Local Rhythms – Oddball Christmas Records

chrisisaak.jpgAfter descending into 5 A.M. shopping madness last Black Friday and witnessing Amazon’s server meltdown during the Internet’s own Black Monday, I need something innocuous and soothing for the dawn of December.  

Unsurprisingly, I’m one of those who turns the cable box to “Sounds of the Season” and leaves it there until the 26th.  Well, maybe not that extreme, but I have pushed my seasonal music tastes well past Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song.”  

Upon hearing a recent NPR story about how “A Charlie  Brown Christmas”  almost didn’t get made, I got to thinking of all the holiday music  that’s broken through the traditional fodder.  Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, with the soundtrack to the TV special, started a new musical dialogue in 1965.  The record’s never been out of print. 

What follows is a (short) list of some, shall we say, adventurous musical selections for the holiday season.  Let’s play oddball! 

Only Chris Isaak could do a credible job with Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.”  The rest of his “Christmas” album has plenty of upper lip quivering and quirky Farfisa organ riffs.  On the other hand, “Christmas With Jethro Tull” is really just piling on, don’t you think? 

Speaking of freakish contributions to the Christmas music canon, do you realize that a henna-haired Billy Idol, looking like your cousin that won the high school talent contest, recently unleashed “Happy Holidays” on an unsuspecting world?   

From the Disney mouse factory, Aly & AJ try, with “Acoustic Hearts of Winter,” to mint a new holiday standard. “The Greatest Time of Year” sounds like a ‘tween “Born to Run” with sleigh bells.

On “Wintersong,” Sarah McLachlan covers Joni Mitchell’s  suicidal “River.”  Even more dour is Aimee Mann’s “One More Drifter in the Snow,” but I like it because the sullen pose is impossibly endearing.  I hear Mann’s version of Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” and just want to feed her hot buttered rums. 

Topping my list is the rootsy “Christmas With Jorma Kaukonen,” with wintry finger picking and “Christmas Rule,”  where the Hot Tuna frontman recalls burning Santa’s sleigh from the sky and being drafted as an elf as a result.  Fun stuff, but don’t try it at home.

Now, as regards the weekend’s live entertainment options, here’s a more prosaic list of recommendations: 

Thursday:  Averi, New England College –  If a new generation of arena rockers is ever anointed to replace the dwindling dinosaur population, this Boston band should lead the charge.  They have a big sound, and the chutzpah to cover Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” with a reverently straight face.  I wonder if the college crowd in Henniker will go wild for them.  Did I miss a culture shift memo?

Friday: Scott Ainslie, Hooker-Dunham Sanctuary – Bluesologist and author of one of the better protest songs of the past few years (“Don’t Obey” from 2004’s “Feral Crow”), Ainslie  returns for what’s become a regular first Friday in December appearance in downtown Brattleboro.  Here is living proof that white men can play the blues. 

Saturday:   Hot Tuna, Lebanon Opera House –  Some of my earliest rock shows were witnessed through a hole in the ceiling of a bar in the Santa Cruz Mountains, watching this band.  In those days they featured the late Papa John Creach on violin.  Some nights they were electric, others acoustic, and their early music set the tone for a lot of Americana bands who followed.  Tonight, Jorma and Jack’s sound is complemented by drums and mandolin.

Sunday: Area Choir, Newport First Congregational Church – This is another of those “if you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing” recommendations.  A local tradition since 1953, the Area Choir assembles the best singers from churches throughout the region for a program of hymns and Christmas carols in a beautiful setting.  Congregants are invited to sing along to “What Child Is This” and “Silent Night” in addition to listening.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Quechee Inn – New to this space!  After months of good intentions, I finally had a chance to see the Gully Boys at Seven Barrels last weekend.  I left my email address, and for my trouble was tipped off to this weekly event.  Tuesdays in Quechee, it’s a hybrid open mike/song circle, featuring local musicians Dave Clark, Jed Dickinson and Kerry Rosenthal, along with a rotating group of friends like Terry Diers, Ford Daley and Sam Moffatt.

Wednesday:  Sonya Kitchell & Ben Taylor, Northampton Academy of Music – This young lady simply knocked my socks off at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival.  The teenager belts like Janis Joplin, and doesn’t need Southern Comfort to stay loose.  Ben Taylor looks like a carbon copy of father James, though his sound’s far grittier, which explains his appeal to the alt-rock crowd.

Jazz On A Sunday Afternoon Returns December 1

al-alessismall.jpg“Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon,” one of the area’s longest-running traditions, returns to Grantham’s Center at Eastman this Sunday for its fifteenth season. This year’s lineup features ten performers as musically far-ranging as jazz itself.

Vocalist Al Alessi seems a perfect choice for the kick-off show December 1. He handles the hits of Tony Bennett and Mel Torme with ease, but he’s also made a reputation channeling Roy Orbison and Frank Sinatra – and he plays a mean harmonica. Jody Ebling, who’s drawn notice in Miami, New York and London (where she performed at Elton John’s “Friends” restaurant), promises Christmas-flavored jazz singing December 17.

After a holiday interlude, Grammy-nominated alto saxophonist Greg Abate cuts loose on January 14th; Abate, whose credits include sessions with Ray Charles and Artie Shaw, also performs at the season finale. Jim Porcella looks like a gruff Marine, but has the silken vocal dexterity of Sammy Davis Jr.; the singer performs January 28th.

Mike Monaghan, who appears February 11, has played with Sinatra and Torme, and performed at Carnegie Hall, but most will recognize his saxophone from his many solos in the film “Mystic River.” Tiger Okoshi has become a JOSA favorite with his “tightrope walker” style of playing. The adventurous trumpeter sits in February 25.

Richie Cole has won acclaim for his unconventional jazz/bebop style on the alto sax, giving a special touch to familiar and fun songs like the theme from “I Love Lucy.” He arrives March 11th. Vocalist Shawnn Monteiro’s territory is the classics in the “Great American Songbook;” after several performances, she’s now “a part of the JOSA fabric.” She returns March 25th.

Finally, Greg Abate co-headlines an Easter “All-Star Finale” with trumpeter and vocalist Johnny Souza on April 8th. All performances feature the JOSA Ensemble, with Bill Wightman, bassist John Hunter, percussionist Tim Gilmore and reedman/flutist Richard Gardzina.

Over the 14 seasons of JOSA, there has been one constant element: founder and house band leader Bill Wightman. The Berklee-trained pianist began promoting the shows at the Sunapee Country Club in 1992. They moved to the Newport Opera House when Wightman took over as director there in the mid-90’s, and “when I left, I took them with me,” says Wightman.

Two figures loom large in their absence from this year’s series – vocalist Eve Whitcomb, who died in 2003, and saxophone player Joe Burrell, who passed away in 2005. “Joe and Lady Eve were the mainstays from day one,” says Wightman. “Basically for 12-13 years they were there, and really helped build it. They would show up to perform even when they weren’t featured.”

Burrell was scheduled to perform the 2005 season finale, which ultimately became a musical tribute to him. This year’s program proclaims that “with great respect, admiration and gratitude, we dedicate this JOSA season to “Big Joe” Burrell.”

“Joe – what a guy, what a mentor – for all of us,” says Wightman, who also remembers “Big Joe” as being less than patient with musicians who couldn’t keep pace with his standards. “He was harsher than Eve. He yelled at me once – ‘what did you do with that channel?’ I learned from him ‘the channel’ was the [song’s] bridge.”

“ I guess he thought you have to go underneath, not over it,” laughs Wightman. “I miss him, just talking about him now.”

The “jam session” ethic is a big part of the series’ appeal. Every performance has the potential for surprise, with area musicians stopping by to play.

“One of the things about JOSA,” says Bill Wightman,” is that it involves the audience, to the degree that we let them sit in. They’re not always great , but sometimes they are. The audience likes to see them take that risk.”

This gives the audience the “sense [of] what it’s like to be backstage with the band,” he continues. “They feel the tension, the edge.”

“The only time it may get rough is when a drummer sits in,” he chuckles.

“Sit-in” musicians are further encouraged with a reduced ticket price.

Wightman says he likes fans to arrive with “a sense that we’re going out to see something special.”

Adding to JOSA’s intimate elegance is the contribution of chef Brian MacKenzie, who prepares a $32 prix fixe meal to jazz fans, complete with white linen, polished silver and dishes that are both photogenic and delicious. This is MacKenzie’s second year offering the meals. They were a big success last year, with more than 70 percent of the audience partaking.

But the focus is and will remain “America’s Music,” which has evolved and transformed itself over its near 100-year history. “JOSA is jazz but not just jazz,” says Wightman. “The jazz music label covers a wide variety of musical genres including swing, blues, bop, Latin and more.”

Perhaps Shawnn Monteiro summed it up best. Quoting her father, the late jazz bassist Jimmy Woode, she said, “jazz, jazz, jazz – you never know what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen, so we’ll leave it to chance, OK?”