Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Simeon Davis Group: “Bah Humbug: An Absolutely Unnecessary Christmas Album” (2020) CD Review

Several million Christmas albums are released each year, so you’ve got to love one that acknowledges that it not be entirely necessary. Enter the new release from The Simeon Davis Group, Bah Humbug: An Absolutely Unnecessary Christmas Album. This ridiculously enjoyable jazz album offers us some unnecessary but desirable renditions of holiday classics, taking many of these songs in surprising and fresh directions. Yes, songs you’ve already heard too many times can actually sound new and even exciting. The Simeon Davis Group is made up of Simeon Nathanael Davis on alto saxophone, Jack Chaffee on bass, August Knobbe on piano, and Joshua Parker on drums, with a couple of guests joining them on certain tracks (and an entirely different band on one track).

The album opens with “Let It Snow,” and things get hot pretty quickly, that bass leading the others into a really good rendition of the holiday classic. It is that work on piano like two minutes in that grabs me and makes me want to deck some halls and rock around the Christmas tree. Things calm down a bit after that, but I’m already fully involved at that point, and soon things take off in another direction, with that great saxophone work. It is interesting, the way this track takes off, then comes back down, then takes off again, and before the end there is a cool lead on bass. That’s followed by a fast-paced, breezy rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Sure, Santa is coming to town, but he won’t be here long. Like a lot of us, he is going to rush through his workday so that he can get down at some after-hours joint with a glass of whisky and groove to music like this. This track features more excellent work on piano, but it is the beginning of the sax lead that is probably my favorite moment, the way it announces itself, like saying “Okay, fellows, gather up close and pay attention.” And then the sax takes things in a fun direction, rocking your Christmas party long after Santa has buggered off. Then, as if this track hadn’t already given us enough, we get a drum solo. Yup, this is a damn fine version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”

The Simeon Davis Group offers an unusual take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” with a samba rhythm. Juan Galdamez joins the group on percussion on this track. And the pace is faster than normal. They’ve turned the song into something you can dance to. So even if you can’t be home for Christmas (and with the pandemic, no one really should be traveling), you can dance right through the holidays while thinking of those you love. And, hey, we get another drum solo, but this one with two different sections, feeling like a conversation between the two, or one reacting to the other. Then Rachel Azbell joins the group on vocals for what is a rather sexy rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And yes, I realize that sounds weird, but her voice has an undeniably sexy quality, and she also delivers some cool scat on this track as the band swings. That saxophone also has something sexy happening. So go ahead, make out with your significant other while listening to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” “Comfort and joy,” indeed! This is a wonderful rendition, and is one of my favorite tracks. It is one of only two tracks on this release to feature vocals. Things become a little more serious with “O Come O Come Immanuel” (usually written as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), which has a somber mood from the start. After a few minutes, Simeon Davis’ saxophone lifts this piece off the ground, and things get interesting. I also really like the way this one concludes, that piano part.

Of all the new holiday albums I’ve listened to this year, this is the only one (as far as I recall) to include a version of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (though I did see Ellis Paul cover it during one of his online performances). I’m guessing you haven’t heard the song delivered quite the way this group does it. And this is the track to feature a different group of musicians, by the way. Backing Simeon Davis on saxophone are Kendrick Ballard on vocals and keys, Callandra Youngleson on vocals, Kyle Dugger on drums, Jessica Goodrich on flute, Alex Hodge on bass, and Destin Wernicke on vibraphone. They give us a strangely soulful rendition, one that is totally cool, featuring some fun vocal work. I also really dig that jam in the middle. This track has a false ending. It is followed by “Christmastime Is Here,” one of the best pieces of music written for the holiday. The Simeon Davis Group does an excellent job with it, delivering a beautiful and moving rendition, the bass playing an important role. And of course it is the saxophone that becomes the soul of the piece in this version.

“Sing We Now Of Christmas” is an exciting and kind of wild track, and one that is not as familiar to me as the other song choices on this album. This feels like a Christmas where anything might happen, where things are a little out of control, which is wonderful. Then suddenly nearly halfway through, things calm down somewhat, leading to an oddly pretty section on piano. Then “Deck The Halls” begins with a good rhythm, and has kind of a loose, cheerful vibe. That’s followed by a rather peppy rendition of “O Christmas Tree.” This one wastes no time and almost immediately digresses from that main theme and launches into a cool, bopping, swinging realm, and features an excellent lead on piano. And with that great rhythm, you will likely find yourself dancing to this track. It feels like over the course of this entire album the musicians have been wishing us a merry Christmas, and they choose to end it with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” at first sticking rather faithfully to the song as we know it, but soon adding some interesting touches, playing with time, which might catch you off guard but which you’ll likely find delightful.

CD Track List

  1. Let It Snow
  2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
  3. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
  4. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  5. O Come O Come Immanuel
  6. You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch
  7. Christmastime Is Here
  8. Sing We Now Of Christmas
  9. Deck The Halls
  10. O Christmas Tree
  11. We Wish You A Merry Christmas

Bah Humbug: An Absolutely Unnecessary Christmas Album was released on December 14, 2020 and is available digitally.

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