Carol Swanson – Michael Wolff: Christmas Moods

My favorite release so far this reviewing season, Michael Wolff’s extraordinary Christmas Moods epitomizes “cool” on several levels. First, Wolff himself is a world-renowned jazz pianist (perhaps best known as the bandleader and musical director for “The Arsenio Hall Show,” 1989-94), and his smokin’ keyboard speaks volumes here. What makes this seasonal offering even more special, however, is Wolff’s inclusion of outstanding featured guests–saxophonist Alex Foster, trumpeter Mark Isham, and vocalists Kenny Rankin and Warren Zevon.

This is sophisticated holiday music for adults. The jazz is stellar, and the album’s title is most appropriate. The moods here range from bright and sassy (Santa Claus Is Coming to Town) to darkly taciturn (The Christmas Song). Most affecting are Zevon’s raspy vocals; his genius ended far too soon when he died of cancer shortly after appearing here. Singer-songwriter Zevon was a sardonic rock icon, and I am a huge fan of his work. On Christmas Moods, Zevon did something he had never done before as a recording artist–he simply presented himself as a singer, an interpreter of someone else’s work. The results are quite moving; his richly-shaded Christmas Song has mesmerizing, bittersweet undertones, and his hushed Ave Maria is darkly tender. In comparison, Rankin’s stylish vocals are much more ebullient and traditional, and the jazzy instrumentals are superbly executed. The overall mix exudes a broad range of moods and is totally refreshing.

Hurray for Michael Wolff’s Christmas Moods! This excellent release has impressively improved my mood–it’s definitely going to be an outstanding holiday season!

–Carol Swanson
(Reviewed in 2008)

From the liner notes:

Michael Wolff — Piano
Warren Zevon — Vocals
Alex Foster — Soprano Saxophone
Mark Isham — Trumpet
Kenny Rankin — Vocals
John B. Williams — Bass
Dick Berk — Drums
Roy McCurdy– Drums

My reaction to the Christmas holiday season has always been emotionally complex. On the one hand, I love the festive side of the holiday, trimming the tree, drinking eggnog and spending happy times with family and friends. But there are darker feelings that come up in me during the holidays–feelings of loss and sadness when I think of people I’ve loved who are no longer in my life.

I decided to make a holiday CD that reflects these varying emotions I experience during this special season.

I called on musicians I know who always bring a multi-layered, rich, and many colored approach to their performances. Musicians who are adept at conveying more than one simple thought or feeling in their music.

Bassist John B. Williams, and drummers Roy McCurdy and Dick Berk are that caliber of musician. They swing joyously when needed, and interpret songs introspectively when that is called for.

Trumpeter Mark Isham is known as one of the most successful and creative film composers of all time. His music is always full of the mixed emotions of real life. His trumpet playing is buoyant on “Let It Snow,” and soulful and laid back on “O Christmas Tree.”

Saxophonist Alex Foster’s soprano playing on “Silent Night” is dark, moody, and singular.

Kenny Rankin’s plaintive reading of Irving Berlin’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and his wistful version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are as beautiful as anything I have ever heard him or anyone else sing.

Now we come to the late Warren Zevon, one of my dearest friends. An extremely creative, one of a kind singer/songwriter, Warren took his singing very seriously. When I asked him to sing these two songs, he worked very hard on them. He came into the studio dressed for the occasion in a beautiful gray suit, totally prepared to give his all. He had a back-story for each song. For Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Story,” Warren told me he was the divorced father at the bar on Christmas Eve who wasn’t allowed to see his kids. On “Ave Maria,” he was the soundtrack under a hit in a Martin Scorsese movie. This was just like Warren, to put his creativity and dark view of life into two Christmas standards. And he does them beautifully.

I miss Warren very much, and I dedicate this CD to him and his memory. I am so proud that he was my friend, and that he agreed to do something he had never done before, which was to record simply as a singer, on my Xmas CD to boot.

Michael Wolff