The interpretation of classic Christmas tunes by jazz artists is a time-honored tradition that has resulted in many wonderful records and compilations over the years, from legends like Oscar Petersen and Dave Brubeck to more modern jazz artists like Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Kirk Whalum. The plethora of fine jazz Christmas music raises the bar on new entries into the niche. How does a new artist add something fresh to the lexicon?
Trio West, the name harkening to the band members' roots on the west side of Manhattan, has an answer with Trio West Plays Holiday Songs. This is delightful, inventive, tasteful Christmas jazz that will remind you why you like the combination of jazz and the famous December holiday so much. From the straight-ahead swing of "O Tannenbaum," driven by drummer Tobias Gebb's brushes to a tango version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to the chord-morphed offering of "Little Drummer Boy" that begins over a military drum cadence, slips quietly into hard bop and then comes to attention again with the cadence, the whole set is full of new arrangements on old Christmas chestnuts (and yes, even including the one where those chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, "The Christmas Song"). There is plenty here for the mainstream jazz fan to love in the form of mellow trio music, but seasoned with fresh ingredients expressed through new arrangements. The only exception is "Christmas Time is Here," which hews closely to the Vince Guaraldi original. The musicianship is superb and while Gebb's drums are at times a bit too dominant in the mix, a small sin easily explained by the fact that Gebb arranged and produced every tune on the record, the overall sound of Trio West reflects the minimalism of one of their inspirations, pianist Ahmad Jamal, with ear-pleasing results.
All in all, Trio West Plays Holiday Songs is an excellent addition to the Christmas jazz genre and deserves a place in your collection.