Recording of December 2020: Christmas Vibes

Warren Wolf: Christmas Vibes
Warren Wolf, vibraphone, piano, Fender Rhodes, wind chimes, tambourine, Logic Pro X digital audio workstation; Jeff Reed, acoustic and electric bass; Carroll "CV" Dashiell III, drums; Christie Dashiell, Allison Bordlemay, Micah Smith, vocals.
Mack Avenue MAC1183 (CD, also available as download). 2020. Warren Wolf, prod.; Jeff Gruber, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Only 12 albums a year get to be Recordings of the Month in Stereophile, and only a few are jazz.

Typically, they are "big" records by major jazz artists.

Christmas Vibes has the major-artist part covered. Warren Wolf is one of the two most important vibraphonists to enter jazz in the new millennium. (The other is Joel Ross.) Wolf's album is not a masterwork, but it is a lovely, heartfelt offering that deserves its place in this magazine's December issue. In this year of years, in this holiday season observed in a pandemic, it arrives like a life-affirming antidote to darkness.

Here's a challenge for you: Try to listen to "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland" without smiling. You may find it impossible not to get up and dance. Wolf's group, with bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Carroll "CV" Dashiell III, finds it impossible not to swing their butts off. "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland" are among the most familiar songs in American culture, but the former has never pranced with such headlong, ecstatic energy, and the latter has a new throbbing groove.

If all Wolf did was play such tunes straight, this would be a fun record. But he finds opportunities everywhere to unleash his vast vibraphone technique and his inspired imagination. It is fascinating to hear how, after lightly bouncing over the top of "O Christmas Tree," he flows into long, elaborate lines that keep changing direction and eventually wind their way back to the song.

While the prevailing mood is one of celebration, there are also moments that touch deeper emotions and memories. It is quietly captivating when, on the second track, some pensive piano chords, widely spaced bass markings, and cymbal whisperings turn into "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Bing Crosby has owned this song forever; Wolf borrows it for a while. As he carefully delineates the melody, his notes hang in the air as if reluctant to leave the song. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" becomes a continuous series of calls and ascending responses; it sounds newly triumphant. The vibraphone can do that. Its voluptuous bell tones make any melody sound more permanent.

Christmas Vibes was recorded in mid-March 2020, as the United States was beginning to shut down. Apparently, the timing necessitated some last-minute changes in personnel. The core band is a quartet, with vibes, piano, bass, and drums. But Wolf plays all the piano parts himself, overdubbed. Press notes imply that taking the piano chair was not Wolf's original intention, but Plan B worked out fine. He has been a multi-instrumentalist from the age of 3. He has worked as a sideman on both piano and drums. Wolf the pianist is a full collaborator here, not only comping but executing all the piano details in the meticulous quartet arrangements and engaging in improvised duets with himself.

He also works with a Logic Pro X digital audio workstation to create several synthesized instruments including cello and timpani. He uses these tools tastefully and selectively, to enlarge the ensemble and expand his color palette. The music never sounds artificial or cluttered. Christmas Vibes is not an audiophile recording: Such highly produced albums rarely render a sense of the three-dimensional space in which the recording got made. But the sound is clean and dynamic and contains the excitement of Wolf's Christmas party.

On the second half of the album, Wolf introduces vocalists, who bring in new moods. Christie Dashiell's interpretation of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," accompanied only by Wolf on piano, is as rapt as a prayer. Micah Smith's "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is a cool, hip, offhand dissing of a Christmas villain everyone loves to hate.

With all that is going on here, acoustically, digitally, and vocally, it is notable that the most memorable track has Wolf alone on vibes and piano. Those "deeper emotions and memories" mentioned above find their fullest expression on "Christmas Time Is Here." Vince Guaraldi's haunting secular canticle, first heard in the 1965 television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, has become part of the soundtrack to every American holiday season. Wolf has said that he grew up in a family that did not fully celebrate Christmas, but that Guaraldi's song was essential to his childhood. His vibraphone notes, hovering and lingering in space, are sonic metaphors for the yearnings of the human heart.—Thomas Conrad