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The sounds of Christmas are upon us!

21st November 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Marcus Roberts Trio
Celebrating Christmas
(J-Master Records)

Marcus Roberts is known for his ability to maximize jazz traditions with his unique approach and use of forward-striving musicians in his trio settings. On Celebrating Christmas, the pianist, who first gained recognition on the jazz scene playing and recording with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, takes on a package full of the best-known Christmas standards. He and his trio with longtime member drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan, deliver the classics with respect for the familiar melodies — all are recognizable — and jazz sensibilities.

Marsalis kicks off “Jingle Bells” with great verve that is soon followed with equal liveliness by Roberts” piano mastery. It”s a toe-tapper, a revelry of rhythm that certainly dashes through, if not the snow, the rush of the ride.

On the other hand, “Silent Night” finds pleasure and drama through its starkness and slow tempo. Jordan”s big, warm bass notes fill the soulful peace of the song. As is often the case in Roberts” work, the pianist plays a duel role on this song and throughout the album. His powerful, left-handed chords underlie the improvisational fluidity of his right hand. It”s almost as if hearing two separate players.

A few tunes, like “Frosty the Snowman,” are short, cheerful little ditties. Meanwhile, the trio really takes off on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that has, especially rhythmically, never sounded quite like — or as good — as this. It staggers, it swings, it pauses and reflects. “Winter Wonderland” receives equally inventive treatment swinging like crazy. Marsalis provides a totally unexpected drum solo that comes from another realm yet, somehow, fits. The wonderland of Christmas meets the African continent in Marsalis” tone and attitude.

Naturally, Marsalis is also out front on “Little Drummer Boy.” An interesting aspect of this tune is that he plays a march-like drum cadence throughout the song. Meanwhile Roberts stays true to the familiar melody — often with great elaboration — in a seemingly unrelated rhythmic fashion that nonetheless works.

Celebrating Christmas with the Marcus Roberts Trio offers the opportunity to enjoy the traditional songs of the holiday spiced with fine jazz performed by masters. It”s at once homey and sophisticated and well-suited for a family gathering or a champagne and caviar fete.

Harry Connick, Jr. Trio
The Happy Elf
(Marsalis Music)

With a cover decked out with all the bells and whistles of a holiday album directed at children – an illustration of a plump Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and smiling elves – one would naturally presume that Harry Connick, Jr.”s CD, The Happy Elf , was filled with music for toddlers. However, that”s not quite the case. The release does stand as a companion disc to the noted pianist and vocalist”s picture book for kids of the same name. Musically, however, it goes beyond hum along tunes for the younger set.

The album begins with Connick narrating The Happy Elf book, that has also been produced as a stage musical. The tale of the kind elf who was just crazy about Christmas could act as a heart-warming, Yuletide bedtime story for children. The first cut, also dubbed “The Happy Elf,” follows through in spirit with its joyful and danceable demeanor. Connick and his trio with part-time New Orleans resident, bassist Neal Caine and long-time drummer Arthur Latin, playfully sleigh ride into a jazz mode that can engage parents and children alike. Importantly, it, like the following, easy-going “Santarrific” doesn”t play down to the kids. Rather the tunes act as an introduction to jazz and blues that could, hopefully, lead to a love of the music.

The Marsalis Music label has offered Connick, who is heard on Columbia Records for his other, usually bigger ensemble and vocal projects, a place to let his piano playing shine. This is the Grammy award winning and native New Orleanian”s fourth project for the label that is owned by his good friend and Habitat for Humanity partner Branford Mar­sa­lis. So on this and Con­nick”s other Marsalis Music discs, his keyboard expertise, much to the delight of many of his fans, is at its essence. His sidemen also benefit from the extra space as heard on numerous occasions.

Latin jumps insistently in on drums at the start of cut four, “Naughty Children of Bluesville,” a rather demanding tune that might be best appreciated by adults as the kids drift off to dreamland. Bassist Caine gets the nod to open the, of course, bluesy “Bluesville.” Any stubborn sleepyheads should find this easy-going song coaxing their noggins to the pillow while their folks take in the syncopated weaving of Connick and his rhythm section.

The album includes some rather adventurous outings for Connick who is perhaps best known for his melodic approach. He flies free on the creative “The What Song.” This cut could probably stump a few experts in a “Name that Artist” test. Go Harry…

The pianist is more of who many expect him to be on an album fav, “Two Scoops of Christmas.” He displays his New Orleans roots and flair on this, happy and a little slinky tune. Throw in some boogie-woogie and Connick comes home for the holidays. Ditto for “The Magic Hat,” on which he offers a bit of a second line beat.

Except for the narrated story at the beginning, The Happy Elf contains music for all occasions. Connick and his cohorts strut their stuff unencumbered in the spirit of jazz.

This article was originally published in the November 21, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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