By Jeff Cebulski
The coming holiday season provides a chance to consider the vast offerings of relevant recorded music, recognizing an assortment of traditions celebrated at this time of the year. As a participating Christian and present buyer/receiver, I’d like to share my favorite Christmas jazz-oriented material.
During the quarter century or so in which I hosted a jazz radio program, the one show I always looked forward to was the Christmas holiday program. Planning for it, I imagined people listening during a late Christmas Eve while wrapping presents or just reflecting on Peace and Good Will toward All. Or perhaps during Christmas morning, after the unwrapping or in preparation for a gathering of family and friends. It had to be appropriately solemn yet entertaining.
Much of it, of course, reflected my own taste and experience. For me, it was necessary to include portions of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, maybe the most influential record in the development of my jazz consciousness, pre-dating my introduction to Brubeck and Dixieland.
Including John Coltrane’s “Greensleeves” was a given, and playing Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” on the show was a must, but not necessarily because “Song” was jazz—it wasn’t. But it was Cole.
As it turns out, Nat’s brother Freddy Cole has a decent Christmas album, I Want a Smile for Christmas (Fantasy, 1994). Freddy’s renditions of “The Christmas Song,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Silent Night” are different enough: his version of the famous “Song” morphs Shirley Horn’s fragmented delivery style; “Little Town” gets a contrapuntal bass accompaniment from Tom Hubbard; “Silent Night” receives a quietly effective support from the late pianist Larry Willis.
Otherwise, I had access to the various label-driven album collections.
Longtime jazz media types and deep-search fans will recognize RCA/Novus’ A Merry Jazzmas and Blue Note’s Yule Be Boppin’. A Merry Jazzmas served the purpose of heralding both the holiday and the now-defunct label’s ’90s young lions: Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Marcus Roberts, Christopher Hollyday, Steve Coleman, and Vanessa Rubin, as well as celebrating its veterans Carmen McRae, John Hicks, and Hilton Ruiz. Yule is more of an eclectic, broadly generational treat, mixing an array of singers (Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves, Bob Dorough, Rachelle Ferrell) with members of its vast assortment of instrumental artists like Joe Lovano, Jacky Terrasson, Pat Martino, Bobby Watson, and Charlie Hunter.
Verve released two collections around the turn of the century, Jazz for Joy: A Verve Christmas Album and Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz. The difference is generational. Jazz for Joy, like Jazzmas, features artists who were active and rising in the late ’90s—Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Ron Blake, Mark Whitfield, Stephen Scott, Christian McBride (also on Jazzmas)—as well as veteran singers Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, and Abbey Lincoln. The Very Best is a more historical overview that includes Satchmo, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, and Oscar Peterson.
Mack Avenue released two more historical gatherings of disparate recordings in 2002 and 2006, Jazz Yule Love and Jazz Yule Love II. The heralding tradition continued in 2014 when the label released It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue, on which its headliner McBride appears with the label’s own lions, such as Cécile McLorin Salvant, Aaron Diehl, Warren Wolf, Sachal Vasandani, and the Hot Club of Detroit.
I know there are other such collections, such as the six holiday collections released by Canada’s Justin Time Records. Internet searching will help.
For the rest of this commentary, I’d like to focus on individual albums you may or may not have heard and that I recommend.
Big-band fans will enjoy albums from Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. Bennett had one Christmas album prior to his joining with the more current representation of the Count Basie Orchestra on A Swingin’ Christmas (Columbia, 2008). And for the most part, that’s what this CD does—swing. It’s cool to hear Tony’s take on the Charlie Brown favorite, “Christmas Time Is Here,” as well as a duet with daughter Antonia on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Meanwhile…those horns! Several years before, Krall recorded most of Christmas Songs with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra. The album fluctuates between her own swing with the band and the more poignant material performed with piano—all of it well done with Krall’s smoky, sometimes melancholy delivery. The odd number is Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” a nod to situational irony and holiday movie music.
Special seasonal albums are right up Wynton Marsalis’ line. His two Christmas records,
Crescent City Christmas Card (Columbia, 1989) and Christmas Jazz Jam (Compass, 2013) are recommended, as he approaches all the music with characteristic gusto, marked by stylistic allusions to his native New Orleans in most arrangements. One note, though: the fidelity between the two releases will be different. CDs from the late ’80s, especially, might need volume/EQ boosting. But the performances are spirited and often fun, with the touch of the Crescent City throughout.
And if you like that, then check out A New Orleans Christmas with Allen Toussaint and Friends (NYNO Music, 1997). Toussaint plays piano on about half the cuts, with significant contributions from singers like James Andrews, Raymond Myles, Tricia Boutté, and Wallace Johnson. And when it includes appropriate strutting from the New Birth Brass Band, you get transported into the cradle of jazz culture, in the holiday spirit.
Three vocalist-featured albums get my annual attention.
First is Anita Baker’s Christmas Fantasy (Blue Note, 2005). Anita Baker could sing the phone book to me and I would be under her spell. On this album, we get some classics and a few originals, done in her inimitable style, as George Duke, Joe Sample, The Yellowjackets, and Larry Carlton make appearances. But there are more pronounced jazz-inflected moments than expected (we get “Frosty’s Rag,” a take on the classic “Snowman,” for example). The production is grand, as we do expect from this wonderful singer.
Next is a golden oldie, Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs (King, 1961). While not technically a jazz album, Brown’s blues style mixes well with holiday expression. Besides, no seasonal classics are sung, making this a cool album to put into a home-based playlist dominated by familiarity. There’s just enough entendre to go around (“Wrap Yourself in a Christmas Package”) as well as the emotional seasonal counterpoints (“Christmas With No One to Love” and “Christmas Blues”) that balance the world at large with all the festivity.
And . . . an album that probably is not on your jazz list, but maybe it should be. Over the Rhine, the Ohio-based couple Linford Detwiler and Karin Bergquist, has released three seasonal albums, one of which has songs that can be included in a Christmas jazz listing. Snow Angels is a great album, period. Bergquist’s evolving vocal style applies blues and jazz stylings within the duo’s often intimate selections. She sings “Snowed In With You” quite convincingly; she coyly addresses her “North Pole Man”; and “One Olive Jingle” is “Jingle Bells” down Funky Broadway. Not all the music on the album is within the jazz realm, but perhaps you will be taken in by the originality, hopefulness, and often melancholy sentiment juxtaposed with the fun.
Finally, two albums that have become personal favorites.
Eric Reed is a great pianist and sincere soul. His 2003 album for MaxJazz, Merry Magic, is must-play in our household. The grouping of piano, vibes (Steve Nelson), bass (Barak Mori), and drums (Rodney Green) is unique, and most selections are jazzed up with improvisatory moments. The opener, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” is a good example. The traditional theme is established via Nelson before the band settles into a blues groove with solos by Nelson and Reed. Then, a chamber moment led by Mori (who is stellar throughout) that hearkens back to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Erin Bode and Paula West add vocals on four songs, with Reed himself singing a slowed-down “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” This record is so consistently rendered that sometimes I listen to this album by itself or as a mix element with the Guaraldi music.
As for my final selection, this album is seemingly out of print, so if you are enticed by my tribute, search hard. In 1992, RCA Victor released Hark!, led by the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The clarinet naturally provides a sense of wistfulness to the season, but its lineage to people like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw makes it an element of joy and swing as well. This album is my favorite Christmas late night listening choice, as the neo-classical production is aesthetic grist—to me—for creating a peaceful atmosphere. Key players include the bassist Eddie Gomez, pianist Bill Douglas, vibraphonist and percussionist Dave Samuels, keyboardist Jeremy Wall (Spyro Gyra), and the Boys Choir of Harlem, who provide lovely and chilling effects to “Silent Night,” “Adeste Fideles,” “There Is No Rose,” and “Nativity Carol” (one boy seems to contribute to “O Holy Night”). Key jazz moments occur on “Ding Dong,” “We Three Kings,” and a calypso-inflected “Deck the Halls.” It’s cool to hear the jazz players contribute to Handel’s “He Shall Feed His Flock,” from Messiah. Like I said, if you want some background music to settle your soul on a late Christmas Eve night, try this one.
Other Christmastime jazz and jazz-infused albums exist, for sure. I hope I have given you some items to add to your collection and/or playlists.
Thanks for reading this year. Many blessings and Happy Holidays to all.
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org