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The Top Ten Christmas Jazz Albums Of All Time

Peter Hoetjes By

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As temperatures drop and days grow short, Winter is once again upon us. For those looking to listen to the sounds of the season without resorting to December's relentless slew of glossy, generic cash-grabs, jazz can be a breath of fresh, wintry air. You won't find (many) singers on this list, since most people already know and have records by Frank, Dean, Ella, Karen, and more. Instead, I've put together jazz's greatest Christmas albums from the golden age to today. Whether you're dusting an eggnog with nutmeg and settling in for a quiet evening by the fire, or frantically wrapping last minute gifts, with these ten offerings you'll have something for every occasion during the season.

Various Artists
A Mellow Jazz Christmas
Kind Of Blue Records

Featuring Stanley Clarke, Eddie Henderson, and George Cables among others, Mellow Jazz Christmas is compulsory Christmas Eve material. This collection of songs errs traditional, and none of the titles are unexpected. However, the musicians all are afforded the opportunity to improvise, keeping the melody while adding their own character to the chestnut tunes everyone has heard hundreds of times.

The album's highlight would be The George Cables Trio performing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." Cables plays with bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Victor Lewis. This was his "A Letter To Dexter" rhythm section, and while Lewis restrains the tempo by using only brushes, Cables does branch out a bit, adding some welcome personality to what may be the most played song on this list while keeping its spirit well intact.

The Count Basie Orchestra
The Count Basie Orchestra
Concord Records

A standout modern classic in an era where Christmas albums are all-pervasive. While Basie passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1984, his big band orchestra is kept alive in his spirit by alumni directors, in this case Scotty Barnhart. The album features pianist Ellis Marsalis and tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson, as well as singers Johnny Mathis, Ledisi, and the excellent Carmen Bradford. A Very Swingin' Basie Christmas offers a pleasant mix of up-tempo swinging sleigh bell tunes and slow winter ballads.

Various Artists
God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen
Colombia Records

Another slightly obscure collection, this time from the early 1980's. However, any album starting with Dexter Gordon and McCoy Tyner and ending with Wynton Marsalis is worth a trip to eBay, where it can still be found on vinyl, CD, and cassette. Worth noting is that this particular album is one of the only places to find Dexter Gordon's full 9 minute, 39 second recording of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." The legendary saxophonist shows no restraint, turning the ubiquitous December song into a true jazz tune that genre aficionados would be happy to listen to all year long.

Chet Baker
Silent Nights
Dinemec Jazz

Silent Nights starts mellow and picks up the pace halfway through, after Baker's breathy "Nobody Knows The Trouble I Have Seen." It would have been nice to see the trumpeter make something more of these (mostly) typical Christmas tunes, but he plays it safe, holding most of these songs to under four minutes, leaving little room for improvisation. Even so, Silent Nights is a relaxed, reflective half hour of brassy holiday horn playing, certainly worth a yearly listen.

Stan Kenton
A Merry Christmas
Capitol Records

Definitely not for a romantic evening in front of the fireplace, Kenton's A Merry Christmas is bombastic, sounding like a Christmas day parade marching through your living room. Though recorded in 1961, the album has a timeless feel about it. The large orchestra simmers down only once, for their rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." Even "O Holy Night" is given a triumphant, brassy treatment.

It is refreshing to see that Kenton's orchestra decided to mix in a few more traditional hymns and carols with the typical Christmas fare. While songs such as "Good King Wenceslas" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" are usually better served by a classical string orchestra, the band's decision to include them offers a welcome reprieve from tiresome tunes about Santa Claus and will please those hoping to hear a more spiritual take on the holiday.

Charlie Byrd
The Charlie Byrd Christmas Album
Concord Concerto

A warm yuletide album that typically finds itself relegated to background music, Byrd's Christmas is the only acoustic guitar featured on this list. While none of the songs included here paint an especially original picture, this offering's toasty fireside atmosphere more than makes up for it by providing a different mood and feel than the usual exuberant blowing sessions and somber holiday recordings.

Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Fantasy Records

Almost obligatory at this point. Yes, it's lighthearted and just a little too sappy. But A Charlie Brown Christmas is a mainstay this time of year for a reason. Both this album and the eponymous movie are so accessible because both parents and children can chuckle at the innocence of them while still engaging with the movie's sense of holiday loneliness that Guaraldi tried to capture in a lot of his songs on this soundtrack.

Ramsey Lewis Trio
Sound Of Christmas
Argo

Another 1961 classic, the pianist was still in the dawn of his illustrious career when he recorded his first of two Christmas albums. Lewis receives co-credit for two tunes here, "Christmas Blues" and "The Sound Of Christmas." While the album is only a half hour in length (best paired with its successor), it's an enjoyable look at Christmas jazz's origins by a man who would go on to win three Grammy awards over the course of over sixty years as a musician.

Classical Jazz Quartet
Christmas
Kind Of Blue Records

Not all Christmas albums are alike. Consisting of Pianist Kenny Barron, Bassist Ron Carter, drummer Lewis Nash, and Stefon Harris on vibraphones and marimba, The Classical Jazz Quartet was an early 2000's experiment, breaking classical music songs down and giving them a jazz treatment. Christmas is composed of eight songs by Bach and Tchaikovsky, including six from "The Nutcracker."

While the album's unique perspective won't appeal to all listeners, the change from shorter, typical holiday fare to fully fleshed out jazz is welcome. It would have been nice to see the quartet lean a bit less heavily on Harris' vibes, especially with a talented pianist like Barron to carry the songs. Regardless, Christmas gives ample solo opportunity to each musician, making the recording interesting regardless of its context.

Eddie Higgins
Christmas Songs
Venus Records

Last but certainly not least, pianist Eddie Higgins is joined by Jay Leonhart and Joe Ascione, on bass and drums, respectively, for this versatile 21st century recording. Perfect for family gatherings, played while all the children open their presents, Christmas Songs has the band performing a series of sedate, typical holiday tunes with just enough personality to keep the discerning listener's ears pricked. Higgins' decision to emphasize jazz as much as yuletide spirit is extremely welcome, as the trio walks the line between familiar melody and improvisation all throughout.

Honorable Mention

Art Pepper
Winter Moon
Fantasy Records

While not specifically a Christmas album, Art Pepper's Winter Moon is a perennial snowy evening classic. The late, great altoist had wanted badly for years to do a strings album, and finally, in 1981, less than a year before his death, his wish came true. While jazz aficionados often have a reluctance to accept albums with a strings orchestra, it should be said that his quintet on the date included such legendary talent as bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Carl Burnette. The album really has no standout songs; Pepper keeps the introspective, moody tone fairly even throughout. Much like the soft sound of a million thick snowflakes falling at once, Winter Moon is perfect for those looking to enjoy the calm, quiet moments after Christmas has come and gone.

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