This is a slightly expanded version of an article I wrote for the Dec./Jan. issue of WholeNote last year. Where possible, I’ve included samples of some of the harder-to-find and lesser-known music.
Music is an essential part of Christmas and with that time of year upon us, I thought I’d offer a look at some records that might enhance our enjoyment of the season. These are all personal favourites and most, but not all, are jazz-oriented. Hopefully there’s something here for all tastes, from the religious to the secular, for those who like their Christmas music straight and those who like it, well….not so straight. To organize things a bit, I’ve arranged the selections into four loose categories:
Three Suites – Duke Ellington. One of the three suites is Duke’s adaption of a holiday staple – The Nutcracker – to his unique musical soundscape. While he and Billy Strayhorn remain quite true to the original, the highly individual voices of such Ellington veterans as Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown et al cast Tchaikovsky’s score in an entirely new light, to say the least. The majestic swing of the Overture is especially thrilling, as far as I’m concerned the Christmas season hasn’t begun till I’ve heard it. As an added bonus the other suites are Grieg’s Peer Gynt and Suite Thursday by Ellington and Strayhorn, after John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday.
A Charlie Brown Christmas – Vince Guaraldi. A delightful essential for the inner kid in all of us. “Linus and Lucy”, “Christmas Time Is Here” and other favourites from the timeless animated TV special are all here, but the strongest track is still the jazz treatment of “O, Tannenbaum” by Guaraldi and his trio-mates, Monty Budwig and Colin Bailey.
Christmas Cookin’ – Jimmy Smith. From 1964 on Verve, this features Smith’s funky and high-octane organ in a program of festive songs with a powerful brass ensemble of New York’s finest, arranged by Al Cohn and Billy Byers. It’s one of the more ebullient and hard-swinging jazz Christmas albums, as you’d expect with Kenny Burrell, Art Davis and Grady Tate in the rhythm section.
Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas – Speaking of Kenny Burrell, Duke Ellington’s favourite guitarist acquits himself gracefully in this 1966 album with a large band directed and arranged by Richard Evans. Originally on Cadet, it was reissued as a CD by Verve a few years ago.
Merry Ole Soul – Duke Pearson. This beautifully recorded 1969 Blue Note is one of the most crisp and fresh-sounding of Christmas albums, but is unfortunately hard to find. Pearson was an incisive, light-fingered pianist who also functioned as an in-house arranger, composer and producer for the label and here he presents a nicely modulated program with a very cohesive trio using his favourite bassist and drummer – the recently departed Bob Cranshaw, and Mickey Roker. There are some uncommon tunes and a highlight is their surprisingly unhurried and lyrical treatment of “Sleigh Ride”. The leader alternates between celeste and piano on the melody, and there are some interesting open vamps, quite reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s classic 1950s trio. Here they are:
Carla’s Christmas Carols – Carla Bley and Steve Swallow with the Partyka Brass Quintet, 2008. I only learned of this gem when several friends introduced me to it after I’d written the article for WholeNote – I’ll say it for the hundredth time: I don’t write this blog to teach so much as to learn. It’s tempting to try to think of clever, flippant ways to describe Bley’s ingenious arrangements of these carols – think “Sally Ann band on acid” or “avant-garde medieval” – but none of these do the music justice. Bley brings a very refreshing take to these chestnuts without disturbing their essence; the result is a fun, absorbing, slightly wacky and quite beautiful record, one utterly devoid of cliché. Here is a sample of them performing live:
Holiday Soul – Bobby Timmons. Another great-but-obscure festive trio record, with the iconic hard-bop pianist backed by the wonderful team of bassist Butch Warren and Walter Perkins on drums and percussion. It’s almost impossible to find because as far as I know it’s never been issued on CD, but it turns up occasionally in used vinyl bins. If you see it, buy it – it’s worth having for Perkins’ deft handling of sleigh bells alone, and it grooves from start to finish. Here’s “Deck the Halls” from it:
Paul Desmond & The Modern Jazz Quartet. Desmond had a long and close musical connection with the MJQ’s drummer Connie Kay – his personal favourite – which may account for this seamless collaboration. It’s not a Christmas album per se, but a fortuitous recording of the MJQ’s Christmas Day concert at Town Hall in 1971 – an annual affair, but with Desmond sitting in after the intermission that year. “Greensleeves” is the only piece with any Yuletide connotation, but the musical interplay between Desmond and the MJQ, playing together for the first and only time, feels like the birth of something special.
A Big Band Christmas – Rob McConnell & The Boss Brass. Some wonderful McConnell arrangements, by turns zesty and sensitive, beautifully performed by his great band. A highlight is their heartfelt version of Johnny Mandel’s “A Christmas Love Song”. Also priceless is the cover photo of a somewhat “over-trained” Rob dressed as Santa Claus.
Fans of big-band jazz might also enjoy A Merry Christmas! by Stan Kenton and five Christmas albums by the USAF’a first-rate big band, The U.S. Airmen Of Note – Noel, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Christmas Time Is Here, A Holiday Note From Home, and Cool Yule. Half of the first and third and all of the second comprise charts by the brilliant Mike Crotty, one of the jazz arranging world’s best-kept secrets because he spent 26 years in the military. He now lives in Arizona and works as a free-lance composer-arranger. Visit this site to check out The Airmen: http://www.rewindplay.com/airmenofnote/sounds/sounds.htm
Here’s an example of Crotty’s work, played by a Washington-area big band:
Christmas Songs by Sinatra – Recorded during Sinatra’s early association with Columbia and musical director Axel Stordahl, this is just his third album as a leader. The CD reissue expands the ten-inch LP with bonus tracks from both before and after the original sessions. His better-known A Jolly Christmas on Capitol from 1957 is also very good, but I prefer the freshness and restraint of this earlier record.
12 Songs of Christmas – Etta James. Although the repertoire is firmly seasonal, this 1998 effort is about as close to a pure jazz record as the powerhouse R&B singer ever came. This is largely due to the excellent band of stalwarts backing her, including Red Holloway, George Bohanon, Cedar Walton, John Clayton and the immortal Billy Higgins.
A Swingin’ Christmas – Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra. I first heard this in a record store while Christmas shopping a few years ago and enjoyed it so much I bought it right on the spot. From 2008, well after Basie’s death, but otherwise there’s nothing to not like about it – Bennett, the band, the charts and the soloists all sound terrific, and it swings effortlessly. Sold.
Ella Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas This one is relentlessly upbeat, and some of Frank De Vol’s arranging, in particular his use of “Outer Limits” jazz-choir effects, veers toward the schlocky. But who cares? It’s ELLA and she’s infectious and irresistible, particularly on “Let It Snow”, where the warmth and purity of her voice bring unfettered joy.
Christmas with Dino – Dean Martin. I bought this one for my wife Anna, who likes Dean Martin. I wasn’t expecting much, but it’s a very solid merging of two Martin albums – A Winter Romance, done for Capitol in 1959 – and The Dean Martin Christmas Album, done for Reprise in 1966. There are some interesting seasonal repertoire choices here, such as “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm”, “It’s A Marshmallow World” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Often forgotten over the years amid all the second-banana entertainer hats he wore and the endless booze jokes, was the fact that Dean Martin was a very good and very personable singer.
Bing Crosby Christmas – One can hardly do Christmas without Bing, and this is a fairly complete Decca compilation from 1942-55, with a nice mixture of carols and standards. Including, of course, “White Christmas”.
A Christmas Album – Barbra Streisand. I’m not entirely a fan of all things “Bra”, but this 1967 record, tastefully arranged by Marty Paich and Ray Ellis, is very easy to take indeed. Her renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” are among the best I’ve heard.
Christmas – The Singers Unlimited. Mostly traditional carols sung with immaculate pitch and ingenious harmonies furnished by Gene Puerling, the group’s leader and arranger.
Jingle Bell Swing – An imaginative and eclectic Columbia jazz compilation which rounds up some rare Christmas oddities, including “Black Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)” with Miles Davis and Bob Dorough. Art Carney reciting “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in tempo with percussion, a kind of early jazz-rap. A trenchant, hard-swinging version of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” by alto saxophonist Pony Poindexter; a duet by Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on “Deck the Halls” and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross singing “Deck the Halls With Boston Charlie”. And a 1965 re-record of Claude Thornhill’s classic “Snowfall” by the Glenn Miller Band directed by Tex Beneke, which fooled me – I thought it was Thornhill’s band when I first heard it. There are other goodies too – Peggy Lee & Benny Goodman, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, Russell Malone, Mel Tormé, and two tracks each by two guys from New Orleans named Louis – Prima and Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong and Friends – The Christmas Collection – Another good mix, this one from 20th-Century Masters. There are six tracks by Louis – some with Benny Carter’s under-appreciated mid-’40s big band, including “Christmas Night In Harlem”,”‘Zat You, Santy Claus?” and “Christmas In New Orleans”. You’ll also get to hear Satchmo’s inimitable take on “White Christmas”, Duke’s band jamming on “Jingle Bells”, Lionel Hampton’s version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” with a bluesy vocal by Sonny Burke. And best of all, Dinah Washington singing “Silent Night”, a religious experience if ever I’ve heard one.
The Messiah – Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins. There are countless recorded versions of Handel’s masterpiece, but this live performance from Toronto’s Koerner Hall in 2012, with soloists Karina Gauvim, Robin Blaze, Rufus Mueller and Brett Polegato, is my favourite. This is how George Frideric intended the Christmas oratorio to sound. Hallelujah, indeed.
James Taylor at Christmas – A lovely recent addition to the genre, with great singing, classy musicians, smart arrangements and some refreshing song choices – “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, Joni Mitchell’s “River”, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”, “Some Children See Him”, “Who Comes This Night”, plus a killer reworking of “Jingle Bells” in half-time, fat-back funk. It’s all brought to a fitting close with a soulful reading of “Auld Lang Syne” which captures the song’s very essence.
The Bells of Dublin – The Chieftains. The greatest of Irish traditional bands with various vocal guests including Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, and the McGarrigle Sisters. It’s a classic – traditional, yet unconventional and best of all, it sounds like Christmas. Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus” is a highlight, showing a side of Christ that’s sometimes forgotten – that he didn’t just ask the money-lenders to leave the temple, he tossed them out right on their asses – he was not a wimp, he was a firebrand.
Finally, some favourite single-track ‘strays’ which may not be in any collections but are likely available on YouTube, or as downloads – “Christmas in New York” by The Pogues, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by the MJQ, and the reefer-extolling “Santa’s Secret” from Johnny Guarneri and Slam Stewart in 1944. Jo Stafford’s rendition of “The Christmas Blues”, the classic version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Ray Charles and Betty Carter, not to mention Brother Ray’s cosmic reading of “Winter Wonderland”. And the little-known “White Wine in the Sun” by Australian folksinger Tim Minchin, an oddly deadpan-yet-sentimental Christmas song that touches me – it’s wry and naïve, funny and heart-breaking all at once.
But perhaps nothing catches the Christmas spirit of joy better than this priceless 1946 version of “Jingle Bells” by Leo Watson and Vic Dickenson, with some wonderful drumming by Harold “Doc” West:
To all music lovers, Mazel Tov, here’s to life, and have a merry, swinging Christmas.
© 2016 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.