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Swing into Holiday Season with Warren Wolf, Mars Williams, Lauren Henderson, Andrew Bird

Hark! The new spate of Christmas jazz albums is here.

Warren Wolf, “Winter Wonderland”

If you’ve been keeping up with holiday jazz albums in recent years, you’re well aware that vibraphonist Warren Wolf played a key role on It’s Christmas on Mack Avenuea 2014 compilation featuring some of his labelmates and longtime collaborators, like bassist Christian McBride and pianist Aaron Diehl.

This spring, Wolf set about making a holiday album of his own. His Christmas Vibes features some of the staples you’d expect — Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” — in a style that blends modern jazz with contemporary R&B. Wolf plays not only vibraphone and marimba on the album but also piano and keyboards, partly as a function of lockdown efficiency. The others in his rhythm team, mainstays of the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. scene, are bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Carroll “CV” Dashiell III.

The reharmonizaton on “Winter Wonderland” gives a good sense of what Wolf is up to, shedding the familiar tune in a cool new light. And when it shifts into walking 4/4 swing for the vibraphone solo, the song finds a higher gear. Elsewhere on the album, Wolf is joined by vocalists Allison Bordlemay, Christie Dashiell and Micah Smith, who delivers an especially suave take on “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Mars Williams, “Noel Omega - Change Has Come For The Three Kings Who Lit The Tiny Candles in NYC”

A few years ago, saxophonist Mars Williams released An Ayler Xmas, a raucous convergence of holiday music and the visionary free jazz of Albert Ayler. The concept has been a gift that keeps on giving; Williams is now on his fourth edition in this series, Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs. NYCout this Friday on the Astral Spirits label, as a split release with Soul What Records.

As its name implies, the album features personnel from two locales. Disc 1 involves heavy hitters on the Chicago scene, like cornetist Josh Berman and bassist Kent Kessler. On Disc 2 — which includes the medley “Noel Omega - Change Has Come For The Three Kings Who Lit The Tiny Candles in NYC,” premiering here — Williams enlists Steve Swell on trombone, Nels Cline on guitar, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Hilliard Greene on bass and Chris Corsano on drums. The interplay is supercharged, especially during an free-improv stretch around the midpoint of the track. And needless to say, Ayler’s “Change Has Come” is a theme that has some cultural resonance this holiday season.

Lauren Henderson, “My Favorite Things”

The warm, purring tone that Lauren Henderson favors as a jazz singer is, no surprise, well suited for holiday music. Her new EP, Classic Christmas, presents a cozy handful of seasonal staples, including the traditional carol “Once in Royal David’s City.” Henderson’s partners on this sleigh ride are pianist Issac Wilson, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Allan Mednard. (One track, a version of “What a Wonderful World,” features Sullivan Fortner, the pianist who teamed with Henderson on her previous release, The Songbook Session.)

“My Favorite Things” is the EP’s opening cut, set to a simmering groove in 4/4 time. Henderson articulates Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics precisely, with a few personal twists — notably during the bridge, which alludes to systemic injustice. “This year, the holiday season and Christmas may seem different,” Henderson reflects in a press statement. “Many people have lost loved ones, are in difficult financial situations, or feel lost and alone. Many people continue to fight against oppressive administrations and fight for social justice, fair treatment, and for their voices and stories to be heard.”

Andrew Bird, “Christmas is Coming”

You may know Andrew Bird as a singer-songwriter in the realm of indie-folk. You may know him from the current season of Fargo, the FX series. Whatever your frame of reference, you should know that he’s a violinist and whistler totally conversant in improvisation, and no stranger to swing. Just consider his version of “Christmas is Coming,” the Guaraldi staple, with a core band that includes Jeff Parker on guitar, Alan Hampton on bass and Ted Poor on drums.

The track comes from HARK! — Bird’s new album, following up on an EP by the same name. It includes a few new originals, including the timely, touching “Christmas in April,” as well as inspired covers like John Prine’s “Souvenirs.”

Brian Bromberg, “Wonderful Christmastime”

Leave it to electric bassist Brian Bromberg to revitalize one of the most checkered Christmas songs in the popular canon. Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” has been dunked on so often that a few years back, Salon felt compelled to publish a piece in its defense. Bromberg turn the tune into an R&B shuffle, with flashes of courtly brass. (Michael Stever plays trumpet and piccolo trumpet; Nick Lane is on trombone. The arrangement is by saxophonist Andrew Neu.)

The track comes from Bromberg’s Celebrate Me Home: The Holiday Sessions, out on Artistry Music (part of the Mack Avenue Music Group). Made in quarantine, with musicians tracking their parts at home or in nearby studios, it’s another testament to resilient musicianship during a difficult time.

“We can’t go anywhere, we can’t do anything; we’re all stuck dreaming about all the things we’d rather be doing, the fun we’d love to be having, but we just can’t,” Bromberg says in a press release. “So, we had to figure out how to create a vibe and an experience while we’re stuck in this weird place. On the flip side of that, I don’t think this record would have happened the way that it did had I not been in quarantine. This made it possible to take a dark place and turn it into a light place, which became my saving grace.”

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.