Singer Nancy Wilson did some of her Christmas shopping very early. The best present of all was wrapped and ready a year ahead of time.
She flew into Pittsburgh three times last fall to record "A Nancy Wilson Christmas" at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. While it may be a gift for her fans in some respect, Wilson had another intention.
All of the proceeds go to support jazz performance and education programs at the MCG, a multi-discipline, minority-run arts and learning center that works with underprivileged youths and underemployed adults on Pittsburgh's north side. The recording was released on the MCG Jazz label and distributed by Telarc.
"I'd never done a Christmas album before, but I decided if I was going to do one, it was going to support something. It is a wonderful program," Wilson said.
Wilson had a lot of splendid help on this multi-faceted project. In addition to performing with her own quartet with pianist Llew [cq] Matthews, bassist John B. Williams and drummer Roy McCurdy, she teamed up on various tracks with trumpeter Jon Faddis and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band, the vocal quartet New York Voices, pianist Monty Alexander, flute players Herbie Mann and Ali Ryerson and Brazilian drummer Duduka Da Fonseca, among others.
The Gillespie alumni, including saxophonists James Moody, Frank Wess, Antonio Hart and Jimmy Heath and trombonist/arranger Slide Hampton, bring a robust power and punch on several arrangements. One of the gems is the New York Voices' blending with Wilson on the lesser-known "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."
"I was really pleased with the way the real old traditional songs came out. I knew that if I had Jon Faddis and the guys, it would work well," Wilson said. "I am not trying to prove anything. It is me. I'm just giving you some Christmas stuff."
There is an excellent range of holiday-related jazz out this season -- some of it fresh compilations of material from the vaults of established labels, and a few very nice new projects that will bring holiday cheer to music fans.
Here's a look at those diverse offerings:
Harry Allen, "Christmas in Swingtime" -- This talented swing tenor saxophonist is getting more and more visibility because of his terrific sound and spirit, which has extended the Stan Getz-Scott Hamilton tradition another generation. This is an organ quartet outing, with Allen joined by B-3 player Larry Goldings, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Jake Hanna. Longtime collaborator John Pizzarelli stops in to sing "Blue Christmas" on this BMG Japan session, released in the United States by Koch Jazz.
"MaxJazz Holiday" -- The St. Louis-based independent label MaxJazz has carved a niche for itself in the past three years as a home for singers and pianists. This compilation features excellent Yule and seasonal tunes performed by singers Carla Cook, Rene Marie, Mary Stallings, Philip Manuel and Christine Hitt and pianist Bruce Barth.
"JustinTime for Christmas, Three" -- This is a wide-ranging compilation featuring a variety of artists affiliated with this Montreal label. Highlights include Ranee Lee's "Santa Baby." New Orleans bluesman Bryan Lee's "Christmas Blues" and a sparkling Oliver Jones solo piano take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." David Murray, the World Saxophone Quartet and the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet provide more daring takes on the holiday.
"The Very Best of Christmas Jazz" -- This Verve samplers digs deep into the vaults to present Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong ("'Zat You, Santa Claus?"), Shirley Horn, Bill Evans, Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Count Basie and Jimmy Smith. John Coltrane is featured on "Greensleeves." Smith offers a bluesy "Jingle Bells."
"Playboy's Latin Jazz Christmas, A Not So Silent Night" -- This release from Playboy Jazz/Concord Records, spices up the holidays with salsa rather than a hot toddy. There are spirited versions of Christmas classics by Arturo Sandoval and Ed Calle, the Caribbean Jazz Project, Sheila E. and papa Pete Escovedo, and the Poncho Sanchez Latin jazz band. The Latin rhythms bring much to the holiday table, with Sanchez's "What Child Is This?" topping the menu.
Classical Jazz Quartet, "Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker" -- This project on the Vertical jazz label brought together a fine new band, with pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Lewis Nash and vibes player Stefon Harris, to use themes from "The Nutcracker" for in-depth jazz explorations. It is good as holiday fare, and hints of the great promise the group would have in tackling straightahead music on its own terms.
Kirk Whalum, "The Christmas Message" -- Saxophonist Whalum presents a soulful contemporary take on the holiday repertoire on this Warner Bros. project, which ranges from the Swedish hymn "Blott En Dag," "Amazing Grace" and "Love from a Star" to "O Holy Night" and Rise Up Shepherd and Follow."
Leon Redbone, "Christmas Island" -- Kudos to the Verve label, which recently signed the eclectic Leon Redbone, for releasing this delightful take on the holidays. The title track is a classic -- with a Don Ho sort of feel that only Redbone could turn into Christmas whimsy. It belongs in every holiday stocking.