by Ian Mann
December 15, 2020
Gabriel Latchin & his trio are to be congratulated on an exceptional achievement, a Christmas album that can be enjoyed on its musical merits, whatever the season. Emphatically a 'proper' jazz record
Gabriel Latchin Trio
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
Alys Jazz AJ 1503)
Gabriel Latchin – piano, Dario Di Lecce – double bass, Josh Morrison – drums
Call me Scrooge, but the word “Christmas” in an album title usually fills me with dread. You won’t find too many Christmas albums reviewed on the Jazzmann.
However I’m prepared to make an exception for this rather splendid offering from pianist Gabriel Latchin and his trio, a ‘proper’ jazz album with nary a hint of forced jollity or the clichéd sounds of sleigh bells in sight, or indeed within earshot.
Latchin is a hugely talented mainstream jazz pianist based in London. His previous two releases as a leader, “Introducing Gabriel Latchin Trio” (2017) and “The Moon and I” (2019) have both been favourably reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann. Although perhaps a little too mainstream for my usual jazz tastes there’s no doubt that Latchin is a classy performer whose playing will hold considerable appeal for a great many jazz listeners.
Besides leading his own trio Latchin has also been reviewed on this site when accompanying vocalist Sara Dowling, and as part of the MJQ inspired quartet led by vibraphonist Nat Steele.
One of Latchin’s most prestigious engagements came in December 2016 when the great American bassist, composer and band-leader Christian McBride selected him as an accompanist at a major one off event at London’s Wigmore Hall, a concert that also featured the voice of opera singer Renee Fleming.
Others with whom Latchin has worked include saxophonists Ronnie Cuber, Jean Toussaint, Grant Stewart and Alex Garnett and vocalist Salena Jones. He has also played with large ensembles such as the London Jazz Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Latchin’s first two trio albums were extremely well received by commentators and audiences alike and this Christmas themed album features the pianist’s regular trio of drummer Josh Morrison and the Italian born bassist Dario Di Lecce, who replaced original member Tom Farmer for “The Moon and I”.
The first thing to say about this latest recording is that it’s emphatically a jazz album first and a Christmas album second. Latchin’s liner notes explain something of the inspirations behind the record and his choice of material.
The decision to record a Christmas album is, in part, due to Latchin’s experiences as the father of three young children, something that has “brought the magic of the season to the fore”. He also played a Christmas show with his trio at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in December 2019. This was very well received, with audience members asking if the music was available on recordings.
As Latchin explains Christmas and music have long been closely linked and the connection between them is something that is constantly evolving, with new songs continually being added to the cannon and reflecting changing social, cultural and family traditions.
For jazz listeners the real meat of Latchin’s introductory essay comes as he explains;
“As a jazz musician my choice of Christmas repertoire, unsurprisingly, tends toward the American Songbook style tunes that have proven to be perfect vehicles for improvisation for generations. In fact many of these Christmas songs were written in the 1930s and ‘40s, the same era as the classic jazz standards themselves, and by some of the same composers. I have no doubt that melodies as beautiful as ‘The Christmas Song’ and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ would be enjoyed all year round if the word ‘Christmas’ were not in the title. To this selection I have added two carols that are personal favourites of mine, and one original composition, a dedication to friendship”.
“If Christmas is the principal narrative of this record, then the subtext would be my approach to each song. I set myself the exciting challenge of presenting these well known tunes through the eyes of my musical idols. For example, how might Bill Evans approach ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas?’.
What would Ahmad Jamal do with ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? Others include Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton and Thelonious Monk. The influence of the masters of the jazz piano tradition on my own playing is overt. But the shades of their music that appear here come from a place of honesty, love and deep study, and I cannot help but be a product of all the music that I have absorbed over the years”.
There’s no need for Gabriel to apologise, and I make no apologies for not attempting to try to spot the style of every pianist to whom he pays homage. It’s best just to sit back and enjoy the music and enjoy the playing of Latchin, Di Lecce and Morrison in its own right.
The first step into Christmas is “Winter Wonderland”, which Latchin has described as “a love child of Monk and Ahmad Jamal”. But don’t try too hard at playing ‘spot the influence’, just appreciate Latchin’s fluent, creative and imaginative piano soloing, aided by Di Lecce’s subtly propulsive bass lines and Morrison’s supremely nuanced accents and colourations. There’s precious little repetition here, the familiar melody is alluded to, rather than overtly expressed, and utilised as the vehicle for some highly inventive and expressive improvisation.
Bassist Di Lecce introduces “Jingle Bells”, the melody less obviously disguised this time around, but still acting as the platform for some highly creative and intelligent jazz improvising, with Oscar Peterson having been suggested as being an influence here. The trio approach the piece with a good blend of energy and precision and the performance includes a big toned bass solo from Di Lecce and a series of crisp, energetic drum breaks from Morrison, followed by a fuller length solo.
Many listeners will raise a smile on hearing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” played in the style of Thelonious Monk. Indeed, as Latchin has pointed out, this tune and Thelonious’ “Blue Monk” share very similar structures, as the pianist explains - “One’s a diatonic scale whereas Monk is chromatic. Same thing, same notes, same starting point. You know what, maybe even Monk thought of that himself.” Both tunes are referenced here in a subtly playful, gently swinging performance featuring Latchin’s blues tinged piano soloing.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is delivered in the style of Bill Evans, with Latchin’s limpid pianism sympathetically supported by Di Lecce’s understated bass undertow and Morrison’s delicately brushed drums. It’s a sublime jazz ballad performance.
The recording session for this album actually took place on 4th August 2020, when we perhaps naively still believed that things would be back to normal by Christmas. In the current circumstances one line from the lyrics, “I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams.”, takes on an additional poignancy.
Latchin’s previous two albums have also included examples of his own compositions. His writing fits very much within the jazz tradition and his sole offering here is “A Toast To Friends”, a title that now seems particularly prescient during these troubled times. Musically the piece sits very comfortably within the context of the album and the playing has a suitably warm and effusive quality about it. This is an extremely well balanced group and true to the spirit of the piece room is found for Di Lecce to feature as a soloist.
Unaccompanied piano introduces “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”), as Latchin emphasises the beauty of the melody – as previously discussed. Later there’s a change of pace as the advent of bass and drums signal a change to a breezy bossa style, with Morrison’s subtly colourful drumming a key part of the performance. Latchin keeps the melody intact at first, before soloing more expansively. Morrison is a busy presence throughout, and is rewarded with a quirky and highly inventive and entertaining drum feature. The trio as a whole seem to be having great fun with this one.
Solo piano also ushers in Irving Berlin’s perennially popular “White Christmas”, which is eventually given a gently swinging treatment that manages to stay just the right side of cloying, particularly when the improvisation kicks in.
Latchin has confirmed that “early Herbie Hancock” was the main inspiration behind the arrangement of the traditional English carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. This is introduced by a combination of the leader’s piano, sketching the familiar melody, allied to Morrison’s cymbal shimmers. The Hancock influence becomes more overt as the performance gathers pace and Latchin stretches out expansively with a Herbie influenced solo, with the seasonal melody very much on the back burner, only to return at the end for an atmospheric outro in the style of the introduction. Morrison’s drumming, during Latchin’s solo, reminded me of the style of Roy Haynes, although I don’t think Haynes and Hancock ever played together.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is another of those pieces where Latchin chooses to place the emphasis on melody, as he introduces the tune with a passage of unaccompanied piano. The piece is delivered in classic jazz ballad style, with Di Lecce’s languid bass undertow complemented by the soft rustle of Morrison’s brushed drums. Latchin’s own playing is spacious and lyrical, and he maintains this feel throughout, even during the solos.
As we’ve already been informed Ahmad Jamal is the main stylistic influence behind a playful take on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, who skips lightly across the roof tops, driven on by Di Lecces’s rapid bass walk and Morrison’s briskly brushed drums. Latchin’s piano dances and prances in suitably audacious manner on a performance that will surely bring a smile to even the most Scrooge-like of countenances – even mine. There’s also a lively and colourful brushed drum feature from the excellent Morrison to enjoy.
The album closes with the second carol, “Silent Night”, introduced by a brief passage of solo piano, and subsequently given a subtly bluesy arrangement that casts the venerable old tune in a new light.
It’s a remarkable and highly imaginative transformation that helps to end this hugely enjoyable album on a positive note.
I was very pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed this album, as have most members of the specialist jazz media. This is because it’s an extremely fine jazz record, more than matching the quality of Latchin’s first two releases and casting this overly familiar Christmas material in an entirely new light.
The arrangements are intelligent, inventive and imaginative, the playing, by a superbly balanced trio, is excellent throughout, and the musicians are well served by a recording team featuring Latchin as producer alongside engineers Gerry O’Riordan, Luke Farnell and Peter Beckmann.
Most importantly it swings, its cliché free and it’s an album that’s capable of sounding good all the year round. As one immerses oneself in the performances one almost forgets the Christmas theme, until a shard of a familiar melody hoves briefly into view.
Gabriel Latchin and his trio are to be congratulated on an exceptional achievement, a Christmas album that can be enjoyed on its musical merits, whatever the season.
blog comments powered by Disqus