New jazz recordings for Christmas

Laurence Hobgood

Laurence Hobgood is one of many musicians with new recordings for the holidays. (Eric Antoniou / November 4, 2013)

Christmas recordings often yield unbearable treacle when it comes to jazz and standards, but this year happens to be an exception.

Thanks to pianists Laurence Hobgood and Ted Rosenthal, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, violinist Joshua Bell and others, music lovers have something to cheer about this season.

Among the best recordings:

Laurence Hobgood: "Christmas" (Circumstantial). Can overplayed holiday repertoire be transformed into art? It can when Hobgood is at work, the pianist turning in one of the most appealing recordings of an already distinguished career with "Christmas." Because most of the tracks are solos, listeners can savor the beauty of his touch, the subtlety of his voicings, the lushness of his harmonies and the ingenuity of his improvisations. Rarely has "Away in a Manger" sounded so lustrously Impressionistic, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" so brainy, "O Holy Night" so pristinely uncluttered or "Little Drummer Boy" so unapologetically trippy (thanks to Hobgood's doubling on acoustic and electric pianos). Hobgood's former collaborator, singer Kurt Elling, makes two cameos: an inspired and deeply idiomatic version of Joni Mitchell's "River" and a sappy, vibrato-drenched account of Hobgood's "Song of the Christmas Bells." But these are mere sidelights to the main event: Hobgood's glistening pianism, which always bears hearing, and especially on this album.

Wynton Marsalis: "The Spiritual Side of Wynton Marsalis" (Columbia/Sony Classical/Legacy). Most of the tracks on this disc have appeared on previous Marsalis albums, but the trumpeter-composer has recorded so copiously during the past few decades that very few listeners have heard everything. More important, by pulling together works that represent Marsalis' contemplations on spiritual matters, this album illuminates some of the most moving music to have come from his pen. Not surprisingly, the tour de force is "In the Sweet Embrace of Life Sermon: Holy Ghost," from perhaps the greatest suite Marsalis has written, "In This House, On This Morning." This jazz evocation of a gospel church service reaches a nearly hysterical peak in the "Holy Ghost" movement, its frenetic rhythms and daredevil ensemble playing as rousing as anything Marsalis has conceived. But there are other treasures, as well: the life-affirming optimism of the "Processional" (also from "In This House"); the magisterial "Oh We Have a Friend in Jesus," from "Blood on the Fields," profoundly sung by Cassandra Wilson; and the magnificent choral-instrumental writing of "To Higher Ground," from the "Reeltime" album. Listen to this CD from start to finish, and you cannot miss the eloquence of Marsalis' writing or the depth of his faith.

Ted Rosenthal: "Wonderland" (Playscape). Though not as adventurous or idiosyncratic as Laurence Hobgood's "Christmas," pianist Rosenthal's "Wonderland" proves quite appealing, with straightforward but never predictable arrangements of holiday classics. "Silent Night" becomes a sweet jazz waltz, Rosenthal – plus bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Tim Horner – giving the song a lovely, medium-tempo rhythmic whirl. "The Christmas Song" hardly could be played with more intimacy, the first sections exquisitely soft, slow and practically suspended in time. And a Rosenthal original, "Snowscape," sums up the understated power of his sophisticated chordal choices and gently wrought lyricism. For those who like their holiday music sleek, chic and elegant, "Wonderland" takes you there.

Joshua Bell: "Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends" (Sony Masterworks). No one is going to call violinist Bell a jazz musician or even a traditional pop performer. Yet the classical virtuoso has put together a remarkably accessible, thoroughly high-toned crossover disc that embraces jazz, standards, country and more. The through line here, of course, is Bell's violin work, a warmly emotional brand of playing that never devolves into mere schmaltz. His attempt at gypsy-jazz swing may be a bit overwrought in "Let It Snow," but otherwise Bell sounds thoroughly persuasive duetting with pianist Chick Corea in a buoyant arrangement of "Greensleeves," rhythmically charged up with the vocal group Straight No Chaser in a "Nutcracker Medley" and deeply affecting with saxophonist Branford Marsalis in a bluesy "Amazing Grace." Rare is the classical virtuoso who can sound so comfortable in so many populist idioms without sacrificing the credibility of his own playing. Bell has done that and more.

David Edelfelt: "Love Is Born at Christmas" (davidedelfelt.com). Chicago is home to many fine cabaret voices, and Edelfelt owns one of the best. His plush bass-baritone commands attention in any repertoire, yet it seems particularly well-suited to holiday fare that's all about warmth, love and hope. Thus "Winter Wonderland" becomes something of a dream in Edelfelt's version, the listener easily getting lost in those seemingly bottomless low notes of his. The singer conveys a tremendous sense of longing in "I'll Be Home for Christmas," showing how much meaning can still be found in the venerable old tune. And in "The Christmas Song," Edelfelt conjures more tonal nuance than one might have believed a single voice could produce in such familiar fare. He's joined on most tracks by pianist Beckie Menzie, about as sensitive an accompanist as any cabaret singer could wish to have. With jazz artists such as guitarist Andy Brown and vocalists such as Amy Matheny and Tom Michael alongside him, how could Edelfelt miss?

Deanna Reuben: "Christmas Is Here" (deannareuben.com). No fireworks, no pyrotechnics, no ostentation – just lovely, subtly sophisticated performances by a singer who clearly knows what she's doing. Reuben brings a great deal of heart to "A Christmas Love Song," a slowy-and-saucy delivery to "Santa Baby" and much-appreciated restraint to practically everything she sings, with comparably smart instrumental accompaniment. Here's the rare holiday album that simply whispers in your ear.

Scott Earl Holman with Ira Sullivan: "He Will Be Immanuel" (Crumblehead). Considering that pianist Holman is joined by multi-instrumentalist Sullivan and an all-star list of Chicago jazz musicians – including drummer Paul Wertico and guitarist John Moulder – it's no wonder that this music piques the ear. These musicians improvise freely and poetically, with Wertico's inventive drum work and Sullivan's flights on soprano saxophone and trumpet of particular interest. So this isn't holiday music to hum along with or tap your toe to – it's far too free-ranging and exploratory for that. Alas, the biblical readings are blandly performed, diminishing the impact of the recording.

A great week for pianists

Chicago will be thick with superb pianists in the next few days, including:

Fred Hersch. The ultra-sensitive, musically adventurous pianist leads a trio. 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $25-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

Mike Jones. He may be best known as music director for Penn & Teller in Las Vegas, but Jones also happens to be a nimble virtuoso in his own right; he fronts a trio. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

Freddy Cole. Nat "King" Cole's younger brother sings as well as he plays. 7:30 p.m. Friday at Freedom Hall, 410 Lakewood Blvd., Park Forest; $28; 708-747-0580 or freedomhall.org.

Reginald Robinson. The winner of a MacArthur Fellowship will unveil new music to accompany Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago's "Memories 'N' Time." 7:30 p.m. Friday (with 6 p.m. reception); $30-$75 (higher ticket includes reception). Also 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday; $30. At the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; 773-702-2787 or muntu.com or muntumemories.bpt.me.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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