✭✭ Various artists, "Christmas From the Blue Note" (Blue Note). This mixed-bag compilation too often sacrifices coherence for novelty and hipness. Self-conscious modernism subverts "Deck the Halls" by singer Kate Davis and saxophonist George Garzone. Jimmy Scott, past his best days, sings a "Silent Night" as touching as it is painfully tentative. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris ably navigates through Rich Shemaria's layered writing on "Greensleeves." A Latinate "We Three Kings" by drummer Francisco Mela is fine but Maya Azucena's gutbucket blues treatment of "O Holy Night" misses the point. "Let the rough side drag" might be the motto of this collection.
✭✭✭ Eugene Marlow, "Celebrations" (MEII). The pianist/arranger leads imaginative quintet interpretations of Hanukkah and Purim-related songs. The music draws on jazz, classical music and Hebraic melodies. The Jewish roots run deep in jazz and Marlow has fun with the connections: Saxophonist Michael Hashim and drummer Bobby Sanabria have a ball channeling a mambo band at a Catskills resort on "Dreidel, Dreidel." Marlow's own "Yotvata" is a stirring minor chord lament turned into a loping blues. Like the old ad for rye bread boasted: You don't have to be Jewish.
✭✭✭ Wynton Marsalis, "Christmas Jazz Jam" (Wynton). The trumpeter for all seasons fields a capable 10-piece group, which essays a program of the usual fare with a few surprises. Musical styles deftly rendered include New Orleans trad ("Jingle Bells," "Blue Christmas"), calypso ("Rudolph"), Duke Ellington (" Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Little Town of Bethlehem"), bracing renditions of spirituals ("Mary Had a Baby," "Go Tell It on the Mountain") and a bluesy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The uncredited arrangements are smart yet not ostentatious; they don't overshadow the soloists. Marsalis is certainly a trumpeter for this season.
✭✭✭✭ John Sheridan, "Hooray for Christmas!" (Arbors). This collection combs the far corners of the Great American Songbook skirting overly familiar material. An occasional studio aggregation, pianist John Sheridan's Dream Band convenes here for its fourth release, drawing from the label's stable of instrumental virtuosi. The pre-bop music swings gently but firmly through his resourceful charts. Rebecca Kilgore's effortless vocals, a new Dave Frishberg tune ("Difficult Season"), the tasty two-trombone feature "Pocketful of Miracles" and Warren Vache's poignant cornet on the melancholy "Christmas Will Be a Little Lonely" make the case for this album as a Christmas classic.
✭✭✭ Matt Wilson, "Christmas Tree-O" (Palmetto). The crazy-as-a-fox drummer's trio works over well-worn and offbeat ( John Lennon's "Happy Christmas") holiday tunes, with saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Paul Sikvie. The songs are gleefully redesigned and deconstructed, often in sardonic ways. Wilson's trio plays "Mele Kalikimaki" as a klezmer freilach, makes a no-time dirge out of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," approximates a talking-in-tongues Albert Ayler rave-up ("Hallelujah Chorus"), and reimagines "Winter Wonderland" as played in a strip club. While imaginative and daring, this is not the collection for the reverent or sentimental listener.