Deck the Halls with Big Band Carols
With the holiday season on track and hastening toward us like a runaway locomotive, it's time once again to hunker down and prepare for the annual onslaught of "Rudolph," "Frosty the Snowman," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Sleigh Ride," "Silver Bells," chestnuts roasting on an open fire and everyone's perennial favorite, "White Christmas." Not to mention the many traditional songs of praise that help to make the season bright. There was a time not long ago when big bands were all but absent from the holiday music scene save for backing singers like Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Perry Como or Rosie Clooney, but after years of hibernation they've come back strong, bedecking the seasonal themes in splendid new garments designed to put anyone in a suitably cheerful holiday mood.
How do I know that? I'm glad you asked, as the proof is at hand and about to be shared. In other words, I've chosen from the CD library 26 holiday-centered big-band albums that would make even Ebenezer Scrooge or Buster Keaton smile. Herewith a few words about each.
Even though all are performed by large ensembles, there are only three albums named Big Band Christmasby Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass; the Chris McDonald Big Band; and Britain's National Youth Jazz Orchestra. The Boss Brass list five songs with "Christmas" in the title, McDonald four, NYJO three. McConnell's disc is comprised primarily of more contemporary themes such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Let It Snow," "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and even "My Favorite Things," although it does embrace the more traditional "Away in a Manger," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Joy to the World." As all the charts are McConnell's there's no need to debate quality, as that goes without saying.
McDonald, on the other hand, is, I suspect, unknown to most listeners, even those who are closely attuned to big-band jazz. Not to worry; he's one of the finest arrangers of hymns, carols and other seasonal music I've ever heard, as he shows on "Sleigh Ride," "White Christmas," "Blue Christmas," "The Little Drummer Boy" (arranged like Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing"), "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Let It Snow" and such established themes as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Silent Night," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." In the holiday music sweepstakes, an unequivocal winner.
NYJO's album, recorded in 1989, opens with a lively rendition of "Deck the Halls" and doesn't ease up until the last swashbuckling bars of "Hark! The Herald Angels Swing." That's not the only title with which the band takes liberties; others include "I Saw Six Ships," "Wenceslas Squared," "The ThirstNo Ale," "Take Five Kings" and "I Left My Heart in Royal David's City." NYJO has a second holiday album, A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, recorded four years later, that includes such send-ups as "Bethlehem Lift Off," "While Shepherds Waved," "Angels from the Second Story," "Childstones" (a.k.a. "What Child Is This?") and "The Twelve Bars of Christmas." As is always true of NYJO, the charts are captivating and the musicianship impeccable, notwithstanding the band's 25 year upper age limit.
Two albums are devoted to the seasonal music of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, A Stan Kenton Christmas by the Capitol Bones, and Well Seasoned by Britain's top-drawer Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra. Mark Taylor, an arranger for the U.S. Army Blues, directs the 'Bones in a program comprised mainly of traditional hymns plus Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" (from the Charlie Brown TV specials), "My Favorite Things," "The Christmas Song" and "Big Bad Drummin' Dude" (their version of "The Little Drummer Boy") featuring the Blues' Steve Fidyk. Eight of the fifteen numbers were arranged by Ralph Carmichael, three by trombonist Matt Niess, one each by Taylor, guitarist Jim Roberts, pianist Tony Nalker and Kenton himself ("Adeste Fidelis"). The music is reminiscent of the Kenton orchestra, as is that on Well Seasoned, the first half of which is devoted to jazzier themes such as "Groove Blues," "Chelsea Bridge," "Manteca" and "There Will Never Be Another You." Carmichael arranged nine of the eleven holiday tunes, complementing Kenton's "Adeste Fideles" and Bob Florence's "Auld Lang Syne." Each of the albums has much to recommend it.