Jingle bells, Jingle sells

The industry aims for the heart of Christmas-- with a shotgun

--M.W.

Christmas with the New Black Eagles Jazz Band
New Black Eagles Jazz Band
Daring Records

There is simply no music known to mankind as fiercely resistant to sadness as Dixieland. The tonic sounds of the Big Easy and Satchmo Armstrong are like dustmops shaking away gloomy cobwebs--it's no wonder New Orleans funerals are inimitably jazzy, celebratory wakes. The New Black Eagles are essentially a Dixieland band, and somewhat surprisingly, these seven white guys hail from Massachusetts. Surprise, in fact, fuels this lively collection of standards, all freshly revisited. You may not have ever thought of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" as ideally suited for a tuba-banjo duet, but the New Black Eagles have, and therein lies the charm of their album. Technical mastery isn't among the group's sterling assets--cornet player Tony Pringle sometimes embraces his notes hesitantly--but carols have never felt this rollicking and fun. The Mancini-tinged "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" stands out for its moody coolness, but overall this isn't a spiritual album (even the slowly unfolding beauty of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Silent Night" get peppered up). It is not designed to put you in a somber, peaceful mood on Christmas Eve, but to serve as a great party favor, the perfect accent to an evening of friendship, a sentimental but not melancholy reflection of what the holiday season means to each of us.

--A.W.J.

Let's Share Christmas
John Pizzarelli
RCA Records

With a touchy-feely album title (and equally squishy song) like Let's Share Christmas, you probably shouldn't expect lots of guitar riffs and extended piano improvisation, and of course you'd be right. John Pizzarelli's voice is among the dullest of any man who assumes jazz credentials; there's nothing funky or remotely spontaneous about him, and every song he sings is victimized by his rigidly unexpressive voice. From ho-hum variations of classic carols to some downright annoying new ones, it seems clear that it isn't skill that induces someone to rhyme "Let's make sure the fire's bright and gifts are under the tree/Let's share Christmas, just you and me;" it's gall. There are gifted arrangers and conductors behind the scenes on this album--Johnny Mandel, Michel Legrand, and others--but they can't rescue Pizzarelli from himself: a bleached-out attempt to recreate the magical swing sound Harry Connick Jr. almost single-handedly revived. This isn't even good background music.

--A.W.J.

This is the Time: The Christmas Album
Michael Bolton
Columbia Records

Well, what did you expect? Michael Bolton does all the classics--"Silent Night," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Holy Night"--inflicting upon them his big-haired, psuedo-R&B yowling and rendering each cut as subtle as an artillery barrage; in his voice's higher register--where he loves to dwell--he sounds as if he's trying to pass a peach pit, and no song's halls go undecked with his annoying mannerisms. Perhaps he envisions this as his entree into the realm of the Beloved Seasonal Album, but by entering into competition with Bing Crosby, Jim Nabors, and Burl Ives he succeeds only in kicking his own ass. While his genius has always been choosing songs that are strong enough to withstand his delivery, two cuts--"This is the Time" and "Love is the Power"--make it very clear that he can't (co)write them. Bah.

--M.W.

Bending Toward the Light: A Jazz Nativity
Various Artists
Milan Records

There are some powerhouse jazz musicians on this quasi-compilation--salsa drummer Tito Puente, trumpeter Lionel Hampton--all of whom performed a concert at Lincoln Center in New York last year that began this album. The liner notes assure us that the evening was "electric," but of course that guarantee comes from the zombified Charles Kuralt, who hosted the event, so remember to consider the source. In any case, the magic of the theater and the allure of a great album are not the same, and the concept of the collection (the story of Jesus in jazz) doesn't quite work without the live presentation. It seems almost in singularly bad taste to actively say something negative about it, but as good as some of the individual segments are, they never coalesce as a unified Christmas album. Bending Toward the Light is better appreciated than enjoyed; more worthy placed immediately in the archives as an addition to a thorough accumulation of jazz performances than as songs we care to listen to for putting us in the holiday mood.

--A.W.J.

Kwanzaa Party! A Celebration of Black Cultures in Song
Various artists
Rounder Records

Kwanzaa Party! commemorates the upcoming 30th anniversary of the African-American Kwanzaa harvest festival that begins the day after Christmas and ends on New Year's Day. A nonreligious holiday, Kwanzaa (Swahili for "first fruits of the harvest") celebrates African culture and excellence, as does this second Rounder Kwanzaa collection, which consists of superlative examples of festive African-based music. The party begins with the most upbeat song, a remake of the 1940s Caribbean hit "Mary Ann," a steel-drum soca by Trinidad's Roaring Lion--Rafael de Leon, who introduced calypso to the United States in the 1930s--joined here by Guyanese producer Eddy Grant ("Electric Avenue"). "Sekusile" is a midtempo swing by the Dark City Sisters, a 1950s South African vocal group that included Miriam Makeba. The kompa variation of the Dominican merengue combined with big-band horns in Ensemble Nemours Jn. Baptiste's "Rhythme Commercial" 40 years ago has since dominated Haitian pop. "Fidelina" is a Colombian story song by Alejo Duran, dubbed "el rey negro" (the black king) of vallenato, a Creole form similar to zydeco. The album also includes a pair of Cuban sambas, several Afropop songs, an example of Haitian voudou rock, or rasin (rah-seen), and a political chant ("Ede M Chante," or "I Must Sing," by Boukan Ginen). Like many such broad compilations, Kwanzaa Party! is sometimes discontinuous, but this distillation is an essential Kwanzaa primer (the CD booklet contains a succinct explanation of the meaning and rituals of Kwanzaa, as well as holiday recipes) and the music of the African song book.

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