George BurtonThe Yule LogPorge Records

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The Yule Log features a veritable cross section of the New York jazz scene: vocalist Nancy Harms, violinist Diane Monroe, violist Veronica Jurkiewicz, cellist Maura Dwyer, bassist Pablo Menares, drummer Nazir Ebo — and on mid-album track “Jesu Parvule,” additional vocalist Aryssa Leigh Burrs. All arrangements are by Burton, who recently became a Yamaha artist. 

DownBeat hailed Burton’s 2016 album The Truth of What I Am > The Narcissist, as “a fantastic statement of modern jazz.” As for 2020’s Rec​·​i​·​proc​·​i​·​ty, a New York Times Critic’s Pick: NPR Music called it “sublime,” The Philadelphia Inquirer characterized it as “multidimensional,” and Jazziz deemed it “outstanding.” And the praise just rolled out.

About Rec​·​i​·​proc​·​i​·​tyJazziz noted “Burton is painting with a vast palette … creating a variety of moods and textures. It’s clear that both exuberance and daring are in abundant supply.” To craft a Christmas album that stands above the pack, it takes both.

As Burton explains, corny Christmas jams are decidedly not his bag. “Why do we always have to play that particular game that time of year?” he says, interrogating the ever-chugging market of jazz meets holiday cheer come December 25.

Granted, Burton enrolled himself in this game. But he played it and won. The ace up his sleeve: he sought out Christmas compositions far afield from the obvious track. “I grew up in church,” he explains. What was transmitted from the pulpit? “‘Remember the reason for the season,’” he recalls — “all the things that separated it from Santa Claus.”

Burton absorbed these lessons well. The Yule Log kicks off with “Fum Fum Fum,” a traditional Catalan carol. “It means smoke — a chimney’s flume— so smoke, smoke, smoke,” Burton says. He first heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing it; he made it his own, adding drama via classical techniques.

Some Children See Him” is an Alfred Burt composition; Burton notes the legendary James Taylor’s inspired 2004 version. “The tune itself is super deep in its harmonic movement,” he says. “I was like, This is really killin’!” For his rendition, Burton scrapped what wasn’t needed and added propulsive musical elements, including heady strings.

He characterizes “The Holly and the Ivy” as a “nerdy track.” “It starts off a little bit groove, then it goes into this quasi-Latin thing, and it gets to straight-up swing,” Burton explains. As Burton is a product of Philly, “It needs to balance in a physical way; you want to sit in the pocket and make sure the layers fall in the right place.”

As for “Little Altar Boy,” Burton sought a disquieting feel. ‘Without any vibrato,” he clarifies, “with straight tones, and I made it simpler.” He simply describes it as “a beautiful song, and the lyrics are amazing” — which made it ripe for aesthetic rattling.

Of course, “We Three Kings” is a holiday staple, but it takes a perceptive cat like Burton to truly unpack it. “It’s in three,” he says, referring to its meter. “I wanted to open that up, take it apart, and put it back together.” He asked legendary violinist Diane Monroe to transcend typical lanes, and she delivered: “She got some really deep stuff.”

Jesu Parvule,” also by Alfred Burt, has a meditative, roiling feel; it has a liturgical shade, courtesy of vocalist Aryssa Leigh Burrs’ poise and gravitas. Burton simply describes “Christmas Waltz” — originally written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne for Frank Sinatra — as “a great, great tune; it grooves a bit, but not too deep.”

Readers might remember “Christmas Time is Here” from Peanuts specials and beyond. “It’s a nice arrangement, and I’ve always liked that tune,” Burton says. From there, The Yule Log fittingly concludes with “Auld Lang Syne” — ringing in the new year.“ Drunk, drunk, drunk,” is how Burton describes that old chestnut — even though the musicians weren’t soused when they recorded it. Still, “It’s supposed to come off drunk. Everybody just play it. Everybody knows the tune. We’ll figure it out.” With that, The Yule Log bids adieu — casual, swinging, yet imprinted on your memory at first blush.