The Latest Noels

'Tis the season to rate another avalanche of holiday discs.

HORNS OF PLENTY

Jazz holiday discs sound like a good idea on the surface, but all too often, they degenerate into seasonal Muzak of the sort Stein Mart stores play at obnoxious volume while you shop. That's certainly the case with A Smooth Jazz Christmas, a Capitol disc credited to Dave Koz & Friends. Among the "friends" are (con) the frightening Kenny Loggins and (pro) Brenda Russell, who helps make "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" downright lively. But the other tunes should be loaded into a somnambulance and rushed to the jazz hospital.

Kirk Whalum's The Christmas Message (Warner Bros.) suffers from the same malady: too much smooth, too little jazz. The handle of "The Little (Ghetto) Drummer Boy" hints at some grittiness, but the tune itself, with a barely syncopated rhythm and background bah-bah-bahs, sure ain't straight outta Compton. While "Blott En Dag," a Scandinavian hymn sung in Swedish by Cyndee Peters, makes an impact, the remainder of the songs will likely inspire visions of better CDs to start dancing in your head.

Justin Time for Christmas Three (Justin Time) definitely qualifies. This compilation blends fairly standard post-bop, like "The Christmas Song" by Dave Young, Cedar Walton and Barry Elmes, with more adventurous stuff. Fort Collins-based Hugh Ragin excels on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," which is turned into a vehicle for four trumpeters; the World Saxophone Quartet checks in with a not so "Silent Night"; and David Murray & Gwo Ka Masters convert "Noël" into an Afro-jazz freakout.

Just as impressive are a pair of discs on the Vertical Jazz imprint. Jazzy Christmas starts off with a pair of tunes featuring pianist David Benoit, who has a less severe case of the Koz/Whalum disease, but it picks up steam thanks to a clever "We Three Kings," with fine bass playing by Stanley Clarke; an eight-minute-plus "White Christmas" by a quintet led by saxophonist Pete Christlieb; and a finger-poppin' "Let It Snow" that showcases guitarist Federico Ramos. Even better is Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker by the Classical Jazz Quartet, made up of vibraphonist Stefon Harris, drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Kenny Barron and bass master Ron Carter. The arrangements, by Bob Belden, of numbers such as "Overture Miniature" (retitled "The Swingin' Nut") and "Arabian Dance" (here dubbed "Bedouin Dreams") are consistently smart, and the playing by Carter, in particular, is extraordinarily skillful. The result is one of those rare Christmas CDs that deserve to be heard well after the holidays have faded away.

SADDLE THEM REINDEER

Christmas Cookies (MCA) isn't uncut C&W -- not unless the late Burl Ives, who checks in with "A Holly Jolly Christmas," seems like a secret cowpoke to you. However, it's dominated by contemporary country practitioners who only occasionally transcend the material. George Strait's rendition of the title cut is tasty enough, especially when he's paying tribute to "those little sprinkly things" (no, he's not talking about crack); the Mavericks rip through "Santa Claus is Back in Town"; and George Jones wrings every last drop of pathos out of "Silent Night." But the reappearance of Alecia Elliott, of Prancer Returns ignominy, not to mention Rhett Akins's "No Room," for which room shouldn't have been left, stretched my good will to the snapping point. A Country Superstar Christmas 4 (Hip-O) makes for even rougher sledding. With only a few minor exceptions, like Sammy Kershaw's sprightly but staid "Up on the Housetop," the material here moves at one of two speeds -- slow and slower. Strait and Dwight Yoakam, who checks in with "Come On Christmas," are practically the only pair who make it out of the bog with their chaps unmuddied.

Fortunately, Deana Carter's Father Christmas (Rounder) shows it's possible to make countrified holiday music that's sweet without being saccharine. On the disc, Carter is accompanied solely by her father, guitarist Fred Carter, and the simplicity with which they render "Merry Christmas Darling," "Johnny's Snowman" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is downright gorgeous. As a bonus, the CD includes an interview Carter did with her dad when she was in elementary school -- a funny, modest little tribute to love and family. Which I've been told have something to do with the holidays.

CHRISTMAS COMEBACKS

Every year, artists who haven't crossed the minds of anyone outside their immediate family for ages pop up with a Christmas disc. But this time around, more than usual have emerged from the woodwork, with a high percentage of them inspiring terror by the mere mention of their names. Like, for instance...the Lettermen!

Sorry to do that to you, especially since With Love at Christmas (Alpha Omega) isn't all that scary. Instead, it's just boring, with every song delivered as if by a barbershop quartet that recently lost a member to a tragic electric-trimmer accident. Listeners age eighty and above will be charmed by it, guaranteed. Rockapella's Christmas (J-Bird Records) might strike a chord with a younger audience because of a somewhat peppier take on vocal harmony: The members of 'N Sync ape the shtick when they're trying to sound "classy." But a little of this stuff goes a long, long way, and by the time I reached the compulsively cutesy-poo version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," I was in desperate need of an insulin injection. Too bad there's never a hypodermic around when you need one.

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