Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Alexis Cole Family Christmas

Christmas is a time for family, so it is appropriate jazz vocalist Alexis Cole’s new Christmas CD is definitely a family affair. Not only does it feature Cole’s pianist-composer father Mark Finkin, it was directly inspired by his much anticipated college graduation recital. Taking its title from her father’s commencement concert, Cole’s The Greatest Gift presents an eclectic program of seasonal and spiritual fare, the net proceeds from which will go to the non-profit World Bicycle Relief.

In a way, Gift also represents the extended family of St. Peter’s, the Manhattan church long identified with the jazz community that Cole has often played. Both St. Peter’s jazz musical director, bassist Ike Sturm, and his vocalist wife Misty Ann contribute to Cole’s Christmas. In addition, trombonist Alan Ferber and guitarist Jesse Lewis are no strangers to the Midtown sanctuary. (Disclosure: I know the Sturms from St. Peter’s Jazz Vespers, where I’m often part of the improvised ushering corps.) Such relationships help explain Gift’s distinctly warm, inviting vibe.

Gift actually starts with an instrumental prelude, an upbeat traditional treatment of “Joy to the World,” arranged by bassist Sturm and featuring an almost rock oriented solo from Lewis. Cole then makes a pretty soulful entrance on “Jeanette Isabella/The Call,” augmented by the St. Paul’s Children’s Choir. Indeed, there is a certain R&B-ish influence, especially pronounced on the following “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” a duet for Cole and Finkin. There is also similar groove going on in the original closer, “Jesus is the Best Part of Christmas,” which benefits from Don Braden’s funky sax flavorings (but the staged dramatic dialogue is unnecessary).

Cole herself arranges one of the highlights of the program, reinventing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in a calypso-like cast. Blending the appealing sounds of Braden’s soprano, Ferber’s trombone, and Warren Chasson’s vibes, “Hark” has an infectiously joyous sound that demonstrates jazz and Christmas music can both be fun.

While Cole covers many beloved carols, like “What Child is this?” and “Silent Night,” she also includes some less obvious standards, like the spiritual “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.” In another intriguing arrangement, Cole gives it a pronounced exotic flavor (quite in keeping with the song’s Holy Land setting) adding tabla and tambura to Braden’s soprano.

Cole has a rich, strong voice and her charts produce some consistently rewarding music throughout Gift. While she often gives the songs of the season a nice jazz twist, they will always be recognizable and accessible for jazz neophytes. Cole and friends will perform the music of Gift at her CD launch concert this coming Friday evening (12/4 at 8:00), fittingly at St. Peter’s.