“There’s always the danger of getting all schmaltzy with Christmas music, but jazz people are hipper than average and can usually come up with something appropriately cool to spin around holiday time. That’s exactly what pianist/composer Bill Cunliffe has done with That Time of Year.
Cunliffe is a versatile artist who is comfortable in any size ensemble—from his Blues and the Abstract Truth, Take 2 (Resonance Records, 2008) to his Grammy-winning arrangement on Resonance Big Band’s Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson (Resonance, 2009)—but the Christmas mood finds him going it alone, showcasing his considerable piano chops on a set that opens with a contemplative and tranquil turn on “Angels From the Realms of Glory” which, rather than sounding hip, has a feeling of deep reverence.
It’s the second cut, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that announces the jazz tinge to the music, with a bluesy, rollicking take on this familiar tune. “On a Christmas Day” brings in a stately atmosphere, a religious hue to the sound, leading into the crisp and jaunty “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Cunliffe opens up that most familiar of Christmas tunes, “Jingle Bells,” as a ballad, before shifting into a jazzier gear, a high-RPM workout as cool as the Bill Evans Trio’s rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from Trio 64 (Verve Records, 1964). “Silent Night” is simply beautiful in Cunliffe’s hands, at a slower tempo that allows the savoring of every resonant note, while “Carol of the Bells” is edgy and dark-toned, until it slips into a bouncy stride piano groove.
The set closes with vocalist Denise Donatelli sitting in on “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” It is a wistful, soulful and hopeful late night close to an excellent Christmas set.”