Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack glide through ‘A Very Gypsy Christmas’
As a New York-based, veteran guitarist, Doug Munro can swing with the best. The two-time, Grammy-nominated artist is fluent in a variety of styles, soul-jazz, Latin, organ trio, rockin’ blues, and gypsy jazz. He’s put out 11 solo albums, published 75 original compositions, and over 300 arrangements for other artists’ recording projects. He’s appeared on 50-plus albums featuring many big-time artists such as Michael Brecker, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Dr. John, as well as earned orchestra credit on the Oscar-winning documentary, “When We Were Kings.”
Munro is also an educator, having formed the Jazz Studies Program at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, serving as the jazz program’s director from 1993 to 2002. He still teaches as Director Emeritus, amongst a fine arts company of star-studded faculty (Jon Faddis, John Riley, John Abercrombie, Eric Alexander, and Todd Coolman).
Munro’s 2011 Christmas album with his La Pompe Attack gypsy jazz group reinforces his devotion to and working knowledge of 1930s Hot Club music, originated by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Together with guitarist Ernie Pugliese and acoustic bassist Michael Goetz, Munro forms the gypsy jazz foundation. He builds up the colors with the essential violinist Howie Bujese, swing clarinetist Ken Peplowski, and vocalist, rising young star Cyrille-Aimee Daudel.
During the holidays, everyone’s looking for something different to listen to. The Wall Street Journal vouched for A Very Gypsy Christmas as that something special when editors singled out the Sept. 1, 2011 release as a best holiday pick.
Doug Munro And La Pompe Attack went the tried-and-true route on all 15 song selections, from raucous “Sleigh Ride” to an uplifted waltz in “Green Sleeves.” It isn’t hard to imagine Christmas in Paris, as guitarist Reinhardt and violinist Grappelli might’ve played the songs, nice and easy, with snazzy departures scattered throughout.
For fans of gypsy jazz, this album’s impeccably rendered. The technique, the feel, the laid-back but informed approach to every swinging piece… all there. The songs at first slide off the instruments maybe a little too easily, a constant reminder of the same singular earshot. But upon closer inspection, the musicians jam in a lot more delicacy and discretion into the lively notes, in solo interludes and deceptively chaotic interplay. “Sleigh Ride,” right off the bat.
Clarinetist Peplowski shows why he’s the virtuoso as he gladly takes over the main melody, instantly recognizable but embellished as a white gown might with a few strategically placed bling. The embellishments, in Peplowski’s dexterous handling of his clarinet and in the other instrumentalists’ ad libs, make this song soar.
Even in the quiet, somber holiday songs — “Little Town Of Bethlehem,” “Green Sleeves,” “Oh Tannenbaum,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Silent Night” — Munro and his Hot Club can’t help but leave the place with smiles by virtue of gypsy jazz’s sparkling personality alone.
“Silent Night” isn’t a Christmas massacre. No hostile take-over. The guitarists uphold an outline of dignified, slight melancholy, as they wisely bow to violinist Bujese, who grounds the German Christmas carol in a grave foreboding of tragedy. The violinist stretches an imagined tension between what is (the birth of the Christ child) with what will be (His sacrificial death) against such a humble, poor setting (born in a barn with farm animals), using the naturally dramatic strings as a barely wept anchor.
Some of the Christmas pop songs beg for vocals. Cyrille Aimee Daudel fills in the humanistic portion of the Christmas play quite nicely, with a mix of childlike innocence, elfish fun, and a charming, if slapdash rhythm — as if she has all the time in the world to have her say, and will. In “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” her voice — lyrically and in mischievous scats slipping smoothly off the tongue — flits and flutters as randomly and capriciously as the guitar lines.
A stand-out in this gypsy jazz Christmas album comes at track #10, “Oh Tannenbaum,” an homage to Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Here, the guitarists push the boundaries of the song’s acceptable melody-to-harmony balance with a gun-metal ornamentation that’s almost jarring but incredibly, ferociously masculine.
If anything, Doug Munro And La Pompe Attack’s A Very Gypsy Christmas can get too bogged down. It’s gypsy jazz constantly, with very little let-up. But if you can’t get enough, you won’t want a break.
Review originally published in Examiner Dec. 4, 2013.