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On the cover of Jimmy Smith’s 1964 Christmas album, the organist is decked out in a Santa suit behind the wheel of a red sports car with a tree and presents in tow. The irreverent and fun photograph is a good primer to the contents inside, for this is no hackneyed rundown of a group of well-worn holiday favourites. Instead, Smith puts a soulful and exciting stamp on each track, along with the help of arrangers Billy Byers and Al Cohn.
As was usual practice for many of Smith’s Verve albums, he is joined on five numbers by a large brass orchestra. For the album’s remaining three songs, he uses his working band of guitarist Quentin Warren and drummer Billy Hart.
Christmas Cookin’ is divided evenly between secular Christmas songs and traditional carols. On “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” with his trio, Smith establishes lightly swinging grooves and resists the temptation to indulge his virtuosity. Arranger Billy Byers creates a Count Basie-feel for “The Christmas Song,” and casts Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a bossa nova. Both feature brief solos by Smith, but the tracks mainly mine the melodies of two of the most enduring standards of the holiday season.
Surprisingly, it is when Smith tackles the religious songs of Christmas that he really lets loose. The album’s opener, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” is as far removed from serious church music as can be imagined. Billy Byers has the brass band first play the tune in a classical style which leads into an explosive entrance for Smith. The band repeats the melody, but this time as if it was intended to be used as background for a television crime drama. Then, Smith plays a greasy three-chorus solo with increasingly intense and forceful punctuations by the orchestra, who then carries the tune to a sparse conclusion, ending with only one trumpet. It is, without a doubt, the highlight of the album. Smith’s trio tackles the number as well and their interpretation pales in comparison.
“We Three Kings (of Orient Are)” and “Silent Night” are also both unexpected twists on the usual holiday carol. Both feature very solemn introductions by the orchestra before Smith takes over and injects a jazz swagger to each. It is hard to believe that “Silent Night” could ever swing as much as it does here.
In addition, the 1992 CD reissue adds two other holiday-themed tracks from Smith’s years at Verve: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Wes Montgomery and “Greensleeves” from the album Organ Grinder Swing.
Track Listing: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Jingle Bells; We Three Kings (or Orient
Are); The Christmas Song; White Christmas; Santa Claus is Comin' to
Town; Silent Night; God Rest Ye Marry Gentlemen; Baby, It's Cold Outside;
Personnel: Jimmy Smith - organ; Ernie Royal, Bernie Glow, Danny Stiles, Joe Wilder -
trumpets; Jimmy Cleveland, Chauncey Welsh - trombones; Paul Faulise,
Tommy Mitchell - bass trombones; Earl Chapin, Don Corrado, Morris
Secon, Jimmy Buffington - french horns; Kenny Burrell, Quentin Jackson,
Wes Montgomery - guitars; Art Davis - bass; Grady Tate, Billy Hart - drums;
George Devans, Ray Barretto - percussion; Margaret Ross - harp; Billy
Byers, Al Cohn - arrangers
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.