Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas Jazz: Kenny Burrell; Mattias Nilsson & Ray Aichinger

With the holiday season already upon us, it's time to review a couple of very recommendable Christmas jazz albums, both a classic and a newer issue. The former is Kenny Burrell's guitar-and-orchestra affair from 1966, entitled Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas, and released by the small Cadet label. Burrell definitely delivers on the title's promise—this is, indeed, a very soulful album from start to finish, with Burrell tackling both tunes one would expect ("White Christmas," "Silent Night") and others that are not as common ("Mary's Little Boy Chile," "Go Where I Send Thee"). Whether he's playing a wistful ballad or an uptempo number, Burrell's approach is always elegant and engaging, and even though he's accompanied by an orchestra and occasional strings, the focus is still on the guitar, both acoustic and electric. The intelligent arrangements by Richard Evans never get in the way and add to the soulfulness of the whole, even if the producers do tend to fade out some of the tracks. There isn't a single blemish on the album, from the sprightly version of "The Little Drummer Boy" that opens it to the bluesy reading of "Merry Christmas Baby" that serves as the closer. In between, there are many standouts, such as "My Favorite Things," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "The Christmas Song," which will help add some soul to your holidays!

The more recent release is Silent Nights, a seven-song album by the duo of Swedish pianist Mattias Nilsson and Austrian saxophonist Ray Aichinger. It was originally issued on CD in 2015, and now it's being made available again as a digital download by the Stockholm-based Fog Arts label. It's a very interesting collection because it couples two standards with a few carols from the European tradition that show how rewarding the relationship between the folk music of the Old World and jazz can be. The standards are a very lyrical reading of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that echoes the style of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and an unlikely recasting of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" as a Yuletide song. One of the carols is "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht," which is none other than "Silent Night," and the other three ("Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton," "Macht Hoch Die Tür," and "Under Rönn och Syren") are pensive tunes that lend themselves perfectly to Nilsson and Aichinger's intimate approach. As a bonus, this digital reissue includes an original composition by the duo, "Blue December," which will also be featured in their forthcoming new holiday album, Peaceful in Dreams (European Jazz Records), which is actually slated to be released today.