Artists Celebrate The Season

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Warren Wolf gets into the holiday spirit with his album Christmas Vibes.

(Photo: Samuel Prather)

For years, vibraphonist Warren Wolf and 3D Jazz Trio pianist Jackie Warren cared not a whit about Christmas music. But they’ve changed their tune, Scrooges no more, they now rejoice in holiday sounds with the release of Wolf’s Christmas Vibes (Mack Avenue) and the trio’s Christmas In 3D (DIVA Jazz). Also in a festive mood is pianist Mike Renzi, whose Christmas Is: December Duets (Whaling City Sounds) features singer Jim Porcella.

Wolf’s first stab at Yuletide-themed music was when he contributed two tracks and a spoken-word part to the 2014 label compilation It’s Christmas On Mack Avenue. Wolf’s wife and mother-in-law then urged him to do his own holiday album. Wolf refused. Then last December, he played a holiday show at the venue Jazzway 6004 in his hometown of Baltimore. “The concert was awesome,” he said. “Once we were finished, I started to think maybe I should do a Christmas project.”

On Christmas Vibes, Wolf plays vibraphone, acoustic and electric pianos, percussion and Logic Pro sounds; for support, he turned to leading singers and instrumentalists in the region. “Making this record in the middle of the pandemic had a slightly weird feeling,” he said. “But overall, the vibe—no pun intended—in the studio was great. I wanted to make every track on this record something that everybody can just have a good time to.

“Vibes and piano have a great connection, a great sound together that takes the listener into another realm. I think the two re-
arranged songs that’ll give people that ‘wonder’ feeling are ‘Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy’ and ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’”

Mixed in among the familiar and lesser-known songs in the program is Wolf’s composition “Wake Up Little Kids, It’s Christmas!” The song has autobiographical origins: “The night before Christmas at the Wolf household is out of control! My kids wake up around 7 a.m. the next day, running downstairs screaming, ‘Santa ate the cookies!’ There’s part of me that’s still, ‘Bah, humbug,’ but I never let that out. I’m just happy to be with my family during the holidays.”

Warren enjoyed Christmas growing up in rural Colorado, only to shun it as an adult. “As a pianist,” she explained, “you get called upon to play so many Christmas parties that you get tired of playing the expected traditional sing-along tunes. Combine this with losing my mom—whose favorite holiday in every way was Christmas—and the holiday ceased to be fun.”

In 2014, Cleveland’s “First Lady of Jazz” had a change of heart upon meeting bassist Amy Shook and drummer Sherrie Maricle. Both are members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, which Maricle leads. “From the moment Amy, Sherrie and I started playing music together, there was an instant element of joyous energy in the way we connected musically and personally,” the pianist said. “Because of this joyful energy, many fans have been asking for a holiday album.”

Warren remained wary. “It turned out to be one of the most fun, super-swingin’ projects I have worked on,” she exclaimed. “It definitely reminds me of the feeling I got as a kid, and still get, listening to Vince Guaraldi seemingly granting the world the freedom to take Christmas music out of its traditional box and swing the hell out of it.”

Veteran Mike Renzi performed Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” many times as the singer’s accompanist; he also has served Tony Bennett and other notables during the holidays, recording Christmas albums with Blossom Dearie and Maureen McGovern. “I’m more of a song presenter,” he said, “and I try to orchestrate when I play the piano with colors. The harmonies are modern jazz-like, but my first priority is to give honor to the song.” On Christmas Is, the Rhode Islander and warm-voiced Porcella redecorated the likes of Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule” and, yes, that old Tormé chestnut. “These songs celebrate the spirit of the holiday, togetherness and unity, so that turns me on a lot.” DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.



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