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Pianist, Composer, Music Educator
December Moment: A jazz Trio's Lovely,
Tasteful Take on Traditional Christmas Music
By Thomas V. Mirus December 2, 2014
For working musicians, the season leading up to Christmas presents a twofold artistic challenge. The traditional holiday repertoire, whether sacred or popular, has been played and recorded so many times that creative musicians naturally want to find some new take on the old classics. At the same time, we are not making music in a vacuum, so to speak, but for a particular seasonal, cultural and even religious function, which would be obliterated by straying too far from the original song.
Every year, a plethora of artists release Christmas albums, each attempting to stand out from the rest by means of some stylistic gimmick. Most fail to enter the “rotation” of classic Christmas albums, whether because they recast the Christmas standards in a wholly inappropriate style or because the artist ruins the songs with a too-self-conscious imposition of his or her own personality. When it comes to Christmas music, taste is the paramount virtue.
One new Christmas album that meets the challenges and avoids the pitfalls mentioned above is December Moment, by the Virginia-based jazz group No Explanations. Earlier this year, I reviewed their debut album, Round Trip, which was an album of original duets between pianist, Mark Christopher Brandt and guitarist, Dan Leonard. December Moment, on the other hand, features Brandt in classic piano trio format with the band’s other two members, bassist Shaun Jurek and drummer Russell Lucas. (While Dan Leonard does not play on the album, he was involved in its production.)
Brandt, Jurek and Lucas are all devout Catholics, so they share a special awareness of the need for taste and even reverence where the Christmas repertoire is concerned. While all three are skilled improvisers, on December Moment they moderate the tendency of jazz musicians to make the arrangement or the solos more important than the melody. In fact, only a few of the album’s seventeen tracks have solos at all (for example, the trades between piano and drums on “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” and a brief bass solo on “We Three Kings”).
That doesn’t mean the musicians don’t improvise, of course – it would hardly be a jazz album otherwise. Rather, the improvisation occurs on a more subtle level, in the accompaniment and in the phrasing of the melodies. That every track was a first take without editing helps to preserve the spontaneity of the session.
December Moment consists of sixteen classic Christmas songs – four secular, twelve sacred – plus one original (the title track) which was improvised (in Brandt’s words, “spontaneously composed”) in the studio. From the very first track – which is, appropriately, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – it is clear that the band has made understatement its watchword.
The pianist and bassist focus on delivering the melodies and harmonies of each song with beautiful touch and phrasing, and do so with relative restraint. Meanwhile, the textures and grooves are varied enough to give each track a distinct feel. Much of the credit for this must go to drummer Lucas, who is equally capable of playing textbook ballad brushes (“Silent Night”), cooking with his hi-hat work (“Jingle Bells”), or laying down a brisk straight-eighths groove (“O Come All Ye Faithful”).
But all these embellishments are in service of the song. There is no gimmick. December Moment is not a bombastic, “jazzy” Christmas album, but simply Christmas music played beautifully by jazz musicians.