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Album Review

Carla Bley and Christmas carols? You bet. She loves them and has incorporated them into her live sets for decades now. On this WATT release, recorded in 2008 at La Buisonne Studio in the south of France, she and bassist Steve Swallow took a couple of days off a European tour with the Partyka Brass Quintet and cut ten of the 12 selections here. The other two pieces — "O Holy Night" and "Joy to the World" — were taken from a concert performance four days earlier in Berlin. This may be the Christmas recording of 2009. Bley's arrangements are both elegant and sometimes quirky, but always engaging and fun, and show a complete love of the original material. Check her readings of "The Christmas Song," the two-part "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and the deeply moving and soulful version of "O Holy Night," where the lead melody is played by Swallow. In addition, these songs in Bley's hands all have swing in them — a beautiful example is in "Ring Christmas Bells," with Bley's added cadenza in the bridge. There are also two Bley originals in the set that serve as a very proper and even surprising introduction to "Jingle Bells." The first is, of course, the utterly playful "Hell's Bells" and the grooving hard bop swing in it provided by Swallow's playing. In the middle section he and Tobias Weidinger's trumpet go head to head, followed by some ensemble play and Bley's own solo before the "Jingle Bells" theme is stated in striated harmony. This segues into an absolutely gorgeous "Jesus Maria" (which Jimmy Giuffre first recorded back in 1961), and is quite at home in this collection of carols. "Jingle Bells" itself is like a mini-suite of jazz from New Orleans to New York (with nice touches from Weidinger's glockenspiel and Edward Partyka's tuba). While the argument that there should be a moratorium on Christmas recordings is a good one in the 21st century, Carla's Christmas Carols provides a powerful counter to that view. She has added so much to these songs without taking away any of the warmth, joy, and nostalgia inherent to the season or their place in it.


Born: 11 May 1938 in Oakland, CA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Post-bop jazz has produced only a few first-rate composers of larger forms; Carla Bley ranks high among them. Bley possesses an unusually wide compositional range; she combines an acquaintance with and love for jazz in all its forms with great talent and originality. Her music is a peculiarly individual type of hyper-modern jazz. Bley is capable of writing music of great drama and profound humor, often within the confines of the same piece. As an instrumentalist, she makes a fine composer; she plays...
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Carla's Christmas Carols, Carla Bley
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