Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Carla Bley Christmas

Carla Bley suspects her aspirations for a concert of Christmas music might have cost her at least one gig. Surely, those modernist snobs know by now they made a terrible mistake passing up a program of Christmas carols from the inventive arranger-pianist-bandleader. Indeed, despite her musical adventurousness, Bley has long had an affinity for traditional carols that eventually led to Carla’s Christmas Carols, a distinctive but respectful Christmas-themed release now available on Bley’s WATT label.

Often scrupulously straight, Bley’s charts sound as if they were intentionally written to best serve the time-honored carols themselves. Such is definitely the case with the opening “O Tannenbaum,” in which the jazz voicings are only asserted late in the arrangement. Likewise, the warm, relaxed mood of “The Christmas Song” should equally please fans of both Bley and Nat King Cole (still probably the carol’s greatest popularizer). Given this disciplined approach and the burnished sound of the Partyka Brass Quintet, Bley’s Carols will be an especially accessible jazz Christmas album for non-jazz ears. Yet, Bley’s admirers will still be happy to hear her unique musical sensibility very definitely shapes and colors the character of the session.

For instance, who else but Bley would pen an original for a Christmas program titled “Hell’s Bells.” While it swings like mad, the glorious trumpets of Tobias Weidinger and Axel Schlosser lend it a vibe akin to the especially rousing carols. Always one to surprise, Bley also gives “Jingle Bells” a New Orleans second-line treatment, ending with a bit of glockenspiel and ompah for punctuation.

Of course, Bley also prominently features her longtime partner Steve Swallow, whose decidedly melodic approach to the electric bass largely carries the tune on the simply gorgeous rendition of “O Holy Night.” Though she often dismisses her own playing as “arranger’s piano,” Bley takes several tastefully articulate solos, particularly on the elegant “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Part Two,” (which logically follows the more boppish brass interplay of “Part One”).

Bley’s Carols is a beautiful set of Christmas music that would win the leader a legion of new fans in a more perfect world. Perhaps Bley’s Carols is less likely to top critics’ year-end lists (as have most of her recent releases) because of its admittedly seasonal appeal. Yet, it is no less accomplished. In fact, it leads to greater appreciation of her versatility and sensitivity as an arranger and leader. It is highly recommended as a jazz stocking stuffer. (By the way, look for more jazz Christmas CD reviews here over Black Friday weekend.)