|Joe Gransden and his Big Band The Christmas Song|
With the first flurries of snow, the smell of wood burning in an open hearth and a brisk winter chill settling into the morning air, everyone is getting ready to enjoy a festive holiday season this year. Whether you’ll be trimming a Christmas tree, stringing decorative lights on your house or lighting a menorah these wonderful rituals are always better completed with some holiday music playing in the background. I myself can’t wait till Thanksgiving has past to bring out my stack of Christmas jazz. My collection is an eclectic mix of old and new. Some of my favorites include Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Ted Rosenthal’s Wonderland, Marcus Roberts’ Prayer for Peace and a couple of collections Jazz to the World and A Jazzy Wonderland to name just a few.
This year I got a chance to preview the new Joe Gransden Big Band Holiday recording The Christmas Song and suffice it to say I have a new album to add to my holiday collection. The Atlanta based bandleader/trumpeter/vocalist has put together a fabulous album with his knock out big band and a gorgeous string section that is a must have for anyone who loves their holiday music served up hot, jazzy and with some swing.
Balladeer Gransden has been leading his big band since as far back as 2006. Keeping such a large group together for such an extended period is a testament to Joe’s hard work and determination to preserve the big band sound. His rotating group of first-call, local musicians are all standouts, many of them performing nationally, some well-respected educators teaching a new crop of jazz students at prestigious universities, all dedicated to the greater sound of this big band.
Gransden has a medium timbre, silk glove of a voice that has been burnished by long exposure and careful study of such vocal greats as Sinatra and Bennett mixed with the more contemporary sounds of Bobby Darin and Harry Connick Jr. He is an affable character who engages with his audience with a self-deprecating humor and a million-dollar smile.
On this album Gransden selects fourteen holiday songs, many old-time favorites mixed in with a sprinkling of the blues. All are rendered bristling and new by fresh arrangements that utilize the band’s big sound with a few augmented by a lush string section.
The opener “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” finds Joe’s mellifluous tenor fronting a rousing arrangement by Jeff Jarvis which just propels you off your seat. The strong walking bass by Starkey and brief but bright piano solo by Banks is complimented by a gorgeous string accompaniment.
The children’s classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” features a wonderfully swinging brass arrangement by Wes Funderburk with Joe crooning away with true Sinatra swagger. The band cooks, as the big round sound of bassist Starkey takes a solo before John Sandfort wails on his tenor.
Christmas can also bring the blues to some and Joe’s Sinatra-esque “That’s Life” sounding version of the Charles Brown and Gene Redd “Please Come Home for Xmas” is made all the more poignant with some stirring saxophone work by altoist Mace Hibbard behind the Jeff Jarvis arrangement.
The band is given free rein to rock on the festive “Winter Wonderland” on an Eric Alexander arrangement.
Perhaps my favorite on the album is the very hip Jim Basile arrangement of the Nat King Cole favorite “Nature Boy.” The band just slays on this one and Gransden offers some of his finest trumpet solo work on this classic. Starkey and Varnes keep the pace swinging and Banks accompaniment is subtle and superb. Gransden’s voice is at his most sincere and he hits some difficult notes with a polished panache.
No holiday album would be complete without a version of “A Christmas Song” dutifully playing with a yule log burning in the fireplace in the background. No one can approach the iconic sound of Nat Cole on this classic, but Gransden does a credible job of singing it with humble believability. The big band is missing here, but for the bass, the piano, Sam Skelton on flute and Jeff Jarvis' flugelhorn backed by a sea of strings.
Another favorite is the slick arrangement by Wes Funderburk on the hip “Cool Yule.” I’ve never heard this song before, but it will easily be added to my Christmas song rotation at home. Here Gransden sings this swinger with a cool aplomb, encouraging the trombone section before rendering his own soaring trumpet solo. Vocalist John Hopkins lends his raspy voice near the end in a short duet with Gransden for the finale.
The band is given another chance to use its multiple voices on a frantic version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with another spectacular arrangement by lead trombonist Wes Funderburk. Tenor man John Sandfort gets the call on this one and tears it up on his horn as the band pulses behind him. Gransden gets another feature on trumpet which he uses to play a dancing solo that he brings to a soaring climax. The band simmers to a boil.
The album continues with “It’s A Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which is played in two different tempos.
The perennial “White Christmas” has a Woody Herman, Four Brothers inspired, saxophone section feature, arranged by Vince Norman, that just swings in wonderful synchronicity. Gransden offers a warm flugelhorn solo in contrast.
The heartwarming “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is deftly arranged as a quartet piece by pianist Banks and opens with a muted trumpet played by Gransden that he overdubs against his own mellow vocal.
“Angels We Have Heard on High” is played with a big boisterous sound by the big band. This Eric Alexander arrangement calls for two trumpets at different registers often playing simultaneously, with Gransden taking the lower register solo and lead trumpeter Kevin Lyons taking the higher part, at times sounding very baroque in his attack.
The last two songs are both based on a Wes Funderburk arrangement of “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Drummer Varnes leads off with a cadenced snare solo that leads into a fun call and response saxophone duel between altoists Mace Hibbard and Sam Skelton. The band is pumping on this and Gransden’s vocal delivery is smooth and cheerful. They end the album with a brief reprise of the chorus.
If you’re like me and enjoy a month or so of holiday sounds bellowing throughout your home, then Joe Gransden and his Big Band’s The Christmas Song is a must have.
Personnel : Mace Hibbard, lead alto; Sam Skelton, alto saxophone; John Sandfort, tenor saxophone: Mike Walton, tenor saxophone; Don Erdman, baritone, saxophone; Wes Funderburk, lead trombone, Tom Gibson, trombone, Kevin Hyde, trombone; Lee Watts, bass trombone; Chip Crotts, lead trumpet; Clark Hunt, lead trumpet; Kevin Lyons, trumpet; Hardin Butcher, trumpet; Melvin Jones, trumpet; Kenny Banks Sr. piano; Neal Starkey, bass; Justin Varns, drums.
Strings: Violins, Mary Burndrett, David Edwards, Ginny Respress Fairchild, Kathryn Koch, Angele Lawless, Patrick Ryan, Jessica Stinson and Andy Zabrinski. Cellos: Barney Culver, Roy Harran, Strings Contractor: Jonathan Wright. Strings Conducted by Jeff Jarvis.
Recorded at Brighter Shade Studios, Atlanta, GA by John Driskell Hopkins and Thom “TK” Kidd
September 5th , 6th & 7th 2017.