Like attention-stirring groups internalizing its members’ personalities, the Bruno Hubert Trio and the B3 Kings develop sounds of their own as they play Christmas music. The linchpin for the A Cellar Live Christmas project is alto saxophonist Cory Weeds. As is true of the formation of numerous happenings that eventually become a tradition, the start of the A Cellar Live Christmas was serendipitous. Called upon to perform a Christmas concert at The Cellar in 2001, Weeds sat in with a duo consisting of organist Chris Gestrin and drummer/vocalist Denzal Sinclaire when Sinclaire didn’t bring his quintet. It worked. A Christmas repertoire developed. The B3 Kings’s performance became an awaited Christmas concert at The Cellar.
The Christmas funk that aroused the spirits then animates the Christmas songs to the point that the feeling inspired by the music takes over where the melodies are submerged into elements of improvisation. In most cases, the songs’ recognizable phrases become hooks during extended ad libbing, like Weeds’s "Jimgle Bells"-quote-becoming-chorus-connector. The B3 Kings’s humorous version of "Dance O the Sugar Plums" especially demonstrates the group’s wit and groove. With Sinclaire setting up a rumbling, shimmering background, Gestrin’s B-3 squeezes out the first eight bars with lurking mysteriousness, as if entering a dark room, while Weeds’s baritone sax ends the chorus’s descending lines to comical effect.
That’s just prologue. The highlight of the track is Gestrin’s funky coolness, a la Dr. Lonnie Smith, over a single chord, like Lou Donaldson’s "One Cylinder." Humor and delight abound on the B3 Kings’s other tracks as when "O Little Town of Bethlehem" begins with a startling alto sax-and-organ attack on the "O!," not to mention guitarist Bill Coon’s cleanly articulated work when the song moves into double time. The carol ends as it started, with a final exclamation of "Night"!
Bruno Hubert’s trio provides the other half of the tracks, alternating piano trio sparkle with B-3 groove. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" consists of stretched phrasing and undulating dynamics, upswept crescendos resolved by receding volume. Like the B3 Kings, Hubert’s trio utilizes the theme of the carol as a point of departure, an occasion for improvisation. Hubert’s chiming block-chord work and coruscating treble lines complement bassist Andre Lachance’s understated solo, interactivity being the key to their music.
The Hubert trio’s version of "I Saw Three Ships" starts as a round, Irish in its implications suggested by whole-note bass-clef fifths. But as the track proceeds, it’s reveals as an interpretation consisting of several moods in its four-minute length or four-minute brevity, considering that the trio leaves the listener wanting to hear more. The first chorus moves into hard swing, whicih moves into a minimalistic bluesy perspective.
Many listeners expect numbing sameness when new Christmas CD’s are released. A Cellar Live Christmas is a welcome exception. The popularity of The Cellar’s holiday performances now is shared with jazz listeners everywhere with joyful results. This is an album for people who revel in the gospel-based power of the B-3 and the never-tiring sound of jazz piano trios. And it’s for people who celebrate Christmas, too.