Merry Cool Christmas
Al Bal, USA
Christmas albums are a risky proposition, artistically if not financially (in an ideal sense, there's always a time of year that they sell!) and here's why I think so: (1) some Christmas tunes are so walled-into-the-stone-of-history, there's no way you can revive them; (2) to most of us, the Christmas albums we first heard are the only ones we really identify with; mine, for all that it matters to you, was The Harry Simeone Chorale's "SING WE NOW OF CHRISTMAS."
Leonard, urbane and wittily "up" in his recent Cole Porter songbook DOWN IN THE DEPTHS ( also Al Bal, reviewed here in JazzNow earler in the year), has a tough road to travel among these unyielding monuments ("Here Comes Santa Claus," "Deck The Halls," "The Holly And the Ivy," et al), but he tosses in an appreciable mix of styles, and comes up with a CD you can put on during your office Christmas party and actually enjoy. Because there's so many different approaches and the CD's material is well ordered, the surprises are fresh and they keep coming even when you half expect them. "Midnight Clear" is taken like a Brazilian saudade, "Carol of the Bells" gets a Dave Brubeck "Blue Rondo a la Turk" arrangement intercutting the famous refrain with a stamping blues stroll, and guitarist Edward Brown flashes a lute to good effect on "Bring A Torch, Jeannette, Isabella". But much of the CDís arrangements ("O Christmas Tree," "Silent Night") pay sly tribute to Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" -- in fact, if anybody ever redoes that Peanuts chestnut I nominate Alex Leonard to redo the score -- while Leonardís vocal-based performances display ample wit also. "Deck the Halls" lets drummer Danny Venditti do the "Fa la la la la's on the snares, "Let It Snow" is good fun (my fave version remains Ella Fitzgerald's but hey...), and Leonard generally sings behind the beat to give the proceedings a bit of a wink. His own composition, "Under a Blue Christmas Tree," shows off his apprenticeship to the masters as well.
Considering how flat against the wall Mr. Leonard nailed his Cole Porter songbook, doing this Christmas CD conjured up a bit of the same disbelief some critics might have had at seeing the ultimate city slicker, Duke Ellington, trot out his First Sacred Concert in 1965. But the execution was there, folks, and it's here, too. Fine, you won't play this CD in May. I don't play the Harry Simeone Chorale in May either. Oh, yes, a nice take of Simeone's "Little Drummer Boy" here too. --
by Ken Egbert
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