Ellis, Kenny - Hanukkah Swings!

Year of Release: 2005
Label: Favored Nations Cool
Catalog Number: FNC7040-2
Format: CD
Total Time: 34:01:00

For the first time in a long while, the winter time holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah happen or begin, respectively, on the same day. So, it seems appropriate to cover the other recent holiday release from Favored Nations (this time Favored Nations Cool), that being Hanukkah Swings. And there is a very tiny prog connection here - guitarist Neil Citron, who has played with Erik Norlander and Lana Lane, engineered, mixed and mastered this album. But I offer that up as tidbit not justification for including this on our pages.

Kenny Ellis had an idea, one that had been percolating in his thoughts for many years - to give Hanukkah songs Big Band arrangements. With arranger Harvey R. Cohen, this album was born. Most are traditionals, though there are three or so original compositions as well. Of course, since I really dig brass - trumpets, trombones, saxes - this whole Big Band thing I find rather cool, though I don't actually spend much time listening to Big Band music. Add in some cool piano lines, snickering percussion, and jaunty guitar leads, and you have some upbeat and happy holiday music. And many of the pieces were arranged in homage to the Big Bands of the 40s, when this style of music flourished -- that is to say, when it was the "pop" music of the time.

You might think that what would result is kitsch, but no. Though there is a lot of humour here, it's a serious humor. Reverent to meaning of the holiday, but having fun with the presentation. Here we get engaging arrangements characterized by very tight playing, warm brassy tones and crisp drumming. Ellis has a perfect voice for this style, as it inhabits the same kind of tones and expressions as that heard in the music that influenced these arrangements. It's a mid-range voice, tending toward deeper tones. And from what I can tell, this is not only his FNC debut, but his recorded debut. Though, he is not a stranger to singing and live performances.

As befits Big Band, the pieces are upbeat. "Swinging Dreidel" takes the well-known "My Dreidel" or "I Have A Little Dreidel" and uh, makes it swing. This is followed by the jumping "Medley; Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah/Who Can Tell" and the hip "Sevivon Sov, Sov, Sov" which includes lots of trumpet (muted and otherwise), clarinet, and drums. And there's the danceable, Latin-tinged, almost tango-like "Ocho Kandelikas" (writes Ellis, the piece "was written by Flory Jagoda in Ladino, the language of her ancestors [...] Ladino reflects the Spanish chapter in the history of Sephardic Jews [who had been d]riven from Spain by the Inquisition of 1492...").

There are mellow pieces as well, as it's not entirely jazzy. "Hanukkah Candles," a piece composed by Ellis, is balladic where orchestral elements provide the backdrop over which a piano tinkles; these give way only to a short, soaring guitar solo from Mitch Holder. Holder solo's again in the easygoing, laidback jazz of "Rock Of Ages."

Brushed percussion characterizes the more traditional jazz styled "Children Of The Macabbees" - after a more traditional group-vocal opening. Here too we get a trilling flute solo from Joel Peskin. And there's the amusing "Hanu-Calypso"... can't help but think of Carmen Miranda, made iconic by her exotic costumes. Just don't try this tropical-flavored dance while you light the Menorah -- not make um... light of what I'm certain is a somber moment...

The album ends with "'Twas The Night Before Hanukkah" a humourous take on the holiday, incorporating lines from a funny Hanukkah card Ellis received in his youth. He changed and updated the words for this and he and Cohen composed music. Stu Goldberg plays the lovely piano that tinkles behind the vocals and alongside Kirk Smith on a strutting bass (upright sounds like) and deft brushed drumming of Albie Berk.

This is really great stuff, and a fun release to listen to, even if you happen to be a gentile. I think it's a cool idea - much as a rock versions of classics from that other holiday tradition. Ironically, it brings what may be viewed as "dated" pieces (presentation not content) into a new age ... by looking back to a bolder music style. A nice touch is that Ellis provides not only the history of the piece itself, but, like with that with "Ocho Kandelikas," a historical context for what the piece is about. Ellis is a cantor at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills, California and says, "it is important to me and a large part of my cantorate to teach Jewish music in any way I can. So, I prefer to entertain as I teach or 'edutain.'" On Hanukkah Swings!, he does indeed do both.

Rating: 5/5 (or, I guess, appropriately 8/8)

Swingin' Dreidel (3:15) / Medley: Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah/Who Can Tell (3:21) / Hanukkah Candles (3:39) / Sevivon Sov, Sov, Sov (3:19) / Ocho Kandelikas (2:45) / Children Of The Macabbees (3:45) / Medley; Hanukkah Swinin' Holiday/Pour The Oil (3:38) / Hanu-calypso (2:32) / Rock Of Ages (4:18) / 'Twas The Night Before Hanukkah (3:07)

Kenny Ellis - vocals, background vocals
Stu Goldberg - piano, keyboards, percussion; background vocals (4)
Mitch Holder - acoustic and electric guitars
Albie Berk - drums
Kirk Smith - acoustic bass
Larry Antinino - electric bass (4, 5, 7, 9)
Wayne Bergeron - trumpet
Roy Wiegand - trumpet
Jon Lewis - trumpet
Randy Aldcroft - trombone
Ira Nepus - trombone
Joel Peskin - alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, clarinet, and flute
John Mitchell - tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone
Bill Liston - alto saxophone, flute and piccolo (1, 5)
Ruth Bruegger - violin (3, 6)
Razdan Kuyumjian - violin (3, 6)
Ralph Morrison - (3, 6)
Marci Vaj - violin (3, 6)
Margot Alcroft - viola (3, 6)
Maurice Grants - cello (3, 6)
Brenda Lee Eager - background vocals (3, 6)
Cynthia Bass - background vocals (3, 6)
Sydney Davis - background vocals (3, 6)
Harvey R. Cohen - background vocals (1, 4)

Hanukkah Swings! (2005)

Genre: Jazz-Trad. Jazz

Origin US

Added: December 28th 2005
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website: www.kennyellis.com
Hits: 1256
Language: english


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