By December every year new music releases have dwindled and the airwaves have filled instead with predictable classics. Popular Christmas music is a cultural institution unto itself: it has kept 50’s era crooners relevant and propelled Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to the top of the list of best selling singles. Depending on how you feel about Christmas music as a genre, the long holiday season (having grown to encompass much of November and extend past Christmas into January) is either filled with merriment or a real slog. Still, in the interest of maintaining a sufficiently festive environment, today’s post will run down some classic jazz Christmas albums, of which there are many, too many for a single post. Going through them will have to be an ongoing process.
Although there have been many Christmas jazz albums, not many of them are remembered as major artistic successes and many of the older ones are a little obscure nowadays. Among the lost albums is Jingle Bell Jazz, a Columbia compilation of songs by their biggest jazz stars that, while undoubtedly not the peak of anyone’s career, has historical significance for including the first meeting of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. Still, with the advent of the information age, many of the largely forgotten records can be found in digital stores or on streaming services, allowing me to evaluate two albums from 1964 titled Holiday Soul: one by pianist Bobby Timmons and one by organist Don Patterson. In some ways the canon of Christmas songs, with its repertoire of standards given new interpretations by generation after generation of performer, bears more than a passing resemblance to the jazz tradition. So maybe it’s not so surprising that there have been quite a few Christmas themed jazz albums through the years; recontextualizing popular songs has a long tradition in jazz. With that in mind, I dove into some of the classics and not quite classics.
Focus here will be on instrumental albums, partly because there are too many jazz vocals albums to keep track of and partly because it seems to me that if you’re in the mood for vocals, you might as well stop deliberating and just put on Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. Ella Fitzgerald’s takes on Christmas classics has the rare distinction of being a pretty good album. Not even the First Lady of Song can save “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”, an irredeemable composition if ever there was one, but renditions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “the Christmas Song” and “White Christmas” are pretty hip. I adore Ella’s small group work but sometimes feel that her studio albums suffer under the weight of overly wrought orchestral arrangements. On Ella Wishes…, however, the big band arrangements are tasteful and understated, a great compliment for Ella.
Then too it’s worth addressing up front what is probably the peak jazz Christmas album, Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, which in addition to an inoffensively jazzy rendition of “O Tannenbaum”, gave us one of the most endearing pieces of pop-jazz ever recorded: “Linus and Lucy”. “Linus and Lucy” is something of an oddity here. It’s an instrumental jazz track on a Christmas album, but one that isn’t really a Christmas song exactly (though undoubtedly lent an air of holiday spirit for its place in the Charlie Brown Christmas special) and which manages, almost inexplicably for a jazz song, to be a pop-cultural touchpoint that’s almost universally recognizable. Pianist Ethan Iverson actually recently wrote about “Linus and Lucy” in an article for the New Yorker which described the song as “the ultimate gateway drug” to jazz, which is certainly true. Vince Guaraldi probably won’t go down in history as the greatest technician on the piano – Ethan perhaps a little unfairly describes Guaraldi’s solo improvisations on “Linus and Lucy” as “blocky and just barely acceptable” – but “Linus and Lucy” is an undeniably catchy melody with a clever rhythmic device at its core (the syncopated arpeggios in left hand and block melody in the right).
Duke Ellington’s arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite is, by contrast criminally underrated. It is surprisingly hard to find in digital formats and seems largely forgotten. The Penguin Guide to Jazz is encyclopedic, with something on the order ten thousand albums catalogued, but it can find no place for Ellington and Strayhorn’s fresh take on Tchaikovsky’s overplayed ballet suite. Which is all a shame. The Ellington renditions of the overture and the slinky Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy are immensely satisfying.
The orchestral arrangements aren’t nearly as interesting on guitarist Kenny Burrell’s1966 Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas; the square, sluggish brass fanfares of the “Little Drummer Boy” are really sort of lame opening an album with ‘soulful’ in the title. Still, Burrell really goes wild over the track as he does on the gospel rocker “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “My Favorite Things” (incidentally, a song whose place as a Christmas standard I’ve never been able to understand). Elsewhere, particularly on the downtempo tracks, the strings cut in saccharine glory. This is probably not Burrell’s greatest date. More understandably, the Penguin Guide omits this one too.
Returning to the two Holiday Souls, I think the Patterson album is more satisfying. Bobby Timmons, a pianist best known for his association with Art Blakey (he penned the title track to the classic album Moanin’) leads a trio with Butch Warren and Walter Perkins that looks pretty good on paper, though the results are a little sedate for Timmons, a musician otherwise known for having a great deal of energy. I appreciate the mid-tempo groove on “We Three Kings”, a song which tends to appear on other Christmas albums as something akin to a dirge, but much of the album is, frankly, a little boring. The worst track is another rendition of the serial offender “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”. By contrast, the Don Patterson album, an organ trio with a young Pat Martino on guitar, is surprisingly groovy. So far this might be the album with the most serious attitude towards improvisation. Following fairly brief statements of the familiar melodies, most of the album is given over to exploration by Patterson and Martino. The album ends with an eight plus minute song that is nominally a take on “Jingle Bells”, but is really just classic organ trio work. Some tracks, like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, don’t really read as holiday songs at all. Patterson also includes a take on the dreaded “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, though if you skipped the first 45 seconds, you wouldn’t know that was what you were listening to, which in this case is the best possible outcome.
1964 seems to have been a pretty big year for jazz Christmas albums. In addition to the two Holiday Souls, organist Jimmy Smith came out with Christmas ’64 which was also reissued as Christmas Cookin’. Smith leads a burning quartet with Kenny Burrell on guitar, Art Davis on bass and either Billy Hart or Grady Tate on drums. There’s tasteful brass section backing on most of the tracks as well (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” gets two renditions, one with the brass and one without). Like Patterson’s Holiday Soul, Christmas ’64 really is as much an excuse for organ fireworks as a Christmas album. If anything, Jimmy Smith occasionally goes a little too far; even the slower songs, like the otherwise stately take on “The Christmas Song”, will find themselves with up-tempo sections of bop organ reverie. Even “Silent Night” is a surprisingly driving song in Smith’s hands. Christmas music is, as it turns out, not a bad venue for virtuoso Hammond displays.
Wynton Marsalis’ 1989 Crescent City Christmas Card is a bit of a mixed bag, but bears mention if only for its album cover, which features Wynton in half a Santa getup seated on a present laden sleigh with the album’s title in horrible, Word-Art like styling in the upper left hand corner. Much of the music is sedate, and not always in a good way; “Little Drummer Boy” sounds as if the band had been drugged prior to recording, and operatic soprano Kathleen Battle doesn’t seem to fit in when she appears on “Silent Night”. Still, the inventive New Orleans procession of a “Carol of the Bells” that opens the album is plenty enjoyable. Stay also for the recently passed Jon Hendricks on “Sleigh Ride” and for Wynton reading “The Night Before Christmas”, though I wouldn’t linger much longer after that.
Dave Brubeck occasionally gets a bad rap among jazz cognoscenti, probably owing to his considerable crossover success. I remain, however, something of a Brubeck advocate – there’s no reason to pretend that the Brubeck quartet Carnegie Hall sets from 1963 aren’t frequently exhilarating. His 1996 solo piano album A Dave Brubeck Christmas gives me pause, though. These renditions are trite in the extreme. Quintessential mall music. Inexplicably, the Penguin Guide to Jazz actually includes this one and rates it three stars out of four, finally convincing me that the Penguin Guide isn’t actually very useful.
A much more inventive take on the classics is Bela Fleck’s Jingle All the Way which takes an almost sinister glee in deconstructing the Christmas repertoire and rebuilding it in typical Flecktone’s fashion. Tuvan throat singers sing the hook on ‘Jingle Bells”, “The Christmas Song” is a virtuosic bass solo by Victor Wooten and several holiday classics are played at the same time on one track. The highlight is their version of the “12 Days of Christmas” which cycles through 12 different keys and 12 different time signatures for each day. Using a time signature of “one” for the first day is a bit of a cop out, but hearing them rush down the top few days is legitimately exciting. Plus, Jingle All the Way has a Chanukah song on it, which is unfortunately rare among these holiday albums.
Pianist Carla Bley’s Carla’s Christmas Carols from 2009 features some of the most earnest renditions of traditional holiday songs. Bley’s arrangements for bass (an able Steve Swallow) and brass quintet tend towards the solemn and sonorous, though the music does pick up occasionally as on the latter half of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” or on “Hell’s Bells”, a swinging original of Bley’s (strange track title on an album of Christmas carols… perhaps Carla felt halfway through the album that there was just a little too much peace on earth and goodwill towards men?). With the tight brass arrangements and the chimes and glockenspiel ornaments, Carla’s Christmas Carols sounds at times like it actually could serve as the accompaniment for a Christmas church service. Along with Geri Allen’s album, probably the best realized artistic statement among these albums.
Geri Allen’s 2011 album A Child is Born, comprised of mostly solo piano renditions, with occasional vocalists and electric keys, is the other great stylistic work here. It too is a serious album in its way, with its spoken word and hymns, but it brims with energy. Geri’s incredible “Little Drummer Boy” could have been slipped onto her solo Motown inspired album Grand City Crossings (incidentally the next album she released) without anyone noticing. This is my favorite holiday jazz album and it’s been getting a lot of plays in my house in Allen’s honor.
Perhaps the most surprising jazz Christmas album is John Zorn’s 2011 A Dreamers Christmas. John Zorn, lunatic genius of the downtown avant-garde, best known for the Masada band’s blend of Ornette Coleman inspired free jazz with Klezmer music, was probably not the first candidate to spring to mind to release an album of largely straight ahead takes on Christmas songs, but here we are. The fact that his Dreamers band is essentially just the Electric Masada band with the volume turned down lends something of ironic sheen to the project. Yet, the results are not bad, easy and melodic and filled with wry humor but not overly comical. The songs are played pretty straight and without much Zorn weirdness outside of the guitar and percussion intro to “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”– and that’s pretty tame anyways. Vocalist Mike Patton guests on “The Christmas Song” and presents a convincing alternative to those tired crooners. Zorn even took a break plumbing Hebrew melodies for the Masada songbooks to write two new compositions for the album! Granted, those two songs are pretty good stylistic fits for the rest of the Dreamers’ songbook. Still, the album maintains its mood pretty well. It helps that with their airy sounds of surf rock and exotica, the Dreamers band already sounded vaguely like Christmas music.