Bassist Rodney Whitaker has been a huge presence in Michigan jazz for decades, with his leadership of the Michigan State University jazz program complementing his many other projects and giving him the opportunity to mentor upcoming generations of jazz talent. He has become a crucial ambassador for the music as well, with community outreach being a critical aspect of his mission. One of his most essential endeavors has been his status since 2015 as Artist in Residence at Christ Church Cranbrook, an Episcopal congregation in the suburb of Bloomfield Hills that has focused diligently on forging stronger cultural connections with the city of Detroit. Whitaker has worked closely with Christopher Wells, the church's Director of Music, in coordinating an ambitious series of jazz services and concerts, including a noteworthy performance in 2018 of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert. But perhaps best-loved of all is the church's annual Christmas jazz mass, with Whitaker bringing his hand-picked ensembles to lead the church's celebration of the season in an invigorating, joyful spirit.
On Cranbrook Christmas Jazz, the results of this partnership are well-documented, with over seventy minutes of music that is by turns reverential and light-hearted, but always with a strong jazz pulse at its core. Whitaker's characteristically terrific sextet is joined by vocalist Vanessa Rubin and the Christ Church Cranbrook Choir for fourteen pieces that range from secular Christmas staples like "Winter Wonderland" and "Christmas Time is Here" to sacred carols such as "We Three Kings" and "O Holy Night." The idiomatic juxtapositions might ordinarily seem unwieldy, but the first-rate arrangements give both the sacred and the secular pieces a cohesive feel and ensure that they are rooted in the jazz tradition. Take for instance the first cut, "Personent Hodie," the most obscure piece on the album: under Whitaker's spry modal arrangement, the twelfth-century medieval carol jumps with life, as drummer Michael Reed's infectious polyrhythms spur the band to some high-energy playing right out of the gate, with trumpeter Timothy Blackmon leading the soloists. While more subdued and contemplative, "In the Bleak Midwinter" still possesses an understated jazz sensibility, with a subtle swing feel and considerable harmonic complexity reflected in pianist Rick Roe's deft flourishes.
Aside from "Personent Hodie," the album is vocalist-centered, with Rubin getting a chance to stretch out on tracks like "My Favorite Things" and "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas," where her warmth and vitality, and more than a little playfulness, animate the music convincingly. Elsewhere Christopher McDole and Rockelle Whitaker make appearances: McDole's "I Love the Winter Weather" is an insouciant gem highlighting the singer's ingratiating baritone along with some fluid soloing by bass trombonist Chris Glassman, while Whitaker's sprightly take on the Caribbean-flavored "Little Drummer Boy" is a delight, especially in conversation with Len'i McKinney, whose skillful alto sax phrasing is the perfect partner to Whitaker's nimble scatting. But not to be outdone is the Christ Church Choir, whose members provide stirring renditions of "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night" and are seamlessly integrated into these jazz-inflected arrangements. Vocalists Tom Shilakes, Marc Meyers and Kate Lucander each have solo opportunities that are both impassioned and compelling.
Although each December typically sees a steady stream of Christmas releases, many of which are destined to fall by the wayside, forgotten once the tree is finally discarded and the eggnog has run out, Cranbrook Christmas Jazz offers an abundance of musical riches worthy of savoring for years to come.