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One of the Best Jazz Holiday Albums Ever
Jazz albums of holiday music are usually an improvised mishmash of secular tunes, with one or two religious ones thrown in. Song of Simeon is something entirely different -- a cohesive album that tells the story of Christ's birth using familiar carols and songs while giving them new jazz rags to wear.
As told in Luke 2:29-35, a devout Simeon sums up the birth of Christ as, "a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel," this being the translation offered in the Song of Simeon program notes. The word light resonates throughout the 11-movement composition, not only in the song choices but also in the performances. Even serious songs have a feeling of joy within them. Scruggs obviously views the Christmas story as something serious to be joyful about.
Scruggs leads on tenor and soprano saxophone, with Brian Hogans on piano, Dan Baraszu on guitar, Tommy Sauter on bass, Marlon Patton on drums, and Kinah Boto Ayah on percussion. For larger "big band" moments, there's a horn ensemble that includes trumpet, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, two trombones, bass trombone, and Scruggs on baritone sax.
Movements include "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "Go Down, Moses," "We Three Kings," "T'was in the Moon of Wintertime (The Huron Carol)," and "Joy to the World." The overall mood is one of jubilation, often because of the spirited and diverse rhythms. Ayah's drums often flirt with African rhythms, and ostinato figures abound. All of the sidemen receive solo assignments throughout the piece, and they all prove to be A-list musicians.
The annotation for this jubilant holiday set is fastidious, offering the author of each song as well as the corresponding scripture, and though there's no singing on the disc, the notes also give the complete text of the music that has been sourced. Thus we learn that "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" has a text from 9th-century Latin and music from a plainsong, as adapted by Thomas Helmore (1811-1890). You don't usually run into this much information on classical albums these days, much less jazz ones. Though the notes for Song of Simeon are packed with information, you can learn even more on the Scruggs website.
If you're looking for something different to listen to during the holiday season -- something that will also raise your spirits -- this disc will fill the bill handsomely. It deserves to be put in the upper echelon of jazz titles for the holiday season.
Be sure to listen to: "Go Down, Moses" features some hot trumpet playing from Joe Gransden. He and the band swing this tune even more than usual, and the results are absolutely sensational.
. . . Rad Bennett