Duke Pearson – Merry Ole Soul 9.0

Reviewed by on 16th December, 2016

Most of the Christmas records we review on this site are perennial classics, constantly reissued and treasured from generation to generation. But of course, there’s thousands of albums that languish in bargain bins and have never got a second chance. With some regret, I try not to review them; if my readers will have to hunt for expensive Japanese imports or find collector’s vinyl on eBay, reviewing goes from consumer information to egotistical showing off.

But what I do have is a personal list of vinyl-only obscurities, albums that I hope, perhaps forlornly, will one day have a digital re-release. And – until it finally appeared this year – right at the top of that list of elusive releases, was Duke Pearson’s much-whispered-about Merry Ole Soul. And unlike a lot of obscurities, this one is pretty amazingly good.

And fascinatingly, the music on Merry Ole Soul is almost as elusive as its belated release. Most jazz Christmas albums tend to be muted, filed with little shades of fun and melancholy, but generally well-disposed and tinged with jolly. Not here. Half a decade earlier Duke Pearson had been a conventional if highly skilled hard bop pianist. Then came the big band experiments, the bits of Latin and avant garde blended in, and How Insensitive, a thoroughly weird album of off-kilter not-so-easy listening…

And this. It’s a jazz album, but it mixes in all sorts of other genres – funk, soul, blues, samba, gospel, showtunes, military tattoos, minimalist avant garde – and it never settles on any of them. Melodies are teased and unresolved. Duke Pearson is having the time of his life, in the cut and thrust against Airto Moreira on constantly varied percussion, and you’re taken along on a little thrill ride that you’re not sure where it’s intending to stop. It’s not a bath to sink into, but a water slide – and definitely worth the wait.

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Skipping with joy, but low on the jolly

Duke Pearson was one of the driving forces in the last great period of Blue Note. He brings all the arranging cleverness and eclectic influences from that era into a Christmas album, playing around with more new ideas in a minute than most Christmas albums get over a whole record. It's pretty awe-inspiring.

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