Ghost of Christmas Jazz Past
I imagine there’s something just a bit intimidating about recording a Christmas album with a jazz piano trio these days. There must be this feeling of Vince Guaraldi hovering over your shoulder like a Ghost of Christmas Jazz Past. I am glad, however, that Rick Gallagher doesn’t seem to be haunted in that way, having just put out his third such album of seasonal jazz.
I have made this comparison before, but I believe Christmas music and jazz share some of the same challenges. A new Christmas recording usually works best when the tunes provide just the right balance of familiar nostalgia and novelty. Good jazz does the same, taking a standard well-known tune and making it fresh through improvisation and creative rearrangement. On “Christmas Tidings” Rick Gallagher and his combo successfully navigate both of these challenges, presenting a series of Christmas songs in a comfortable and refreshing setting. While not every track manages this balance perfectly (“Coventry Carol” and “Away in a Manger” stray a bit too far harmonically and melodically for my taste), most do and the album as a whole certainly does.
The artful arrangements and excellent musicianship of all involved manage to manage another balancing act–the album is one that can work well as pleasant seasonal background music, but also rewards the interested and focused listener with a greater appreciation for the nuances of jazz.
As far as that musicianship goes, Gallagher’s playing is focused, melodic, inventive, and often energetic. He is reminiscent of other players but has his own voice, which is refreshing. Also, as a novice jazz bassist myself, I feel a need to note the excellent playing of Gallagher’s sideman, Paul Thompson. When he takes over on a solo or is handed the melody for a while, my ears perk up at his dynamic playing (especially his arco solo during the gospel-tinged Silent Night).
If you are a lover of Christmas music AND/OR jazz, “Christmas Tidings” should please you. Like the best of both genres, it takes a fresh approach to the material that acknowledges nostalgia without wallowing in it.
The Ghost of Christmas Jazz Past would approve.