Barbara Dennerlein ‘Christmas Soul’ LP/CD (MPS/Edel) 4/5

barbara-dennerleinChristmas as depicted from a jazz perspective can be something of a hit and miss affair. Interestingly, one of the most accomplished was an all instrumental outing from the mid-1960s by Hammond organ maestro Jimmy Smith and German Hammond player Barbara Dennerlein has followed suit, updating slightly , but retaining that earthy, blues-inflected feel that Smith perfected. An all-star band includes multi-reedist Marcus Lindgren who alternates between tenor saxophone, flute and clarinet, while the overall production is in the extremely competent hands of Italian DJ and musician Nicola Conte and that means a subtle Latin undercurrent to the album as a whole. Factor in vocalist Zara McFarlane and you have a Christmas recording that departs from the norm and can be enjoyed in its own right as a quality listening experience. A genuine highlight is the modal flavoured ‘Chim Chim Cherie’ that John Coltrane radically transformed in the 1960s. Here the Mary Poppins tune becomes a soul-jazz vehicle with wailing tenor and punchy Latin percussion. The flute was an instrument that Roland Kirk excelled on and one of his favourite covers was ‘We three kings’. Dennerlein sounds very much like Larry Young on this brooding interpretation and Lindgren reverts to flute. thus evoking Rahsaan Kirk’s masterful version. This new one compares most favourably. Miles Davis and Bob Dorough came up with a yuletide favourite in ‘Blue Xmas’ and a new reworking gives the song an eerie, atmospheric intro before developing into a swinging number that remains faithful to the original. Of course, being German, Barbara Dennerlein is well versed in some of the classic German language songs that are associated with Christmas and no less than three are on offer here. ‘Little drummer boy’ is treated to a funky 1970s makeover with flute and Latin percussion making this virtually unrecognisable from the original while ‘Oh Tannenbaum’ starts off in a more traditional mode before taking off in a soul-blues direction. Only ‘Silent Night (original German title, ‘Stille Nacht’) is left as a conventional ballad. Elsewhere ‘Sleigh Ride’ receives a gritty Stax sounding makeover while an Ella Fitzgerald perennial, ‘Let it snow’, becomes a swinging mid-tempo groove-;aden song. In general, the arrangements are both tasteful and thought-provoking and enable the collective to stamp their own distinctive imprint on the Christmas classics. Likely to remain a popular Christmas release for many years to come.

Tim Stenhouse