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Sprucing up holiday music with modern jazz decorations

Pianist and singer Laila Biali comes home to British Columbia for the holidays with a new CD of jazz standards.
Natalie Jane
Pianist and singer Laila Biali comes home to British Columbia for the holidays with a new CD of jazz standards.

December begins Friday and the holiday season is in full swing. This week, The New Cool offers classic holiday tunes twisted into modern jazz mode from a pair of artists with new albums and upcoming shows in the Pacific Northwest.

Pianist and singer Laila Biali's new album Your Requests is a collection of standards, though she has a pair of new digital holiday singles out in time for the season.

The album includes special guests like singer Kurt Elling, clarinetist Anat Cohen and harmonica player Gregoire Maret on Biali's fresh takes on "My Funny Valentine," "The Nearness of You" and others. Fellow Canadian singer Emilie-Claire Barlow joins in on "My Favorite Things," the Christmas season favorite from The Sound of Music.

Biali's icy piano riff gives way to Kelly Jefferson's sharp soprano saxophone before her vocals present Oscar Hammerstein's seasonal lyrics to Richard Rodgers' melody.

When Barlow adds her own voice on the chorus, Biali's version rises to a dramatic instrumental break with piano and saxophone pushing each other into wonderful improvisation before the vocal refrain returns, and wraps up the song like a present under the tree.

Biali returns home to British Columbia for the holidays, with concerts at the McPherson Playhouse in Victoria Dec.15 and at the Inlet Theatre in Port Moody Dec. 16. Both "Wintersong" concerts include fellow Canadian jazz star Jane Bunnett plus strings on a program of holiday music.

Tacoma modern jazz ensemble Velocity have just released a full album of holiday cheer. Quantum Christmas finds the long-running fusion quartet — Cliff Colón on sax, Peter Adams on keys, Rob Hutchinson on bass and Brian Smith on drums — expanding to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Mason Hargrove.

Velocity picks up musically where their 2019 album Magnetar left off — with catchy melodies surrounded by complex rhythms and arrangements that challenge the musicians to the edge of their capabilities.

Quantum Christmas' vintage holiday tunes like "We Three Kings," "Sleigh Ride" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" meet a pair of more jazz-oriented cheer from Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas recordings of the 1960s.

The descending notes of Guaraldi's "Skating" fall like snow in the original, but Velocity bring Hargrove's distorted guitar and Colon's effects-heavy saxophone to a rocking update of the gentle melody.

Peter Adams mixes synthesizer blasts from his keyboard into the festivities with Hutchinson and Smith pushing the pace urgently. The song is certainly recognizable but fully modernized by the quintet.

While Velocity brings 21st century energy to their new album, the group called in Santa Claus himself for a cameo in their video for "Sleigh Ride." While the video hints that Old Saint Nick actually produced the album, it was recorded by Ben Lange at David Lange Studios.

Velocity celebrates Quantum Christmas with a hometown release show at Tacoma's Spanish Ballroom Dec. 17. The New Cool host Abe Beeson will emcee this joyous occasion the week before Christmas.

The New Cool airs Fridays at 9 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Washington. LISTEN ON DEMAND

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Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.