Getting In The Spirit Of The Season: Latin Jazz Christmas Classics

by chip on December 24, 2010

Without actually realizing it, there was one lesson that I learned early in life that stuck with me until this day – jazz makes Christmas come to life. Despite their irreplaceable presence in my childhood, the Christmas carols that we all know are a bit . . . old school. Put jazz phrasing into those melodies, substitute some hipper harmonies, and make room for improvisation and those ancient carols are simply timeless. I should thank a man who crossed both the Latin Jazz and straight ahead jazz worlds many time, as this realization was due primarily to the work of Vince Guaraldi. These days I think about Guaraldi as the man behind the piano on several great Cal Tjader albums, but as a child, he was the music in A Charlie Brown Christmas that I just couldn’t get out of my head. As Christmas kept returning from year to year, my love for Christmas through a jazz perspective sent me into albums from Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Wynton Marsalis, and more. These days, Christmas just isn’t the same without some swinging carols to complete the picture.

Those initial encounters with Guaraldi’s jazz-fueled holiday classics built a fondness for swing laden Christmas carols, but I can’t get through the holiday season without a healthy helping of clave. While swing brings a certain timeless charm to Christmas carols, Caribbean and South America rhythms bring them to an exciting boil. Christmas should be a festive time where we celebrate our loved ones and everything they bring into our lives; Latin Jazz Christmas carols draw out this feeling and get the party started. It’s a great viewpoint on Christmas classics, but strangely enough, we haven’t really been inundated with memorable Latin Jazz Christmas albums over the years. The swing side of the jazz world digs into this repertoire on a yearly basis, and as a result, there’s a wealth of great jazz Christmas albums. We have individual Latin Jazz Christmas tracks that appear occasionally, and a group of forgettable Latinish Christmas albums, but too few great Latin Jazz Christmas albums. So today we celebrate a couple of outstanding Latin Jazz Christmas albums that really should become holiday traditions for all of us.

Latin Jazz Christmas
Concord Picante Artists

Latin Jazz Christmas, a 2003 release from Concord Picante takes unique advantage of the label’s strong roster. It’s a great approach to delivering a memorable Christmas album that both reinforces the recognizable nature of the label’s artists and creating a product with distinct meaning in people’s lives. Many record labels have taken this path towards a Christmas album, but few conglomerates have the pure Latin Jazz power of the early twenty-first century Concord Picante. West coast conga powerhouse Poncho Sanchez and his band contribute a couple of tracks, and the combined strength of Dave Samuel’s Caribbean Jazz Project comes through on other pieces. The label has some serious representation in Latin Jazz saxophone, with songs that feature both Ed Calle and Justo Almario. The Escovedo family shines with the Christmas spirit on numbers that feature patriarch Pete Escovedo and daughter Sheila E, as well as long time collaborator Ray Obiedo. High register trumpet pyrotechnics also play a part in the album as Cuban legend Arturo Sandoval jumps into the party on a couple of pieces. This line-up alone is enough to make any Latin Jazz fan’s mouth water, but add the fact that this takes place on an album that they can share with family and friends . . . Latin Jazz Christmas becomes a holiday must-buy.

There’s more depth than just a stellar group of names though; the music on Latin Jazz Christmas will keep you coming back for more each year. Sanchez leads his band through a ominous Afro-Cuban 6/8 version of “What Child Is This,” leaving solo space for trombonist Francisco Torres and saxophonist Scott Martin. Samuels and flautist Dave Valentin turn a familiar melody inside out on The Caribbean Jazz Project’s “Sleigh Ride,” with a son montuno rhythm in 7/4 and several inspired improvisations. “Jingle Bells” become a mambo big band spectacular in the hands of Sandoval and Calle, who both deliver awe inspiring statements over the Christmas classic. Sheila E. places a driving cha cha cha behind her vocals on “Santa Baby,” creating a performance filled with sass and spice. Acoustic guitar licks provide a rumba flamenco flavor to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” creating an understated simmer behind Calle’s flute solo and Almario’s soprano sax statement. The band provides a charging son montuno arrangement behind Pete Escovedo’s accessible vocal on “Feliz Navidad,” leading into a roaring improvisation from Obiedo. A beautiful combination of straight-ahead clave swing, clever arranging, and unforgettable solos from Martin, trumpet player Sal Cracchiolo, and Sanchez turn “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into an instant classic. The high energy performances from Latin Jazz Christmas set the standard for holiday music with a Caribbean flair, delivering the perfect combination of jazz depth, rhythmic intensity, and holiday cheer.

A Latin Jazz Christmas
Bobby Rodriguez

Individual musicians recording a Christmas album have an overwhelming task on their plate – they’ve got to take some of the world’s most recognizable music and reinvent them. Everyone knows the words, chords, and melodies to the majority of Christmas songs; it’s going to be pretty challenging to surprise them. They’ve heard the traditional context for each of these songs, they’ve sang them, they’ve played them, and they’ve danced to them. By the time most listeners are adults, they’ve heard a million different interpretations of these songs, ranging from swinging jazz versions to hard rock covers. Making matters more complex, a musician can’t surprise their audience too much when it comes to Christmas music. Most people enjoy a new spin on familiar holiday melodies, but at the heart of their experience, they simply want to enjoy the songs that they know and love. Even the most adventurous listener has a place in their heart for this music, and they prefer their high art in another context. From one perspective, a musician that undertakes a whole Christmas album needs to reinvent the wheel without making it spin too fast – a major challenge from any angle.

Los Angeles based trumpet player Bobby Rodriguez tackled this task with great musicality, delivering a Christmas classic in A Latin Jazz Christmas. Rodriguez’s solo trumpet introduces “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with an exciting zeal before the band explodes into a fiery montuno for improvisations from Rodriguez and conguero David Romero. A propulsive merengue rhythm puts a distinctly different spin on “Deck The Halls,” allowing Rodriguez to send the band into high gear with an energetic statement. Rodriguez playfully bends the melody to “Feliz Navidad” around a cha cha cha, before the band leaps into a heavily funkified groove for solos. Bassist Jonathan Pintoff creates a free floating open 6/8 feel for “We Three Kings,” opening the door to Rodriguez for edgy modal exploration. Pianist Sergei Kasimov and Rodriguez tenderly interact around the melody on “The Christmas Song,” leading into a heartfelt bolero which serves as a feature for Kasimov’s insightful improvisation skills. “Jingle Bells” comes alive as a driving samba, giving way to a joyful rhythm section vamp and a spirited improvisation from Rodriguez. Christmas bells set the tone for a lively cha cha cha behind “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” with Rodriguez’s clever phrasing taking the song to new heights. Rodriguez delivers a smart combination of familiar melodies and appealing personality to make A Latin Jazz Christmas a festive holiday recording that will light up the season.

Got more Latin Jazz Christmas classics? Share them with us in the comments and keep our Christmas in clave! Happy holidays everyone!

Check Out These Related Posts:
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5 Latin Jazz Tracks That I’d Like To Hear On My Dying Day
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