Over the past few years, the instrumental quartet the 442s have mined the creative middle ground between jazz and classical music. In partnering two St. Louis Symphony Orchestra string players (violinist Shawn Weil and cellist Bjorn Ranheim) with two entrenched jazz musicians (upright bassist Syd Rodway and pianist Adam Maness), the group has made two albums of original material and performed in concerts, residencies and collaborations. For its album of Christmas music, the quartet called on some of its most regular collaborators — pianist Peter Martin most prominently, who gets co-billing here, and drummer Montez Coleman — along with a trio of homegrown vocalists: Erin Bode, Brian Owens and the New Orleans-based Jeremy Davenport.
According to Ranheim, these partnerships fuel much of the energy among the members. The aptly titled Home For Christmas celebrates this bonhomie with warm, low-lit arrangements.
"We're all on each other's albums," says Ranheim. "The 442s are on Peter Martin's new album, we're on Montez Coleman's new album, they're both on our albums — we're always just intermingling."
That spirit animates the opening track, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which features all three vocalists — and Davenport's trumpet — as the instrumentalists take turns introducing themselves. What begins with a solemn cello line runs closer to smooth jazz by the time Coleman's drums come in. It's one of many songs on the ten-track album that blur the line between genres. Martin, a classically trained pianist known for his work as musical director for jazz singer Dianne Reeves, helps bridge the gap on many of these tracks.
Since Martin takes the rein on piano, Maness' instrumental contributions are relegated a bit more to background here; his accordion gives reedy depth to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and his turn on the Fender Rhodes morphs "O Tannenbaum" into a '70s soul-jazz production that Ramsey Lewis would be proud to call his own. But Maness had his hand in all the arrangements on the album — a daunting task given the musical heavyweights involved. Given the backgrounds of the 442s' four members — two from the note-perfect world of classical, two from the improvisational world of jazz — some overlap is expected and encouraged.
"He has found a voice in writing for strings that has really grown a lot," Ranheim says of Maness. "He gives us very clear parameters of song structure and very clearly written out melodic and thematic harmonic structure. But for Shawn and I, he also gives us room to improvise and get out there. As a classically trained musician, I was never, ever encouraged to make up music on the spot. For us, that is the musical tension in the group; it gives us a chance to push into this other realm."
Of course, both the classical and jazz catalogs have their own Christmas traditions; on Home for Christmas, the group subtly but effectively subverts those expectations. The string players sit out for "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," that staple of orchestral Nutcracker matinees; instead, Maness takes the pinging bells of his celeste and runs the familiar riff through some well-deployed delay while the rhythm section lays down breakbeat-style runs. It's Tchaikovsky meets RJD2. The Christmas jazz repertoire is a bit more vast, but odds are high that Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is the jazz LP most commonly found in households across America. Rather than make "Christmastime Is Here" swing, Bode and Ranheim channel the clear-eyed beauty of the tune with a spare voice-and-cello arrangement.
For Ranheim, whose day job with the symphony often finds him playing through the same scores and arrangements this time of year, the 442s' annual Christmas show is a welcome break from the norm.
"This is not like sitting in an orchestra, playing your 50th performance of The Nutcracker," he says. "This is new and inventive and fun."
"Holiday music can get anybody down — it's just a busy time of year," he continues. "It's easy to become a little bit jaded or cynical, but not when you're doing this stuff. This is just gravy."