Bassist Paul Keller leads one of the finest big bands in the country. This scaled down sextet is just as high energy and as mesmerizing. On hand are Keller and the brilliant drummer Sean Dobbins holding the anchor; Ellen Rowe, one of the standout pianists in the Ann Arbor-Detroit area (geography populated with great pianists); Keith Kaminski, perhaps the most recorded saxophonist in the area; the thoroughly spellbinding Paul Finkbeiner on trumpet and flugelhorn; and first call trombonist Chris Smith.
The program covers many of the seasonal songs you’d expect. The magic, however, lies in the spectacular arrangements, most of which are from session producer and label owner Keller. The opening version of "Angels We Have Heard On High," for instance, begins with a pretty straight forward reading before the band kicks it into high gear, first with a galloping piano, then dashing alto and flugelhorn runs that dazzle, with choruses that suggest "Stolen Moments." This is a pattern that repeats throughout the disc. Straight readings that explode into jazz interpretations. This is not jazzed up holiday music. It’s Christmas Music for people who love jazz. The ensemble delivers on all levels. These swing mightily.
The horns on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" rival the Canadian Brass, albeit with infinitely more swing in the chart. Rowe’s opening bars are subtly swinging, while Finkbeiner takes it up one shiny notch. "O Holy Night" is given a percussive treatment that reinvents the groove. Smith’s trombone work, particularly, has an Onward Brass Band-style and the rest of the band takes a wade in that New Orleans water, as well. "The Little Drummer Boy" that comes to this program brings more than just a little snare. He comes with a full kit that he propels into a rum and egg nod stratosphere while the horn section keeps it smoking while retaining the flavor the holiday favorite.
Smith’s arrangement of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" has a very hip piano/bass comp, over which the horns enter quietly in a Quincy Jones tip toe. Keller takes an exquisite and melodic solo here, while the horns slink and slide throughout. Rowe arranged the beautiful "Silent Night" on which Smith’s trombone leads over gorgeous alto/flugelhorn lines. Keller checks in with a beautifully executed solo before Rowe enters with a stately piano turn that chills. Smith’s arrangement on "Dance Of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is clever in its voicing. That a sextet can sound so massive is due largely to the superb arrangements that these talented players bring to the project. .
Keller’s treatment of Claude Thornhill’s "Snowfall" is close to the original. Not a tune that typically shows up on holiday programs, the big band standard is a perfect addition. A lovely, pensive number, it sets a fireplace and snowfall in the big picture window mood, though Dobbins’ mallets speak of the possibility of rough weather on its way. On "Jingle Bells" Cary Kocher guests on chimes, glockenspiel, triangle and sleigh bells, while the horns work the melody in unison before breaking into hot chocolate warm solos by tenor, trombone and bass before returning to the line.
Finkbeiner’s arrangement of "We Three Kings" opens with a Kenton-ish flair before relinquishing to a piano and voiced horns line that in turn breaks down to intertwining solos. Trombone and tenor are given room for superb solos before It is Finkbeiner’s arrangement that spices up "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," as well. Though the band plays it close to the familiar, Keller takes an extended solo that leads into Finkbeiner’s warm flugelhorn and Rowe’s piano.
The closing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" opens with bass and piano, then lends itself to the Latin flavored horns. Kaminski’s tenor, Smith’s trombone, Finkbeiner’s trumpet, and Rowe’s piano all shine. This is not your momma’s Christmas record. This is Christmas Songs for Jazz Lovers.