Don Doane, Leila Percy, and the Super Senior Sextet: It’s Magic

With 16 songs and more than 64 minutes of music, It’s Magic is a sprawling epic of big-band jazz. If anything, however, the length may affect the overall quality of the album. Taken by itself, each song here is a masterpiece of orchestration and instrumentation, but, as many of them are subdued slow-dance tunes, some numbers that might otherwise be standouts begin to blend together by the end of the disc [this originally ran in July of 2000].

Percy’s voice is certainly a highlight, sultry and deep without sacrificing range. On the opener, an infectious version of Macio Brown and Arthur Freed’s “All I Do Is Dream of You,” you can hear the smile in her voice. While on Tom Adair and Matt Dennis’s “Everything Happens to Me,” her ironic tone highlights the wit in the lyrics. Clearly, her background in cabarets and revues has made her as much entertainer as vocalist, and her voice blends with Doane’s trombone as though they were instruments molded by the same craftsman.

As for Doane and the tenor saxmen Ralph Norris and Joe LaFlamme, their symbiotic relationship becomes quickly apparent on McHugh and Fields’s “Don’t Blame Me,” and continues throughout. Consistently, their wisps of background and precise solos provide the perfect counterpoint for Percy’s vocals. And on the instrumental numbers, particularly Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” it’s possible they’re singing, but you can’t quite make out the words.

The highlights of the disc, Ferreira and Antonio’s “Recado” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” also expose some flaws. For instance, Gerry Wright’s piano is so infectious on the Latin-flavored “Recado,” you wonder why they don’t pick up the beat more often. While “Song for My Father” almost smacks you in the face with grimy, down and dirty jazz reminiscent of Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Why not a little more variety?

Particular note should be paid to relative newcomer Paul Jensen on the drums. His high hat is rock solid, capable of the subtle nuance as well as the driving beat. On Gordon and Monaco’s “I Can’t Begin to Tell You,” his brush work does nothing less than evoke wisps of smoke curling up around an imagined sequin-clad Percy. Al Doane’s bass, while silky smooth, doesn’t seem to get enough attention, only truly noticeable on Lester Young’s “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid.”

The Fogcutters: Jingle These Bells

Better than a sweater party

The Fogcutters add to our Christmas cheer

When done right, Thanksgiving through Christmas is a month-long party of friends, family, and whatever beverage-and-food combination turns you on. It’s also the only opportunity you have all year to bust out the Christmas-music playlists for the gathering du jour. The pressure’s on. Do you go all-Christmas, maybe just leaving on WHOM or putting together an ironic mix centered around “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” or do you sprinkle in Christmas tunes that won’t be obvious outliers into a broader party mix?

That latter is much harder, as the normal songs set unfair bars for the Christmas songs to get over, but it’s helpful when you’ve got an ample supply of contemporarily recorded material. Better yet if it’s local and you’re inclined toward local mixes. Recent efforts from Don Campbell, the Sea Captains, and Cam Groves have helped in that regard, but this year’s contributor is remarkable for fitting in so seamlessly with your Etta James, Sinatra, and Bing Crosby LPs.

The Fogcutters continue to demand attention for big band-style performances and arrangements by simply overwhelming listeners with creativity and competence. They’re no nostalgic novelty. With yet another State Theatre performance looming Dec. 7 [2012], the Fogcutters whet appetites with Jingle These Bells, a five-song Christmas drive-by that offers equal doses of Rat-pack class and Buena Vista Social Club fire.

The opening take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is full of the latter, with chiming and teasing horn lines of the central melody that are upbraided by salsa rhythms. There is a sway and ripple to the way the British and Latin influences co-mingle and John Maclaine’s arrangement is very danceable. It also serves as a pretty setting for sax, trumpet, and finally an electric guitar solo from Max Cantlin that’s as laid back as your first neat whiskey of the night.

Finally, with 30 seconds to go, the horns play the song as straight as could be in homage to what, at its core, is a delightfully melancholy number: “When we were gone astray.” (Also: Annie Lennox did a version of this song? Jars of Clay?)

The middle tracks are jazz-traditional vocal-led, featuring a highly resonant and big-voiced Chas Lester on “The First Noel,” where he positively fondles the word “Israel,” and a delivery by Stephanie Davis on “Silent Night” that plays up the lullaby angle enough to make it a little dangerous for late-night parties where people are already well into the nog. Add a woodstove and people will be dreaming of mistletoe.

When Lester and Davis come together on the classic “Oh, Christmas Tree” duet, their back-and-forth is like the Drapers in A Very Mad Men Christmas.

The closing “Jingle Bells,” though, is the attention grabber. It’s possibly too quick to catch on with holiday parties, but its legitimately breakneck pace is impressive. Lester crams words into spaces that hardly exist over straight percussion and when the horns jump in it’s a drop worthy of Skrillex (that may be an exaggeration).

When normal people sing in unison it tends to make them slow down, all waiting to make sure they’re not ahead of others, and so we think of so many of these Christmas songs as near-dirges, but when performed by a band this excited about what they’re doing, a song like “Jingle Bells” can truly sparkle, adorned with every glittering colored light arranger Brian Graham could wrap around it.

The hardest thing is keeping the lead vocal far enough forward in the mix as the full band increases in activity as songs go deeper, but Lester puts a bow on the tune with an extended “sleigh” that finishes the song and album on a high note.

It’s only a side A’s worth, really, and less than 20 minutes, but I expect this isn’t the last holiday offering the Fogcutters will produce. Plus, you want to leave plenty of time for Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas and your rare Beatles Christmas record, only sent out to members of the fan club.

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without those.