“Christmas music — you know, the tunes you hear incessantly in elevators and shopping malls each December — does not necessarily make for great jazz.
An art form predicated on originality and innovation, after all, does not easily conform to the predictable and the banal.
Yet this year a surprising number of artists have come up with seasonal releases that have something worthwhile to say. The best of these recordings either sidestep cliche or simply transcend the limitations of songs that may have worn out their welcome by this time of year.
Following are some of the more interesting offerings:
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: “Big Band Holidays” (Blue Engine Records). Big-band fans have a great deal to celebrate this year, with several organizations releasing holiday albums. None tops “Big Band Holidays,” in which the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra reaffirms its position as America’s pre-eminent large jazz ensemble. That the band, led by trumpeter Marsalis, manages this feat in holiday repertoire says a great deal about its long-standing, hard-won achievements. JALC’s corporate virtuosity, plush ensemble sound and exalted level of solo playing are apparent throughout and, in essence, elevate the material at hand. Culled from a series of live performances spanning 2012 to 2014, “Big Band Holidays” achieves unstoppable rhythmic drive in some numbers and glistening orchestral color in others. Specifically, the ensemble conjures muscular swing rhythm in Ernie Wilkins and Jonathan Lawrence’s arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” shimmering instrumental textures in Victor Goines’ version of “White Christmas” and evocative orchestral detail in Ted Nash’s scoring of “We Three Kings.” Then, too, JALC has summoned three leading jazz singers — Cecile McLorin Salvant, Gregory Porter and Rene Marie — to provide distinctive accounts of familiar tunes. Thanks to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new Blue Engine Records label, there should be more welcome archival material coming our way in the New Year.“