (of sorts)…

    And a quick check of today’s news reveals that young Pervez is still President of Pakistan and vigorously playing out a scene from The Three Stooges with Bhutto and Rice today. Clearly, Mr G is but mortal.

    Far more effective would be to pull a Noriega and play continuous Kenneth at full blast outside the presidential residence in Islamabad until Musharraf breaks down and agrees to step aside, commit seppuku, buy a Watchtower, anything to make it stop.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    With all your eliticism,I’m suprised the show isn’t called Massa’piece Theater. Does Kenny G support predjudicism & hatred? I would think that would kill off the little fan base that he has.

    As for my vocab, yea, sometimes I like to loosen up. For you, I think it’s gonna take some ex-lax… That stick seems to be up there quite a bit.

  • what i’ve always wanted to know is the brand name of duck call that the g one uses. ll bean? haydells?

    i mean, that tone is so pure.

  • Kenny G is certainly not surprised that such small minds have such big egos, but the poor reading comprehension clarifies the Dr’s credentials, or lack thereof, and typifies the keen intellect of a Fresno resident.

    Kenny G’s responses to your posts do not constitute stalking unless you are implying that you are stalking him as well.

    A quick check of what was written previously made no claims to Musharraf no longer being President. Kenny G requests you cite where those claims were made because neither Kenny G spoke or I, his loyal and trusted servant, wrote such words.

    If you actually did read the news, and not that fishwrap known as “The Bee,” you would have noticed that Musharraf is stepping down as army chief on Dec 1st. And what was your big accomplishment over the past two days? Cleaning out the cat box?

    You have obviously spent so much time with the small minds on this site you have convinced yourself you are a deep thinker, but your responses give you away.

    Brian, even the great mind of Kenny G has trouble deciphering what you are referring to. Kenny G offers his condolences since it’s obvious from your typing, you must have been hit in the head with a blunt object. Kenny G certainly doesn’t support “predjudicism,” although to be fair this is the first time Kenny G has ever seen that word before. How small can a fan base be if Kenny G has sold more than 100 million albums? Hate your trip back to Bizarro world.

  • Kenny G laughs mightily like a thundercloud because who would know pure tones better than a wannabe musician? Kenny G is surprised to see you in from the practice studio/garage already? Kenny G wonders if the neighbors called the cops again or did your mother need to use the washing machine?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Really?? One would have to polish the english grammar any clearer for the “Great Bird Call” Mr. G to understand what it is that I typed?!

    So far, the only blunt object that I’ve been hit with is your supposed “intellect”. Ya know:

    1.You’re as bright as a dead light bulb.
    2.You’re as sharp as a spoon
    3.There’s a Stop sign at the top of your ladder.
    4.It reads “Open Other End” on the bottom of your coke bottle.
    5.It takes you 2 hours to watch 60 Minutes

    Any more clarification,jackass?!

  • Kenny G was busy videoconferencing with Secy Rice over the past few days convincing Musharraf it would be best to step down.

    As you see, I made no assertion that you had claimed Musharraf had stepped down. Kenny’s diplomatic exertions have clearly been a failure. I would venture to suggest that he shouldn’t give up the day job, except that his day job, like Musharraf’s, inflicts a fair degree of suffering on the general populace.

    I have in fact cleaned out the cat litter box today, but my main preoccupation currently has been editing my sister-in-law’s wedding. This was a tremendously happy event, and the reception featured no Kenny G music whatsoever. The two facts may not be unconnected.

    P.S. Kenny G seems to know an awful lot about Fresno. So much, in fact, that one might be led to suspect that he lives here. So, a quick test: without Googling, can he tell me what ‘flipping a dick’ means?

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