If there were a Grammy award for best Christmas album, the Nnenna Freelon-John Brown Big Band collaboration simply titled “Christmas” would surely be a top contender. The album reflects the ever-growing jazz scene in Durham, home to vocalist Freelon, Duke University (where bassist Brown heads the Jazz Studies department), N.C. Central University and Branford Marsalis, among others. Among the big band personnel, one notes additional musicians with North Carolina connections, such as saxophonist Brian Miller, trombonist Mitch Butler, guitarist Scott Sawyer, percussionist Beverly Botsford and conductor Jon Metzger.
This is an album in the grand singer-and-big-band holiday tradition, with Freelon exercising a commanding lead and exhibiting joie de vivre throughout as the band swings infectiously behind her or gathers around her like an instrumental choir. Freelon articulates the lyrics like a section-leading trumpeter, rarely revealing her vocal influences, although one does hear a hint of the late singer Betty Carter on “Let It Snow.” On “Spiritual Medley” her gospel chops sanctify “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and a speech-like muted trombonist, presumably Ron Westray, answers her.
Various arrangers contributed to the album. Trumpeter Jay Meachum’s version of Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise” is one of the best charts, conveying the rousing ensemble feeling of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd of the 1970s. “Silent Night,” arranged by Jerald Shynett, and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” arranged by Dan Cavanagh, depart from tradition, with the former borrowing from Miles Davis’ “All Blues” melody and the latter turned into a funky, New Orleans groove. Brown stays mostly in the background, providing firm bass lines, but he does step forward to swap vocal lines with Freelon on an insinuating “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Correspondent Owen Cordle