At the very onset of Big Band Holidays, the new yuletide album by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, two requisite initiatives are set in motion. First is a sense of playfulness, essential in providing any sense of invention to tunes that have been recorded and interpreted with merciless frequency. The other is instrumental command, a crucial element for a jazz take on holiday music and an attribute that the Lincoln Center orchestra, with chieftain Wynton Marsalis at the helm, has displayed abundantly through the years.
Both collide the instant the album-opening take on Jingle Bells swings into action. Perhaps the most overcooked of all Christmas classics, the tune commences with a piano roll from Dan Nimmer that sounds like a mash-up of Count Basie sass and Jelly Roll Morton locomotion. Bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson then stir up the rhythmic pot before a chorus of muted horns dash in to underscore the band’s most steadfast influence, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding heats the music further with roaring blasts while the ensemble fully ignites in giddy exchanges. In just over two minutes, the whole party has concluded, the audience on this concert recording applauds, and Marsalis offers his usual stoic summation of what we have just heard: “We are the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.”
Talk about making spirits bright. The festive mood never relents, although Marsalis isn’t the only one playing Santa. Saxophonist Victor Goines’ arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sneaks a snippet of Welcome Christmas (from How the Grinch Stole Christmas) into its intro before Cecile McLorin Salvant joins the orchestra for a serenade of lush, hushed cool. For sheer invention, Rene Marie helps set a mood for ‘Zat You, Santa Claus? that befits Halloween more than Christmas. Gregory Porter pilots a bountiful but nicely mannered dose of the blues that cues the orchestra’s collective sass on Merry Christmas Baby.
Marsalis has shown a fondness for holiday music ever since his early quintet cut a Creole-inspired cover of We Three Kings for the excellent 1981 collection God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen (an essential holiday record). Here, Ted Nash revamps the tune again with a deep percussive drive and a calliope of reeds that honk about like geese as the melody constructs and deflates. Nash’s later soprano sax solo drives the more spacious section of the arrangement with Coltrane-ish fervor.
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Bringing the whole party home is What Child is This?, arranged by Marsalis alumnus and current Lexingtonian Wycliffe Gordon. It’s built around another sleek and exact vocal performance by Salvant and a rolling round of brass that sounds soulful, solemn and more than a little mysterious.