Beyond Playlist presents Xmas-rated, part three: Jazz to the World
This year, we've wrapped our roundup of holiday albums a bit differently. Instead of delivering it to you in one big lump (like coal), we're parceling out the reviews online, with a blog each weekday through December 24 devoted to recordings in a different category. Part three is titled "Jazz to the World" -- not that albums by Spyro Gyro, Dotsero and Al Jarreau, plus a Putumayo label compilation, are likely to remind you of anything by John Coltrane...
Spyro Gyra specializes in a form of jazz that's not a whole lot different from the generic background music sold in displays at Target by the greeting-card section. So it's no shock that A Night Before Christmas kicks like a glass of warm milk on "O Tannenbaum," "Silent Night" and most of the other numbers here. However, I did enjoy one cut: a fun, lively version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" co-starring Spyro drummer Bonny B and guest warbler Janis Siegel. How did that slip by lack-of-quality control?
Like Spyro Gyra, Colorado's own Dotsero lives in a smooth-jazz world, and A Sense of Wonder, issued on the band's own Cinderblock Records imprint, won't get the members kicked out for breaking the rules. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" will cause most Caucasian dudes to unconsciously start doing the dance Billy Crystal once referred to as the White Man's Overbite, and "Jingle Bells" and "Carol of the Bells" are the aural equivalent of Teflon. But the packaging is extremely clever: It's shaped like a Christmas card that pops open to reveal the disc, which is held by a pair of angels. If only the music itself were as heavenly.
Al Jarreau's Christmas (Rhino) is as straightforward as its title, with Jarreau delivering all the expected airs ("O Come All Ye Faithful," "The Christmas Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" et al.) in the anticipated manner. But give him credit. Instead of phoning in his vocals, he works in every one of his vocal tics, swooping and whooping and veering up and down the register, especially on "White Christmas." Bet his voicebox was throbbing like a pulled hamstring by the time he was done.
A Jazz & Blues Christmas (Putumayo) isn't nearly as balanced as its title implies. Of the ten songs on the album, only one (a swinging version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" by the Ramsey Lewis Trio) is an instrumental. Most of the rest are colored blue -- especially B.B. King's "Christmas Celebration," the Dukes of Dixieland's "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Santa's Blues" by Charles Brown. But there are also more soulful moments, including Ray Charles's vibrant take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Mighty Blue Kings' "All I Ask for Christmas," which pretty much qualifies as a Brother Ray impression. He lives! -- Michael Roberts