CLASSIC HOLIDAY DISCS
JACKIE ALLEN/JUDY ROBERTS: “SANTA BABY” (RA 1904)
Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, vocalist Jackie Allen and pianist/vocalist Judy Roberts were the toasts of Chicago. Although they performed their own solo gigs, it was when they paired as a duet that they made their most memorable music. Allen’s soulful delivery was a perfect foil for Roberts’ witty musicality. “Santa Baby” was their first album together, and the chemistry is immediately evident on their duet performances. “Winter Wonderland” features both on vocals: Allen on the traditional lyrics and Roberts with her own “Desert Wonderland” words. They perform the sexiest version ever recorded of the title track. There’s no little-girl feigned innocence here; Allen and Roberts portray two crafty seductresses who know how to get exactly what they want for Christmas. (We were unable to include these tracks on our Spotify list, but here are links for the YouTube versions of “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Baby”). There are several solo numbers for both women, including Allen’s luminous medley of “Some Children See Him” and “A Child Is Born” and Roberts’ piano medley of “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. The current edition of the disc is a “collector’s edition” with six additional tracks, including two different songs titled “Snowbound”. This album is a delight from beginning to end. Get yourself a copy.—Thomas Cunniffe
“A DAVE BRUBECK CHRISTMAS” (Telarc 83410)
Dave Brubeck’s unique sense of jazz rhythms made him a maverick in the 1950s and 60s. While he is still a master of unusual time signatures and polytonality, his 1996 Yuletide album, “A Dave Brubeck Christmas” is a mix of busy-city-bustle and sitting-by-the-fireside. Picture yourself walking on a busy downtown street, Christmas shopping while passing by beautiful store windows and people wrapped in Christmas finery. An album of quiet classics like, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Joy to the World,” and a few off the beaten path, such as Brubeck’s original “Cantos Para Pedir las Posadas,” this album has an old-fashioned style that is timeless.—Marti Mendenhall
ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY: “THIS CHRISTMAS” (Telarc 83691)
I’ve praised the work of Ann Hampton Callaway in these pages before, so it should be no surprise that her album “This Christmas” is one of my favorites. Callaway exudes holiday warmth with her luscious renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “White Christmas” as well as her hip remakes of “Jingle Bells” and “Carol of the Bells”. The title song is a Callaway original, as are the delicious “Manhattan In December” and the stirring “God Bless My Family” (the last a duet with Callaway’s sister, Liz). Calloway is accompanied by a jazz quartet through most of the album. The band personnel rotates through the disc and it includes pianists Mike Lang and Alan Broadbent, bassists John Clayton and Dave Carpenter and drummers Jeff Hamilton and Ralph Penland. Judd Miller plays EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) on several tracks and his instrument evokes trumpet, flute, harmonica and (at one point) a klaxon. Clayton’s arrangement on “The Christmas Song” is a highlight, opening with Callaway’s voice in duet with Clayton’s bowed bass, and then moving into an attractive slow swing. This lovely album was originally issued on Angel, but Callaway owns the rights and it has been reissued on N-Coded and Telarc.—Thomas Cunniffe
DUKE ELLINGTON: “THE NUTCRACKER SUITE” (Columbia 46825)
Turning Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” into a swinging jazz classic is a tall order. However, in the capable hands of jazz masters Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, it seems like child’s play. Creating a genre all their own, this new musical territory was recorded on Columbia in 1960 and is now available as part of the CD, “Three Suites” (Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites and the Steinbeck-inspired Suite Thursday are also on the disc). Besides combining the complex harmonic structures of classical music with the rhythmic language of jazz, they also added delightful new tongue-in-cheek titles of the original version, for example, “Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed-Pipes),” “Peanut Brittle Brigade (March),” and “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance).” The opening bass line of the “Overture” hooks you immediately, as it swings with dynamic horns in their own colorful spin on this traditional number. Ellington wisely never strays from the original melodies but enriches them with clever arrangements and virtuosic instrumental solos. The combination of musical styles is evident in each song from the glitzy big band extravaganza of “Dance of the Floreadores (Dance of the Flowers)” to the intimate syncopated “Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance)” and the sultry “Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)”. All of the songs are superbly executed by the iconic Ellington big band. This is one of my favorite holiday recordings, so if you are looking for some tasty ear candy make sure you stuff this recording in your holiday stocking.—Ellen Johnson
ELLA FITZGERALD: “ELLA WISHES YOU A SWINGING CHRISTMAS” (Verve 827 150)
When Ella wishes you a swinging Christmas, believe me, that’s what you’ll get. This joyful recording will definitely put you in the holiday spirit. From the minute you hear the first track, “Jingle Bells,” you’ll feel like pulling out the ornaments and decorating the tree. Recorded in the summer of 1960 with a studio orchestra arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol, it is Verve’s only complete album of Fitzgerald’s Christmas tunes. One of the distinctions of this recording is its purely secular content of American popular Christmas songs by the great American popular songwriters. Favorites like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” highlight the signature Fitzgerald phrasing and improvised lines. However, when it’s time to deliver a sentimental ballad (“What Are You Doing New Years Eve” and “White Christmas”) her impeccable and eloquent articulation is unmatched. Fitzgerald turns “Good Morning Blues” into a Christmas lament as she sings, Don’t send me nothing for Christmas, but Santa, send my baby back to me. There are corny moments on this recording but they are so charming and reflective of the holidays that you can’t help but enjoy them and sing along. So get rid of that frown because Ella’s Swinging Christmas is coming to town!—Ellen Johnson
VINCE GUARALDI: “A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS” (Fantasy 30066)
This recording is a timeless classic! Vince Guaraldi grew up in the West-Coast San Francisco jazz scene. He was hired to score the first “Peanuts” television special for Charles Schultz in 1964. The initial program was never picked up, but Guaraldi recycled much of the score for the holiday classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Tracks off of this recording are played regularly during the Holiday season, and the reasons for its popularity are evident. A sense of movement threads each piece together, flowing and propelling you forward to each track. You will find yourself humming along and infused with the child-like wonder of Christmas. The expanded edition includes four alternate takes and credits long misidentified sidemen. This is definitely a CD to include in your special Christmas collection!—Marti Mendenhall
STAN KENTON: “A MERRY CHRISTMAS!” (Capitol 84646)
If you like your Christmas music big and brassy, you’ll love Stan Kenton’s “A Merry Christmas”. With four trumpets, two each of tenor and bass trombones, four mellophoniums, tuba and rhythm section, the overtones are rich and the chords thick and juicy. Kenton only arranged the Christmas medley and a funereal “O Come All Ye Faithful”, leaving the rest to Ralph Carmichael, an ordained minister and leader of several sacred albums (Carmichael also provided the lush orchestrations for Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” LP). Most of the arrangements are fairly short, but they swing and contain bits of improvisation here and there. The only deterrent is the omnipresent sleigh bells, which turn up throughout, even on hymns like “Once in Royal David’s City” and “Angels We Have Heard on High”! The CD edition is filled out with two bonus cuts: a spoken monologue from Kenton, “What Is Santa Claus” and a swinging seven-minute medley from one of Kenton’s most productive alumni, Maynard Ferguson. Even if you’re not a huge Kenton fan, this is a very enjoyable holiday offering.—Thomas Cunniffe
MANHATTAN TRANSFER: “THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM” (Columbia 52968)
For Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne, every nuance is perfection. Manhattan Transfer has the vocal intimacy that can only come from years of singing and performing together. The current group has been together since 1978, and has more than proved their quality with longevity. For “The Christmas Album,” every song is a lush pleasure on the ears, and fills the heart to brimming with a cup of rich, hot chocolate cheer for the Holiday season. Johnny Mandel’s arrangements add just the right amount of holiday warmth, and the tracklist includes a beautiful original “Christmas Love Song”, a swinging “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (with a vocalese to a Paul Desmond solo from the “Jingle Bell Jazz” album discussed below), and a collaboration with Tony Bennett on “Snowfall”. This CD is perfect for spending a romantic day trimming the tree, or in the car on the way to Grandma’s house. You’ll find your fingers tapping the steering wheel in no-time, or reaching across the seat to hold hands. Any way you slice it, this recording is swingin’ fun and Christmas romance all in one.—Marti Mendenhall
JOHN PIZZARELLI: “LET’S SHARE CHRISTMAS” (RCA 66986)
John Pizzarelli’s love of classic jazz came through the musical passions of his father, Bucky Pizzarelli. “Let’s Share Christmas” features arrangements by Clare Fischer, Michel Legrand, Ralph Burns and Johnny Mandel and the swinging sounds of the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. The album is highlighted by John’s vocal and instrumental styling of tunes such as “White Christmas”, “Sleigh Ride”, and “Snowfall”, but also includes a delightful original “Santa Claus Is Near”. His smooth tenor takes you down memory lane with a swingin’ Christmas style that is perfect for trimming the tree or taking a romantic ride for two in the nearest sleigh. This recording is a keeper, and a great way to keep the romance of Christmas alive and well this time of year.—Marti Mendenhall
THE REAL GROUP: “EN RIKTIG JUL” (Gazelle 1018)
The Real Group is a Swedish a cappella quintet that has “been in development” for 27 years. Initially inspired by Bobby McFerrin, they have become international favorites with their challenging settings of “Chile con Carne” and “A Cappella in Acapulco.” Their Christmas album, “En Riktig Jul,” was released in 1997. Listeners may shy away from this recording in Swedish, but the crystal clear vocal harmony, fused with Christmas songs popular in any language, make this an album that is highly intriguing. You will readily recognize versions of “Silent Night”, “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “Santa Lucia”. The perfect blend and thick harmonies of these arrangements are a pleasure to hear! This foray through a culture rich in musical history, including many traditional Swedish carols, may well become your new shelf favorites.—Marti Mendenhall
DIANNE REEVES: “CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE” (Blue Note 73344)
Dianne Reeves is known for her inventive arrangements and soulful delivery, and on “Christmas Time Is Here” she does not disappoint. From the Brazilian/New Orleans groove on “Little Drummer Boy” to her swinging up-tempo version of “Carol of the Bells,” you know it’s going to be a unique holiday adventure. Reeves’ gorgeous vocal tones, impeccable phrasing and impressive delivery light up each track. Her version of “Christmas Waltz” is a joyful syncopated celebration of the season. Aside from the traditional Christmas songs, Reeves adds a few that expand the repertoire. An obvious choice is the Thad Jones composition “A Child Is Born” and Reeves handles it with her signature style of tonal elegance, intensity and creative improvisation. The lesser-known “This Time of Year” receives a bossa nova treatment while the haunting Celtic folk carol (with lyrics by Shawn Colvin), “Christ Child’s Lullaby,” is framed with the lush sounds of the Sirius String Quartet. The superb backing group includes pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Gregory Hutchinson, guitarist Romero Lubambo, saxophonist Steve Wilson, and vibraphonist Joe Locke. It was obvious that Reeves approached this with a musical thoughtfulness that she brings to all of her recordings so it’s enjoyable to listen to any time of year.—Ellen Johnson
The Singers Unlimited’s "Christmas" is one of the classic albums of the genre. The group consisted of only four singers, but through extensive overdubbing they created a choir of up to 27 voices. “Christmas” was actually their first album, and it was created as an audio Christmas card for the adverting agencies for which Gene Puerling and fellow singers Bonnie Herman, Don Shelton and Len Dresslar had recorded commercial jingles. The songs on this recording include several selections from the Alfred Burt carols, along with seasonal favorites “Deck the Halls,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful”. Puerling’s harmonically rich settings enliven four of the tracks, while the rest offer subtle adaptations of classic four-part arrangements. Herman’s lovely solo voice is featured on “Carol of the Russian Children” and “Ah, Bleak and Chill, the Wintry Wind.” Dressler sings a beautiful opening bass solo on “What Are the Signs”, and on “Good King Wenceslas” a variety of solos capture the personality of a Renaissance-era Christmas celebration. A particular favorite is “Coventry Carol” that languishes in beautiful harmonic voicing, movement and expression. It’s easy to see why Puerling's Singers Unlimited arrangements earned him the reputation as one of the best vocal writers in the world. This should be required listening during the holiday season as it will warm your heart and lift your spirit.—Ellen Johnson
SWINGLE SINGERS: “NOËLS SANS PASSEPORT” (Philips 548 303)
The Swingle Singers were one of the most popular vocal groups of the 1960s, and one of the reasons for their global success was their substitution of scat syllables for lyrics. Their bubbly, swinging interpretations of Bach led to a series of albums where they applied the same rhythmic approach to music of the Classical and Romantic periods. In 1967, the group took a slight detour to create a delightful Christmas album “Noëls Sans Passeport” (“Christmas without a Passport”). As the title implies, the album includes holiday music from all over the world. Most of the songs are familiar and each is performed in compact arrangements of one or two choruses. With the exception of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night”, all of the tunes are connected in two- or three-song medleys. Ward Swingle wrote all of the arrangements, and because he was working with songs instead of fully-composed classical works, he had great flexibility in creating his settings, adding Bach-like counterpoint to “Jingle Bells”, lush harmonies to “White Christmas”, a groovy bass countermelody to the Danish “Dag Visen” and big-band styled shout choruses to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. The Swingles, with their incomparable lead soprano, Christiane Legrand, sing these pieces with accuracy and rhythmic precision, without losing the warmth. Like most albums by the original Swingles, this one is short—clocking in just over 30 minutes—but it is likely to become a regular part of your Christmas playlist.—Thomas Cunniffe
"NEW" CHRISTMAS SONGS—Ellen Johnson
SHIRLEY HORN: “The Secret of Christmas” (Verve 9809580)
There’s nobody like Shirley Horn to get you to listen to a lesser-known Christmas tune. In her rendition of the touching Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song, "The Secret of Christmas", Horn uses her magic of space and flawless phrasing to highlight the poignancy of the lyrics. She holds us breathlessly with the last line, May I suggest that the secret of Christmas is not the things you do at Christmas time but the Christmas things you do all year through. Horn’s classy style and harmonic brilliance makes you want to hear this song all the year through.
HARRY CONNICK, JR: “It Must’ve Been Ol' Santa Claus” (Columbia 57550)
It’s always great to have entertaining Christmas songs with a witty touch and Harry Connick delivers with "It Must've Been Ol' Santa Claus". Orchestrated with a New Orleans shuffle, this song is pure fun! Connick wrote the song and lyrics and they humorously tell the story of a jaded young boy who finds himself believing in Santa after going on an unexpected ride in his sleigh on Christmas night. And I put on Santa's hat, Then he let me hold the reins a while, We pulled up to my window, And I jumped back in my room, And I waved goodbye to Santa with a smile.
JANE MONHEIT: “Man With The Bag” (Epic 94897)
Jane Monheit sings seductively on the clever Christmas tune "Man With The Bag" written by Harold Stanley, Irving Taylor, and Dudley Brooks. This holiday song sizzles and swings with ease and definitely belongs in the classic American Christmas songbook. With lyrics like, He's got a sleigh full, and it's not gonna stay full, Got stuff that he's dropping every stop of the way, Everybody's waiting for the man with the bag, Cause Christmas is here again, you can’t help but smile and sing along. Perhaps performed a bit slower it might bring out more of the cute lyrics and bluesy feel, but overall this is a good rendition.
BILL EVANS: “It’s Love, It’s Christmas” (E3 Records 8)
If you are looking for an obscure Christmas song from one of the icons of jazz try “It’s Love, It’s Christmas.” Bill Evans wrote both the music and lyrics to this holiday treasure in 1949. The recording on “Very Early Volume 1” is sung in a straight-ahead manner by Art Hammond with Evans accompanying on piano. It’s surprising that no one has discovered this gem and included it in a yuletide collection. I stumbled on the sheet music from the Bill Evans The Last Compositions book and have sung it for the last seven holiday seasons. Although it is early Evans it still has many of his trademark compositional styles like his chromatic harmony, contrary motion and shifting key centers. The secular lyrics are simply magical: Dancing to the music low, the world covered white with snow, A kiss that won’t let go, it’s love, it’s Christmas. Jack Frost painting window panes, a sleigh, Santa at the reins; A fire, candy canes, it’s love, it’s Christmas. Lovers watching a star, their dreams so near yet so far; It’s love, the spirit of Christmas. When more people discover this treasure, it’s bound to become a holiday favorite.
COMPILATIONS AND ISOLATED TRACKS—Thomas Cunniffe
Virtually every label has issued a holiday jazz sampler or two, but few have been as artistically successful as Columbia’s 1962 “Jingle Bell Jazz”. The original LP fetches high prices on ebay and GEMM, but the 1980 LP reissue is fairly easy to find and usually affordable (Avoid the CD, which does not include some of the best cuts from the original album). The LP includes a mightily swinging “Jingle Bells” by Duke Ellington, a sassy “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” by Dave Brubeck (with a classic solo by Paul Desmond), a mystical “We Three Kings” by Paul Horn (the link is for a TV broadcast version of the same arrangement), a deeply cynical “Blue Xmas” by Miles Davis and Bob Dorough, and the bopping “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Nearly as good is the first “Concord Jazz Christmas” CD with Karrin Allyson’s atmospheric mixed meter rendition of “Coventry Carol”, Marian McPartland’s sparkling “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Ken Peplowski and Howard Alden’s delightful version of “Winter Wonderland” and Susannah McCorkle’s touching “The Spirit of Christmas”. “Yule Struttin’: A Blue Note Christmas” is a mixed bag, highlighted by Dianne Reeves’ version of the previously unheard Thelonious Monk song, “A Merrier Christmas” and Count Basie’s rollicking “Jingle Bells”. The Hot Club of Detroit’s hilarious version of “The Chipmunk Song” can be heard on Mack Avenue’s “Jazz Yule Love II” and Nat King Cole’s very first version of “The Christmas Song” (without strings) is included on Rhino’s “Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits, 1935-1954”. Louis Armstrong’s delightful reading of “The Night Before Christmas” (which turned out to be his final recording) is part of LaserLight’s Armstrong holiday compilation, “Christmas Through The Years”.
Several memorable holiday recordings have been included on non-holiday albums. Charlie Parker’s unique arrangement of “White Christmas” was preserved from a Christmas 1948 broadcast and is part of “The Complete Live Performances on Savoy”. Dexter Gordon recorded “The Christmas Song” on his 1970 album, “The Panther” and 17 years later, he played on Tony Bennett’s version of “White Christmas” from the album “Bennett/Berlin”. The Modern Jazz Quartet recorded several versions of John Lewis’ “England’s Carol” (based on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), but my favorite is the 1974 “Last Concert” recording. Roseanna Vitro recorded Steve Allen’s “Cool Yule” twice, once on Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” and on her Allen tribute, “The Time of My Life”. The latter version can be heard on Vitro’s ReverbNation page. Mel Tormé recorded several versions of his classic “The Christmas Song”, but he never did it better than in a Japanese concert with the Marty Paich Dek-tette.
There are plenty of honorable mentions to our holiday disc list, including albums by Diana Krall, Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Mel Tormé and others, but we hope to include those albums and other favorites in future editions of this feature. Meanwhile, we at Jazz History Online wish you a peaceful and joyous holiday season.