Contemporary Jazz

The Spyro Before Christmas

06 DEC 08 JONATHAN WIDRAN

Well into their fourth decade of progressive jazz-making and over 25 albums into an increasingly diverse and dynamic recording catalog, Spyro Gyra, on its sixth Heads Up disc, finally takes the seasonal plunge with a holiday-themed gem that reflects upon the meaning of A Night Before Christmas.

Perhaps the winning collection's nicest surprise is that, rather than coming out with guns (or Julio Fernandez's electric guitar) blazing and trying to be too clever or innovative, Jay Beckenstein and company go the tasteful route. They're pleasantly spirited in spots but tastefully restrained when it counts. Longtime Spyro fans who have been longing for them to go in the traditional jazz direction may enjoy the beautiful acoustic arrangements of "O Tannenbaum," "Carol of the Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" so much that they'll play them year round.

The band's always seamless ensemble action on mostly traditional Christmas songs is complemented by two lush guest performances on vibes by longtime associate Dave Samuels, a haunting vocal by Tony winner Christine Ebersole on the Beckenstein original "It Won't Feel Like Christmas" and a quirky, Ella-like vocal duet on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Janis Siegel and drummer Bonny B.

Beyond being a joy to listen to -- always a nice, warm thing for anyone experiencing a cold December -- the album fulfills the group's longtime yearning to do a straight-ahead project while tapping, as the saxman says, into the spiritual themes that frame the season -- compassion, hope, generosity, forgiveness, renewal and family.