The Spirit Of Christmas (Minor Music)

Pee Wee Ellis

Released in 2014

DownBeat Four-Stars Review




From April 16th to 18th the recording sessions for the new album by Pee Wee Ellis took place in Cologne. No sooner had the last bits of snow from the last harsh winter finally gone and the first signs of spring moved in, when the American saxophonist and his 9 fellow musicians from America and Europe had to shift backwards again and groove into the Christmas spirit. But with hot gospel songs and heartwarming new editions of Christmas classics like Rudolph, The rednosed Reindeer, the general good work mood, with which everyone involved went to work, quickly led to terrific results.

There are quite a few risks a musician can expose themselves to in their business. This includes an abrupt change in style or genre, the decision to supply the formerly acoustic instrument with electricity from now on, as well as the transition from analog to digital in the eighties. In some cases, a new hairstyle is enough. The biggest risk, however, at least beyond smoothly polished productions for a TV audience, was, is and will be the recording of a Christmas record. Wham’s “Last Christmas” is one of the duo’s most successful songs, but also one of the most hated songs. And when Jimi Hendrix once recorded “Little Drummer Boy”, they dared only send the single to members of their fan club for free.

However, there are notable exceptions to every rule, and Pee Wee Ellis has now turned the bold idea into a joyful deed. On his new album “The Spirit Of Christmas”, the American has bundled a good dozen well-known but never-before-heard Christmas carols into a bouquet that finally doesn’t disgust any kitschy Christmas tree balls with trumpeting angels. After all, Ellis was not the backbone of the James Brown Horns for many years and then a synonym for ‘the real funky tunes’ that was celebrated around the world, only to become sentimental now, at the age of 72, for no reason. When Ellis celebrates Christmas, the Christmas tree and Santa Claus have to watch out for the dancing crowd. Unless Santa Claus has long since hung the wrong beard in the branches and is dancing with them.

To understand why Pee Wee Ellis’ “The Spirit Of Christmas” is more than just a little different Christmas album, you have to know where this amazing saxophonist actually comes from and who shook hands with him on his way to the top – whether now as a helper or thank-you. Without Pee Wee there would have been the Godfather of Funk, at least James Brown would never have existed in the exciting sound of the sixties. Besides Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, Ellis was nominally only a third of the now legendary JB Horns, but in contrast to his two colleagues, he was also active as a songwriter and arranger of the unique trio. Thanks to him, the Brass Section became for the first time from a vehicle for more or less inspired solos to the most important part of the Rhythm Section, before which James Brown performed his artistic scats. When Pee Wee blew JB went into ecstasy.

A sentence from which it is not easy to find your way back into the Christmas mood. Unless this is so clearly defined as amusing and celebratory, as Ellis frankly does on his new album. Let’s just take a piece like “Funky Merry Christmas”, which alone would be blamed for being about a quarter of an hour too short at just under three minutes. Nevertheless, whole families might soon gather for a slightly frivolous dance in front of the table of gifts. And “Last Christmas” cools Pee Wee down to half the pace in a charming and clever way, because then it goes well with extinguishing candles and last grabbing the colorful plate shortly after midnight.

With “The Spirit Of Christmas”, Ellis does not quite stick to the well-known announcement of the JB Horns in every concert that they will now play “two percent jazz and 98 percent funky music”, but blues, jazz and gospel do not take over sovereignty either . The maestro has also invited some wonderful voices to the end of the year celebration: Lisa Bassenge sings about the “Silent Night” next to him, while Peter Fessler, Lillian Boutté and Clare Teal set other vocal highlights. The strongest voices, however, remain Pee Wee Ellis’ mostly very gently blown saxophone and the finesse of his arrangements. Sometimes you expect a screeching James Brown around the next corner, then again you would be less surprised at a gentle Dean Martin.

When Pee Wee Ellis goes on tour with his first (and hopefully not last) X-Mas CD in December, he will give the Holy Festival a completely new soundtrack. And finally for once the highest Christian festival does not shine in dim candlelight, but is illuminated like a funky night in New Orleans, where you only become aware of the fact that you have witnessed a really unique party the next morning. Christmas 2013 could be to celebrate the decade. For which no one but Pee Wee Ellis should be patted on the back.

Track Listing:

1. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas 03:33

2. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer 05:24

3. Last Christmas 05:33

4. Christmas In New Orleans 04:07

5. Christmas Time Is Here 07:25

6. In The Upper Room 07:57

7. In The Bleak Midwinter 03:58

8. Ezekiel Saw The Wheel 03:12

9. White Christmas 03:26

10. Snowfall 03:51

11. Stille Nacht (Silent Night) 03:04

12. What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? 04:24

13. The Christmas Song 03:56

14. Funky Merry Christmas 03:25


the band

Pee Wee Ellis: tenor saxophone

Fred Wesley: trombone

Gary Winters: trumpet

Tony Remy: guitar

Jason Rebello: piano, keyboards

Patrick Scales: bass guitar

Guido May: drums

the singers

Lillian Boutté (4, 6, 8)

Clare Teal (1, 12)

Lisa Bassenge (11)

Peter Fessler (3, 9)

Produced by Pee Wee Ellis and Stephan Meyner

Recorded by Reinhard Kobialka

Mastered by Elmar Gillet


DeFrancesco doesn’t countenance triviality or candy cane-sweet emotion, and neither does tenorman Pee Wee Ellis, widely known for his work with James Brown and Van Morrison. Some of the pleasure of hearing his recorded-in-Germany jazz album The Spirit Of Christmas comes from how confident and natural he is alongside his longtime funk-and-jazz colleague Fred Wesley (on trombone) and a coalition of sidemen from back home in the States, as well as players from Germany and England. New Orleans’ Lillian Bouteé brings stirring wintry bonhomie to her vocals on the gospel-blues “In The Upper Room” and two more, while star British jazz singer Clare Teal’s pleasing vocals on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” earn her an extra piece of minced pie at her holiday meal. But German singer Peter Fessler’s appeal (on covers of Irving Berlin and George Michael tunes) is a mystery.

Frank-John Hadley (DownBeat)