I knew within 15 seconds that Christmas with (the) Rochford Jazz Ensemble (Dental Records RJE5) would get heavy rotation in our home, even after the careful listens necessary for this review.
I’ll be more blunt: I love this CD.
This trio — a self-professed “dentist, carpenter and ex-cable guy” — really knows how to swing, and the arrangements are both clever and creatively “dense.” Most tracks run long, allowing these familiar holiday chestnuts to expand and breathe. Jim Szana does the heavy lifting on piano, and he’s ably supported by Lonnie Schumacher (bass guitar) and Clacie Neu (drums and percussion).
Aside from the sheer pleasure of the musicality, it’s fun to deduce what some of these songs are; in some cases, the improvisational introductions run for quite some time before the light bulb over your head will flash. The album’s opening track is particularly ingenious: a reading of “Joy to the World” that opens with a strong nod to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Águas de Março” (perhaps best known these days for Art Garfunkel’s English-language version, years ago).
Neu plays with tempo in a most engaging manner; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” emerge in a relaxed 2/2 beat, both delivered as slow sashays. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” often given a somber reading elsewhere, turns into an upbeat, toe-tapping swing dance.
“Mary’s Little Boy Child” has a whimsical calypso flavor that befits the song’s history as a Harry Belafonte hit, but you’ll blink when Szana’s piano segues seamlessly, in the middle of the song, into “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” … and then back again. A minor key medley of ” ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” is equally nimble.
A lengthy counterpoint introduction to “Silent Night” will sound naggingly familiar until the melody finally sneaks in wearing quiet Latin shoes; and the Christian hymn “While By My Sheep” is quietly lovely at first, until it transitions into a smoky, Chicago blues-style strut that showcases Szana’s keyboard chops.
The album concludes with a reading of “White Christmas” that is smooth as silk: a solid finale to a truly engaging album.
The Davis Enterprise
10 Dec 2009