Christmas is joyous, colorful and full of surprises. So is this CD and that's why I'm reviewing it in March when it first came my way. This Connecticut-based big band has all the ingredients: expert musicians, strong brass, warm reeds, a dynamic rhythm and clean articulation. However, what sets it apart from the usual carol swingers are the arrangements, mostly by lead trumpeter Jeff Holmes. They are creative, intelligent, often witty and take full advantage of the colors of this remarkable orchestra.
The title track opens with a traditional brass chorale approach to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Then that tune is sent on a merry ride, accompanied by - if you listen closely - Wenceslas, Rudolph, Deck the Halls, and Felice Navidad. "Jolly Old St. Nick" includes a Deck the Hall intro and a hint of Jingle Bells. Jeff Holmes' vibrant trumpet and the flutes provide a beautiful version of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." "Frosty"showcases the bones while "Rudolph" is the funkiest ever. George Sovak on tenor treats the Guaraldi tune "Christmas Time Is Here" with the sensitivity it deserves as it segues into "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
The quality of writing on this CD is as good as it gets. The best example is "Winter Wonderland." Holmes' impressionistic chart and the inspired work of Dave Sporny on euphonium and John Mastroianni on soprano create a thing of beauty from this rather mundane Christmas tune.
Often on Christmas, a special present is saved for the last. In this case it's a half hour presentation of the light and lively Ellington/Strayhorn orchestration of the Nutcracker Suite, originally recorded in 1960. For this gift, special thanks are due David Berger. Ellington scholar Berger has spent his career searching for Duke's scores, and transcribing the many that do not exist. Those number over 350, including the Sacred Music - and the Nutcracker. Interviewed in the seventies, cornetist Ruby Braff said of the Nutcracker:"He put it to an Ellington sound, and I think if Tschaikovsky were alive and heard that, he'd love it. He'd say: "What is that wonderful thing? That's beautiful." Well, the New England Jazz Ensemble has freshened up those sugar rum cherries and arabesque cookies especially with those innovative solos that are definitely of today. And if Duke were alive, he'd say: That's beautiful."
Less than 300 shopping days until Christmas! Shop early this year if only for yourself. You'll be well-rewarded by "A Cookin' Christmas."