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.