December is here, so it’s time to celebrate the holidays – with music, of course. For most of the world the sounds of the season are primarily spiritual in nature, but America being America, we’ve added a number of secular tunes to the mix. Some are festive. Some are romantic. Some are bittersweet. I love Christmas music, both the carols and the secular, so I thought I’d pass along a few of my favorite albums from my library, plus a couple of new discoveries. Finally, I’ll toss in a few singles that always catch my ear.
Tunesmiths always offer up a few new songs every year. Most of them disappear after one season. So, in the secular Christmas canon, there really are only a couple dozen that have staying power. For me there are two ways to avoid being bored by hearing the same few songs over and over. One is to listen to jazz interpretations. Jazz is all about improvisation, so no two artists record a song the same way. Also jazz musicians bring a high level of artistry, so a careful listener will probably hear something new in a performance every time. When they’re really good, I can enjoy listening to them regardless of the time of year, except I know my friends would think I’d lost it if I put on a jazz Christmas album in July.
The other way to achieve variety in Christmas listening is to hear the songs adapted in different genres, so I’ve included a little soul, a little traditional pop, a bit of bluegrass and even some genuine cowjazz. Anyway you like it, you can hum along while you trim your tree.
Diana Krall – Christmas Songs
Diana Krall’s voice and piano are in top form surrounded by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on this album, which is like a greatest hits of the Great American Christmas Songbook. Most of the most enduring secular songs are here, performed with verve and marvelous pacing. Originally released in 2005.
Wynton Marsalis – Christmas Jazz Jam
This is truly a jazz album with some very interesting arrangements plenty of improvisational features by all ten members of Marsalis’s band, which includes many players from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The set from 2014 mixes secular and religious favorites and is all instrumental for the most part. The operative word is jam, the implication being that even numbers which begin in slow tempos are likely to end up swinging, and all the players will have chances to strut their stuff. This is fun, accessible jazz and with all the improvisation, you’ll never feel like you’re hearing the “same old, same old.” Louis Armstrong would have loved this album.
Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas
Although Aaron Neville is truly soulful, this is not a soul album per se. Released in 1993, it’s a more mellow, almost pop treatment of a blend of secular and spiritual classics. Even the uptempo numbers like “ Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” are somewhat understated. Build a fire, sit back and let the feeling and beauty of this voice envelop you.
Michale Buble – Christmas
Mr. Buble ably updated the classic Bing Crosby style pop vocal approach with the full swing orchestra with strings on this 2011 outing. He’s got the rich romantic tone and the ability to swing that conjures memories of Christmas past. Some might deride it as derivative, but why quibble. After all, it’s a tradition filled holiday and nobody else does this style now as well as he does. His “Jingle Bells” is special fun with accompaniment by the Puppini Sisters harmonies. It’s a bit like Dorsey-era Sinatra with the Pied Pipers, except snappier. Hey relax, grab another egg nog, and just go with it. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Shelby Lynne – Merry Christmas
If you want a bit of country flavor in your Christmas music, give Shelby Lynne’s 2010 album a spin. Of course, she’s not a typical country singer, so for that you’ll need Strait of Reba. I would have to say that this album is the one in my holiday collection that has the mash up of country, rock’n’ roll, folk, and blues (and with Shelby, a dark corner or two) that adds up to Cowjazz. Maybe she should have called it Merry Cowjazz Christmas. It has some twangy guitars – acoustic and electric, sad clarinets, cool toe tapping brush work on the drums, infectious background singers, and, well it all adds up to a nifty change of pace.
The Isaacs – Christmas
If you need a little bluegrass flavor in your Christmas bowl, sprinkle The Isaacs into your mix. I first heard them – two sisters, their brother and mother – a few years ago at the Grand Ole Opry, at the Ryman Auditorium no less, and I was blown away by the lustrous beauty and intricacy of their harmonies. They normally work in the narrow niche of bluegrass gospel, so of course you expect their treatment of spiritual carols to glimmer with reverence as they do on another release from 2010. I got chills listening to their a cappella “Away In A Manger.” Surprisingly they also handle secular numbers like “Silver Bells” with aplomb. Mandolins and banjo, fiddles and guitar and those gorgeous harmonies make quite a Christmas present for your ears and heart.
Now for my new finds this season.
The Count Basie Orchestra – A Very Swinging Basie Christmas
Of course Count Basie has been dead since 1984, but this legacy band is now under the direction of Scotty Barnhart, who also happens to be a terrific trumpet player. This is a brand new release with an album cover that harkens back to the old days. It also features a very nice array of guest vocalists: Johnny Mathis (still sounding great,) Ledisi and Carmen Bradford. Ellis Marsalis more than capably subs for the Count on piano, and gives a nod to Basie’s deceptively simple style, while the formidable session man Plas Johnson guests on tenor sax. Most of the songs are once more from the secular standards catalog, but Barnhart and the band breathe fresh life into them. I’m a big Basie fan, and his exuberant swinging approach to jazz endures.
The Four Tops – Christmas Here With You
I’m closing out my albums list with one that’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. It was released in 1995, but somehow slipped by me until yesterday! With apologies to Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and David Ruffin, the greatest vocalist in Motown’s hey day was Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops. And even this late in his career, he’s still in superb form here.
For once, Motown mixes his mates more prominently, and their terrific harmonies and occasional leads add to the fun found here. The Four Tops are joined by Aretha Franklin on two numbers, “White Christmas” and an unusually joyous arrangement of “Silent Night.” A few new tunes are mixed among the standards. While they may not be especially memorable, their interesting arrangements and terrific vocals make them a pleasure to hear.
Having said all of that there’s no denying Levi makes the album special. His voice soars in one moment and caresses the lyric in another. It pleads, it rejoices, it soothes – sometimes all in the same song. For example, contrast his down ‘n dirty blues with the big boss band treatment of “Merry Christmas Baby” to his sophisticated styling on “The Christmas Song.” This album is a marvelous gift, even if I had to wait twenty years to find it.
(Truth in advertising note: Delete the final track, an overly hammy reading of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” I don’t know what the producer could’ve been thinking.)
Sometimes, we just need a single song stir a special feeling. Here are four that do it for me every time. I’ll start with Frank Sinatra in honor of his 100th birthday this month. He was known by several names such as Ole Blue Eyes, The Chairman of The Board, and perhaps most appropriately as you’ll hear, The Voice.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” A lovely melody, warm and happy memories, and a melancholy ending – nobody sings songs like that better than Frank.
And to kick it up a notch…
“Merry Christmas Baby” by Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton. Heat on heat.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Vince Vance and The Valiants with lead vocal by Lisa Layne. Reportedly the #1 Christmas song on radio for over twenty-five years.
“Silent Night” by The Temptations in an arrangement with new lyrics in a counter melody alongside the classic.
I hope you’ll be home for the holidays. For me, home at this time of year is not a place, it’s a state of heart. These two guys take me right there.
Merry Christmas everybody. And Happy New Year!