Gregg Karukas - "Home For The Holidays"

(1993, Nightowl Records)
Track Listing:
  1. The Little Drummer Boy
  2. Silent Night/Oh Tannenbaum
  3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
  4. Winter Wonderland
  5. There's A Star On The Horizon
  6. We Three Kings Of Orient Are
  7. The Christmas Song
  8. Greetings Of The Season
  9. Home For The Holidays
  10. Jingle Bells
  11. Still
  12. White Christmass

Home for the Holidays is Karukas’ first completely acoustic album — his four previous releases, including “Summerhouse,” issued last spring have all featured some synthesizer work and have been extensively produced. “This was a change for me to get back to my acoustic piano roots,” said Karukas from a hotel in Chicago, where he was performing last week. “I haven’t played (acoustic) piano in public that much, but I have spent a lot of time both practicing and listening to acoustic pianists like Ahmad Jamal and Les McCann, two guys I love because they can play pretty and funky.”

Karukas said he feels a kinship with McCann, and Otis Redding, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, artists whose music has often been called “soulful” or “funky.” He fell in love with their recordings as a kid growing up in Baltimore, where he started piano lessons at the age of 6. “That music feels like me,” he said. “It gets across. I’m not trying to play music that will impress people. Rather, I’m trying to touch them in an emotional way.” Karukas’ four previous albums were done in a style that he described as “Melodic R&B jazz that also includes Brazilian jazz.” Those albums took about two months each to complete, “Home for the Holidays” was done in less than a week last June. “I did the arrangements two days before the session, and when we recorded, we did it all live, without over-dubs,” Karukas said.

The album was another opportunity for Karukas to work with Flint, a longtime associate with whom he performed with just after he moved to Los Angeles in 1982. “Shelby’s the most creative songwriter I have ever worked with,” Karukas said. “People think of her as having this fantastic voice, but she also has a lot of musical depth.”

Karukas career is taking off. He has played with sax man Eric Marienthal, guitarist/composer Dori Caymmi and the Rippingtons, and has traveled to the East and Midwest with his own band once a year. His current tour was topped, he said, by an appearance before a packed house at the S.O.B’s. nightspot in New York. “It’s the best feeling in the world to come into a city you’ve never played and have people you’ve never met come up and tell you how much they like your music,” he said.

Gregg Karukas’ Home for the Holidays is an excellent straight-ahead acoustic jazz outing from a musician who’s better known for more peppy, contemporary stuff. The old chestnuts are dressed up in new chord voicings and styles, and it swings big time. It’s adventuresome, creative, and well-executed. Singer Shelby Flint contributes several very tasty vocals.

“Many contemporary jazz artists are criticized for their lack of inventiveness and lack of improvisation that marks a true jazz player, but even as keyboard whiz Gregg Karukas has topped the pop/jazz charts, his skill with improv and harmonic surprises has never ceased to amaze.Those looking for more of Karukas’ jazz roots will find them on this lush, glorious holiday treat, which strips away the synthesizer and other electric appliances for a tender yet energetic trio date that truly captures the warmth and intimacy of the season, plus a softer side of Karukas his Positive albums only hint at. Eased along by the rhythm section of John Leftwich and Joel Taylor, Karukas weaves freshness into well-worn standards, offering a Vince Guaraldi-like treatment of “Oh Tannenbaum,” simplifying “White Christmas” to haunting effect, and saving his most spirited improvs for a swinging, mind boggingly speedy tour through “Winter Wonderland.” His acoustic piano touch has never been sweeter, crisper or more emotional than these interpretations. The ultimate in “Unplugged!”Adding passionate drama to this gem are the breathy, poignant vocal stylings of longtime cohort Shelby Flint, who displays her well-revered jazz scatting abilities on “Winter Wonderland,” but shows a more restrained (though no less emotional ) side on “Have Yourself…” She also makes the four originals here (three of which she wrote or co-wrote) sound like standards we’ve heard for years. Perhaps one day they will be.All in all, a beautiful holiday treat for all, a jazz collection even those who favor pop can treasure.”

– Jonathan Widran

Home for the Holidays ….is definitely a disc worth reviewing, worth buying, worth listening to again and again, Christmas after Christmas.Pianist/producer/composer Gregg Karukas is joined by vocalist Shelby Flint, bassist John Leftwich, and drummer Joel Taylor on this superlative recording. This is nothing less than great straight ahead piano trio jazz with one of my favorite singers in the world. Karukas’ arrangements of the seasonal standards are anything but standard: he manages to find that kernel of jazz truth in the melodic line and treat it as great music, not merely as holiday ornament.

Flint, whether singing in a whisper or a wail, brings incredible depth of expression to her readings of half the dozen tunes. She also contributes three of her own compositions, each of which is like a gift from the magi.

– Wayne Lee JAZZIZ