It never ceases to amaze me how many different recordings of the songs in the repertoire of popular holiday music exist, and the broad spectrum of styles in which they have been recorded. But I suppose their overall musical utility is one reason why so many of them have endured through the years and not yet died of overexposure. That's what makes a good song a good song! So naturally, there is no genre better suited for taking an old chestnut (whether or not it's roasting on an open fire) and creating a new, innovative, and personalized rendition than jazz.
For this Top Ten list, I have included three compilations for the sake of sheer efficiency. They greatly expand the number of significant jazz artists you'll get to hear exploring the holiday songbook - and if you're fairly new to jazz, it's a nice introduction to the artists themselves. I omitted some of my favorite holiday CDs simply because they're not jazz. In case you're curious, those include Mannheim Steamroller (the new one, Christmas Extraordinaire , is great), Chicago, and the Bob Rivers "Twisted Christmas" series (the newest one, Chipmonks Roasting on a Open Fire , is hilarious).
So without further preface, here are my choices, in no particular order. Happy listening and Happy Holidays!
Various Artists - Blue Note: Jazz to the World (1995)
In 1995, Blue Note Records released an all-star disc called Jazz to the World as a benefit for the Special Olympics. The roster of big-name talent present (who normally record for many different labels) promises lots of musical firepower, and the results do not disappoint! The artists present fall primarily into two camps: today's top vocalists, and the fusion pioneers of the '70s who are still very much at the top of the jazz game today. Can you imagine the Brecker Brothers playing Christmas music? Here, they join with guitarist extraordinaire Steve Khan to perform "The Christmas Waltz," a song written, coincidentally, by Khan's father, Sammy Cahn. Stanley Clarke and George Duke reunite for "O Tannenbaum," along with Everette Harp. Herbie Hancock and Eliane Elias contribute a piano duet of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Dianne Reeves and Lou Rawls join forces for "Baby It's Cold Outside." Other luminaries, many of whom one would not normally expect to perform holiday music, include Chick Corea, Fourplay, Steps Ahead, John McLaughlin, Herb Alpert and Jeff Lorber, Michael Franks, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Holly Cole, and many more. A veritable holiday music feast!
Various Artists - GRP: A GRP Christmas Collection (GRP) (1988)
This is the first of three such GRP Christmas Collections, and still the best (although Volume 2 is worth getting just for Patti Austin's definitive and beautiful performance of "Christmastime is Here"). There are plenty of delights here: Diane Schuur's rich interpretation of "The Christmas Song," Lee Ritenour's solo acoustic guitar treatment of "White Christmas," Eddie Daniels doing "Sleigh Ride" in 7/4, Dave Valentin's perky Latin arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and fretless bassist Mark Egan's ethereal take on "What Child is This?" The Chick Corea Elektric Band unleashed its full shredding chops on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen". The sleeper here is Yutaka's rendition of "This Christmas" - his sincere vocal coupled with fills on the Japanese koto and a contemporary jazz arrangement (he performs all instruments) combine very effectively for my favorite version of this song.
Various Artists - Warner Bros.: Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party (Warner Bros.) (1997)
The Warner Brothers roster of both straight-ahead and contemporary artists invites you the Warner Brothers Jazz Christmas Party. By all means, accept this invitation! Joshua Redman opens the program by proving that even mundane holiday fare such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" can be the basis for some good jazz blowing. Next, Al Jarreau turns in one of his most soulful and expressive performances in "Celebrate Me Home." Michael Franks' "I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree" is truly a gem; Franks is at the top of his game with his wry and clever lyrics, quirky melody, and understated delivery. Gabriela Anders' "Our First Christmas" is a similarly clever composition and winning performance. Organist Larry Goldings and pianist Brad Mehldau duet on a highly interactive and jazzy "Silent Night." Smooth sax sensation Boney James' contemporary-oriented "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is pleasant enough, as is Kirk Whalum's "A Candle in Bethlehem." Kevin Mahogany's deep, rich voice infuses "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with all the emotional potential of this song, which is usually absent from other versions. Tenor saxophonist Mark Turner turns in a jazzy take of "Pure Imagination," done here in waltz time backed by Brad Mehldau's piano trio. Brad Mehldau's trio continues next with an introverted, sensitive rendition of "Christmas Time is Here." Bob James, also performing in the piano trio format, reaches beyond the well-worn holiday repertoire with "Personent Hodie (Sing Aloud on This Day)," and the results are rewarding; it's a rich, creative arrangement, and James' playing is excellent. Bob James closes the album in a duet with banjo phenomenon Bela Fleck for a totally new spin on "White Christmas." This CD is consistently excellent and highly recommended.
Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (Verve)
Classic Ella - swinging, happy, and classy. Ella had the gift of perfect interpretation; she could deliver any song just right. Although she never gets a chance to cut loose and scat, the big band arrangements supporting her swing infectiously. Most of the songs are the most frequently heard Christmas standards, but there's also the seldom-heard "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" and Basie's "Good Morning Blues," which you would not normally expect to hear on a holiday album.
Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy)
An old sentimental favorite. Two cuts, "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmas Time is Here" are immediately recognizable, and some of the others (many are Guaraldi originals) have become etched into our subconscious from seeing the TV special for so many years. But unlike most soundtrack music that doesn't stand too well on its own, the opposite is true here. These gems are childlike and happy, tastefully elegant, and full of jazz sensibilities and simple beauty.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra: In the Christmas Mood (LaserLight) (1988)
The modern-day Glenn Miller Orchestra has recorded In the Christmas Mood , which not only gives the big-band treatment to holiday classics (mostly secular), but never misses a chance to insert snippets from the well-known Glenn Miller songbook into the arrangements. This is a risky technique; the results of such efforts are usually annoying and trite, but in the hands of top-notch arrangers John LaBarbara and Dave Wolpe, the fit is perfect and the results are wonderful. Glenn would be very, very pleased.
David Benoit: Remembering Christmas (GRP) (1996)
Although David Benoit is most notable for his contemporary, even sometimes "smooth" jazz, this is a rich, tasteful collection, mostly in the "straight ahead" vein. Most tunes are performed either by a trio (piano, bass, drums) or a quintet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, percussion). There's not a synthesized note on the album. A piano duet with Dave Brubeck is a special treat. Michael Franks contributes a guest vocal on "Christmas Time is Here."
Jazz at the Movies Band: It's A Wonderful Life: Sax at the Movies for Christmas (Discovery) (1995)
The Jazz at the Movies Band is a collection of mostly L.A. studio pros, headed by pianist Bill Cunliffe. This collection consists of holiday songs taken from movies (as the title implies), and it's nice for two reasons. First, it's good jazz. Second, several of the tunes are new holiday tunes written for recent movies which deserve wider recognition. You may not be aware that some of these tunes originated in movies, such as "White Christmas" (from "Holiday Inn") and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (from "Meet Me in St. Louis.") Others in this set became famous first, then were included in a movie, such as "Winter Wonderland" (used in "When Harry Met Sally") and "Sleigh Ride" (used in "Sleepless in Seattle").
Roberto Perera: Christmas Fantasies (Heads Up) (1993)
For sheer beauty, it's hard to beat Roberto Perera's Christmas Fantasies. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Perera's catalog of consistently excellent releases on Heads Up, his axe is the Paraguayan Harp. While his music isn't particularly jazz-oriented, his virtuosity and the highly pleasing timbres of his instrument, when placed in this lilting, swirling light Latin setting, makes for relaxing yet musically rewarding listening.
The Blenders: Nog (Primarily A Cappella/Cowtown) (1998)
Okay, this one really isn't jazz, but I wanted to include a CD by a vocal group, and while Manhattan Transfer and Singers Unlimited have both put out nice holiday CDs, this one beats them both. The Blenders perform close-harmony doo-wop-style renditions of all familiar material, but it's the fresh, creative, and clever arrangements (sometimes with new chord voicings) that set this one apart. It also helps that, true to their name, these four guys blend together sumptuously.