Alison Brown

Evergreen

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Banjoist Alison Brown isn't an innovator along the lines of, say, Béla Fleck -- she doesn't play a tricked-out electric instrument or go off on electro-jazz fusion excursions. What she plays is mostly fairly straight-ahead modern jazz with elements of traditional American and British Isles music threaded through it. What makes her playing unique is its blend of chromatic sophistication and melodic inventiveness. When jazz players take on a Christmas music project, they too frequently use the familiar tunes as launching pads for longwinded, self-indulgent noodling; Brown, on the other hand, uses them as opportunities to create glisteningly lovely new arrangements -- some straight and faithful to the original compositions, others more adventurous. Her solos (and those of her band, along with guest fiddler/mandolinist Joe Craven) are creative and interesting, but never devolve into mere showmanship: the rather strange pairing of the Turlough O'Carolan composition "O'Carolan's Farewell" with the Dr. Seuss classic "Welcome Christmas" seems bizarre in concept but sounds great in practice; the same goes for Brown's mash-up of "Carol of the Bells" and "We Three Kings." This disc also features an unusual and very lovely 4/4 arrangement of "Silver Bells," which is normally a waltz, and a solidly swinging take on "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" The band finally stretches out with some extended soloing on a samba arrangement of "The Little Drummer Boy," which is followed at the end of the program by a hidden children's vocal arrangement of "Christmas Don't Be Late" (popularized by Alvin & the Chipmunks). No one who likes Christmas music will be able to resist the charms of this album.

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