Out in time to celebrate the Christmas season are two new jazz albums covering holiday favorites. Vocalist Nnenna Freelon works along with the John Brown Big Band on a ten-song album simply titled Christmas, while a five-track EP from pianist/arranger David Ian and a few of his friends takes listeners to a Vintage Christmas Wonderland.
Freelon is a top tier singer who has a deep emotional attachment to the music of the holiday season, both religious and secular, and that attachment comes through with clarity in her performances. She begins with a swinging version of “Jingle Bells,” cutely retitled “Swing Jingle Bells.” “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” are the foundation of a “Spiritual Medley” that also includes shout-outs to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (which gets the full treatment later in the album), “Joy to the World,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Peanuts lovers will enjoy her take on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” which adds a touch of “Deck the Halls.” There is a funky version of “Silent Night,” with some effective backing from Brandon McCune on the organ. McCune plays Fender Rhodes and Miki Hayama the celesta on a soulful arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” John Brown joins Freelon on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and the album closes with a joyous Dixieland version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
If there is a problem with the David Ian album, it is that at 17 minutes, it only whets the appetite; it leaves listeners wanting more. I guess that’s better than overstaying your welcome, but I would guarantee that a full-blown album as good as these 17 minutes would pose no danger of that.
Ian’s arrangements emphasize a magical simplicity that captures the spirit of the season, which is not to say they lack sophistication. It is music that focuses on the spiritual, even as it celebrates the secular. He opens with a lovely treatment of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” featuring an angelic vocal from Acacia. “I wanted to set the tone of the album with a departure into a supernatural experience,” explains Ian. Acacia’s sweetly eerie voice does the job.
Two tracks are instrumentals. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a stripped down arrangement featuring some swinging work on the piano and “The First Noel” has a sound at times reminiscent of Guaraldi. “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells” have vocals from Andre Miguel Mayo. The last has Acacia and Tal singing background, in a style, Ian points out, which suggests the Andrews Sisters.
These are two albums sure to brighten the season.