Tuesday, December 21, 2010

CD Review: "Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O"

I’d rather hear jazz artists perform Christmas songs than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (way rather than Mannheim Steamroller or, just shoot me, Mariah Carey) and have somehow accumulated several holiday CDs over the years. You have to love An Oscar Peterson Christmas and Marcus Roberts’ Prayer for Peace, Chet Baker’s icy-cool Silent Nights, and the great Joe Williams’ warm and swinging That Holiday Feelin’. 

Actually, I thought I had all the Christmas jazz albums I would ever need, and then came Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O, just out on Palmetto.

I’ve seen Wilson play live several times and he always makes me happy. Some musicians—Dave Holland is another—exude genuine joy when they play, and when you’re in the room, you feel it. Christmas Tree-O is a good-natured collection, and good-humored, putting “The Chipmunk Song” side-by-side with “Winter Wonderland,” tossing in “Mele Kalikimaki” (in a surprising klezmer arrangement) and speeding through “Little Drummer Boy,” a song that was utterly ruined for me the day I heard a plodding and deadly Celtic version. 

Each song is taken seriously as music, none is treated as a joke, and all are turned into real jazz, creative and unpredictable. Who else would merge Albert Ayler’s “Angels” with “Angels We Have Heard on High” and add toy piano? Or turn Handel’s revered “Hallelujah Chorus” into free jazz?

The “Tree-o” isn’t Matt Wilson hipster talk for “Tree” (as I first thought, duh) but holiday speak for “trio”: Matt on drums, Jeff Lederer on reeds, and Paul Sikivie on bass. Wilson gets his money's worth with Lederer, who plays soprano and tenor saxophones, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet. (Leder is also responsible for the toy piano.) He’s not afraid to squawk and squeal.

This is a CD of many musical moods: a “Winter Wonderland” that blends lazy loping with serious blowing; the playful, slightly wicked waltz of "The Chipmunk Song;" a thoughtful take on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” stitched together by a march rhythm and dusted with sleigh bells; a meditative “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” followed by the manic “Mele Kalikimaki” (with timpani flourishes); a wistful “I’ll Be Home for Christmas;” that crazy “Hallelujah Chorus,” with skronky sax and booming timpani; a high-pitched, caffeinated “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to end, which, at about a minute and thirty seconds long, doesn’t linger at the door.

All of it deliciously, wholeheartedly jazzy. Wilson’s “tree-o” could just as easily be playing Coltrane or Miles Davis or Monk. If it weren’t for the fact that you’ll probably recognize all or most of the tunes because you’ve heard them your whole life and can’t escape them in grocery stores, gas stations, and shopping malls this time of year, you wouldn’t even know these are Christmas songs.

Hallelujah, a Christmas jazz album that’s not just for Christmas.

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