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Jazz Greetings by Mark Kramer

Despite his long involvement in jazz with some of the art form’s most recognizable names as well as continuing critical acclaim, Mark Kramer remains undersung. Part of his lack of visibility is due to his career responsibilities as a doctor and department head at Merck Laboratories, even though he occasionally emerged for various recordings, including his inspiring work with Eddie Gomez since 2001. (Frankly, my favorite is their Jazz Fiddler on the Roof, on which they re-interpreted the overlooked beauty of the Broadway play’s score) Now, those intrepid owners of the Dreambox Media label, which has documented much of the jazz in Philadelphia where Kramer lives since its founding, has released an album of Kramer’s versions of holiday favorites.

Having already honored the music from Fiddler on the Roof, Kramer includes a medley of Hanukah songs, too, appealing in their centuries-old simplicity, but allowing for improvisation and harmonic elaboration. Understated and evolving somewhat into a jazz waltz, the medley allows for relaxed holiday listening even as its inherent beauty remains intact through improvisational liberties. Even the gravity of "Hatikvah" is lightened after the first traditional chorus through loosening of the melodic constraints.

However, nine-tenths of the album consists of presentations of Christmas favorites, re-invented for jazz listeners from their essential rhythmic and harmonic underpinnings. For instance, "March of the Toys" evolves into a carnival celebration instead as percussionist Omar Hill’s hand drumming and use of berimbau and other instruments converts the song at times beyond recognition until Kramer circles back to the melody. "We Three Kings" becomes a jazz waltz, veering between major and minor keys and allowing for successive choruses of re-investigation and bringing in some Tyner-isms for good measure. "Deck the Halls" starts with stomping ostinato bass notes as Kramer builds his own version, again with the tension between minor and major root chords, for more than a little degree of excitement. The tension finally resolves into a swinging improvisation, embellished by coruscations of tremolos, which could just as well be any other song based on the same changes.

Kramer glides through the tunes he selects with confident and personalized élan supported by his friends bassist Charles Fambrough and drummer Jim Miller, the Jazz Greetings co-producer, who provide the rhythmic bed that allows for Kramer’s brightly flowing execution of the songs heard over and over again. This time though, the songs undergo transformation into jazz pieces of greater harmonic depth and improvisational imagination than the original melodies would suggest. "Christmas Time Is Here," written and originally performed by a jazz pianist as well, changes from an uncomplicated waltz into straight-four groove that stands on its own merits. "Silent Night" achieves reassuring calmness when guest musician Leslie Burrs flauts as he is wont to do on other Dreambox Media albums, and then Kramer subtly re-harmonizes the song when he himself solos.

Jazz Greetings offers a satisfying and mature jazz perspective of holiday music that allows for greater appreciation of Kramer as he assumes a more regular musical presence now that he is pursuing once again a full-time music career.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mark Kramer
  • CD Title: Jazz Greetings
  • Genre: Holiday Jazz
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Dreambox Media
  • Tracks: Greensleeves, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Silent Night, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, We Three Kings, Deck the Halls, Walking in a Winter Wonderland, Christmas Time Is Here, Hanukah Blessing-Hatikvah Medley, March of the Toys
  • Musicians: Mark Kramer (piano), Charles Fambrough (bass), Jim Miller (drums), Omar Hill (percussion), Leslie Burrs (flute)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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