Jazz vocal and instrumental versions of holiday music have a long and proud tradition going back at least 50 years in the pantheon of American popular music.
As this year's holiday season gears up -- and in some cases is already under way -- bassist David Chevan has taken a singular approach to this musical canon. His is a reminder that holiday jazz isn't always about Christmas or Santa Claus.
Chevan's "Days of Awe" CD is the first jazz project solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days of Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It features his Connecticut-based band, the Afro-Semitic Experience, and is on his own Reckless DC Music label.
"Days of Awe" features original jazz arrangements and instrumental interpretations of nine traditional works, six of them from the repertoire of early 20th century cantor Yoselle Rosenblatt, who died in 1933. Some are melodies that Chevan said he has been singing since childhood.
"These forms are so elegantly structured that they serve as an excellent vehicle for instrumental interpretation and improvisation," Chevan said.
One such tune is Rosenblatt's "May Our Offering Be Acceptable (R'tzeh Atiratem)," which Chevan said is always sung during the Jewish faith's midnight Selichot service (about a week before Rosh Hashanah) that marks the start of the Days of Awe.
"Our Father, Our King (Avinu Malkeinu)," with new music by Chevan, is a prayer chanted by the congregation both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "This melody has always moved me," Chevan said. "Perhaps it is because of the inherent message of social responsibility that resounds throughout the year."
The Afro-Semitic Experience interpretations add a variety of styles and grooves, including jazz, klezmer, Afro-Cuban, funk, folk and African drumming.
Because holiday jazz recordings are brought out for only a few weeks a year, they tend to have a long shelf life. It is still rather easy to find classics like Louis Armstrong's "Zat You Santa Claus?" and Ella Fitzgerald's playful "Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney."
But there are lots of new presents under the jazz musical tree this year.
They include the Yellowjackets' first self-produced Christmas celebration, "Peace Round." In the spirit of the season, Yellowjackets Enterprises is donating $1 from the sale of each CD to benefit the Union Station Foundation, which provides services to the homeless in the Pasadena, Calif., area.
Bay Area-based singer Clairdee has released a high-spirited holiday romp called "This Christmas" on the Declare Music label. She even threw in a steamy duet version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," with Nicolas Bearde sharing the vocals.
Boston-based singer Rebecca Parris teamed up with 10 of her favorite musicians, including singer Paul Broadnax, on a 17-track project, "The Secret of Christmas," on Shira Records.
One of the more unusual projects is Rhoda Scott's "The Hammond Organ of Christmas" on Sunnyside. It features the B-3 player with tenor saxophonist Houston Person and drummers Bill Elliott and Steve Phillips in a rotation of duet and trio combinations.
Pianist Eric Reed is just out with "Merry Magic" on MAXJAZZ. He's featured on piano and organ and as a surprise vocalist on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Reed's quartet is also joined by singers Paula West or Erin Bode on four additional vocal tracks.
A dozen musicians from Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains region, including several jazz heavyweights, have recorded a holiday album to aid an area transitional housing agency.
Phil Woods, Bob Dorough and Dave Leibman are featured on the 11-track compilation, "The Reasons for Christmas," along with pianists John Coates Jr. and Jesse Green, guitarist Gary Dillon and singers Bobby Syvarth and Nancy and Spencer Reed, among others.
Proceeds from "The Reasons for Christmas" project will help support Stroudsburg-based Pocono Area Transitional Housing, which provides a supportive home to women and families who are homeless because of domestic violence or other life crisis.
That sort of gift by the Poconos participants and the Yellowjackets can extend the holiday spirit throughout the year.