Sunday, December 16, 2018

An American Christmas with PJ Rasmussen and the Boardwalk Jazz Band

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without jazz. If you doubt it, just imagine a world without Vince Guaraldi’s a beautiful swinging score for A Charlie Brown Christmas (“Skating” is especially nice) or Nat King Cole owning Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” PJ Rasmussen embraces the jazz yuletide tradition with a swinging set of Christmas carols recorded live at City Winery in lower NYC. Jazz fans get an early Christmas present when An American Christmas Featuring PJ Rasmussen and the Boardwalk Jazz Band (promo here) airs in syndication on terrestrial broadcast networks during the holiday season (including WCBS-TV in New York).

You have to give Rasmussen credit for starting with “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” instead reindeer or snowman. There is no “War on Christmas” here. Rasmussen’s arrangement gives it a hard-charging swing worthy of the vintage Basie band. Vocalist April May Webb brings out the inherent gospel flavor of the lyrics, while baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro further cranks up the funkiness. One of the cool things about American Christmas is the it identifies each band-member during their respective solos, so everyone gets their due credit.

Rasmussen’s chart for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has some Oliver Nelson-ish colors to it, which is high praise again. Generally, this is a rather dour carol, but Webb and the band perform it as an upbeat, up-tempo groover. Again, there are legit solos (maybe somewhat brief by club standards, but quite fully-developed for television), in this case, from Dave Pollack delivering on tenor and Richard Polatchek keeping it real on trumpet.

“Deck the Halls” is maybe even a tad too fleet, but it is nice vehicle for Rasmussen’s guitar and Joe Spinelli on drums. “What Child Is This” is probably their gutsy choice, given how many listeners might be familiar with John Coltrane’s recording of “Greensleeves,” but conductor Charlie Dougherty’s arrangement definitely takes it in a brassier, more swinging direction. It is a surprisingly fun performance (devoid of the usual folky moodiness), propelled by the impressive power and clarity of vocalist Candice Reyes’s voice.

“Jingle Bells” is probably the most straight-over-the-plate, sing-along-if-you-want-and-happen-to-know-the-later-verses rendition, but it is followed by an original. “Christmas Card Blues” is a pleasant and sometime rather clever lampoon of the year-in-review letters some people include in their Christmas cards. Rasmussen and Kate Victor perform it with just the right degree of theatricality (a little, not a lot), while Billy Test shows all kinds of taste and touch during his piano solo.

The “We Three Kings/Silent Night” medley is the softest piece of the night, but Webb and the band swing the former pretty hard. Test’s transitional solo and Webb’s bluesey “Silent Night” are about as hushed as the set gets, but they are still quite nice and Christmassy. Rasmussen and company close with a brisk, head-bobbing “Auld Lang Syne,” which is an appropriately celebratory note. It sure beats another rote run-through of “The Theme.”

Holiday music and celebrations are supposed to be fun—and that is definitely true of Rasmussen’s An American Christmas. It will not replace Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, but it is easily one of the best Christmas musical specials of the season, recommended for everyone in the family. For jazz fans, it is also offer an opportunity to hear all the talented young musicians who make up the Boardwalk Jazz Band. Air dates and times vary by city, but here in New York, it airs on Christmas Eve (12/24) at 12:35am, which would be a tough time slot, but it follows Midnight Mass, so maybe it will catch people in the spirit.