The 12 Tracks of Christmas

The 12 Tracks of Christmas

hipsters holidayThis time of year has more music directly associated with it than any other holiday season, in all genres.  Being a jazz fan and a lover of this season, I’ve spent a lot of time (and a bit of money), chasing down jazz music that has a Christmas theme.  Sometimes an artist recorded an entire album, sometimes it was just a one-off; intended to be a seasonal 45.  I’ve found some cringe worthy clunkers and also some really creative efforts, that I’ll sometimes play long after the decorations have been put away.

I’ve often heard the complaint that there’s no good jazz around this time of year, so I went through my collection and put together a list of a dozen Holiday tracks that are some of the most memorable for me; either for creativity, musical prowess, hip humor or any combination of the three.  Please note that this is certainly not an exhaustive list and there are a lot of excellent tracks and albums that did not make this list.  I certainly could have made it larger, but 12 seemed like a good number for any Christmas themed list.  So here they are, my completely subjective list of the 12 coolest jazz Christmas performances, listed in alphabetical order.  In addition, I’ve supplied the name of at least one in-print CD on which the track can be found:

  • Be-Bop Santa Claus – Babs Gonzales – Though this beboppers’ re-imagining of The Night Before Christmas , has references that are as dated as a zoot suit, it is still a hip, quirky and cool delight.  I’ve heard others attempt this track over the years, but they’ve never matched the original.  “I’m the Be-Bop Santa from the cool North Pole and I been down since the days of old”. Gonzales was an unheralded forefather of today’s rappers and this was the pinnacle of his storytelling art. (Album: Hipster’s Holiday [Rhino Records])
  • Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern) – Miles Davis – Miles infamously and rather cantankerously dismissed this track and its writer/singer, Bob Dorough, in his autobiography.  With all due respect, the “Dark Prince” must have been having a bad day when the subject came up.  “Blue Xmas” is 2:41 of dynamite; from Willie Bobo’s wake-up call on bongos, to Wayne Shorter’s short but fiery tenor statement, to Dorough’s socially conscious lyric, that is still relevant today.  Besides, this track is a jazz trivia geek’s dream.  It’s one of the very rare cases of Miles backing a singer.  It’s Bobo’s only recorded appearance with Miles, to my knowledge, and the rest of the band (Shorter, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb) is a coming together of members of Miles’ two greatest groups. It’s not “jolly”, but it’s good jazz. (Album: Jingle Bell Jazz [Columbia/Sony])
  • Christmas Waltz – Nancy Wilson – This is Nancy in her mid ‘60’s prime, when she could make a Miranda Warning sound sexy. It’s swaddled in strings and Ms. Wilson sings and swings a little behind the beat for effect; IMHO it’s the best version of this song ever recorded. (Album: Back 2 Back Hits: Christmas – Nancy Wilson  & Lou Rawls [Capitol])
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen Jimmy Smith – There’s still something about the start of this track with sound of the tympani, followed by the majesty of the trombones and horns that makes the hair on my arms stand at attention (kudos to arranger Billy Byers).  By the time Smith enters, about a minute into the track, the tension has reached the breaking point.  And what an entrance it is!  Jimmy’s  B-3 screams, groans, bubbles, glides and does everything but deliver presents, while Grady Tate’s drums keep things swinging and Byers’ brass eggs Smith on.  This track has lost nothing after 45 years. (Album: Christmas ’64 (a.k.a. Christmas Cookin’ ) [Verve])

  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Dexter Gordon – This is LTD in the midst of his triumphant late ‘70’s return to the U.S. after more than a decade of self-imposed European exile.  Kirk Lightsey’s piano sets a Holiday mood and Dex keeps the joy flowing, with his familiar big tone and quotes from other tunes.  The nine-plus minutes pass jauntily by in what seems to be 1/3 of the time. (Album: Jingle Bell Jazz [Columbia/Sony])

  • Here Comes Santa Claus – Ramsey Lewis – Leave it to Ramsey to take one of the lamest of all Christmas tunes and make it cool.  Red Holt and Eldee Young lay down a Latin-Soul beat and Ramsey swings his you-know-what off, as he brings the funk. It’s the coolest track on one of the coolest jazz Christmas albums of all time. (Album: The Sound of Christmas – Ramsey Lewis Trio [Verve])
  • Merry Christmas Baby – Lou Rawls – The last time I saw Lou Rawls was on a TV special, a little before his death, singing this song, in the same swinging big band arrangement as on this track from the ‘60’s.  Though he looked frail, this brassy chart seemed to energize him and he still sounded like the Lou of old.  Charles Brown may have been the first, but Lou gave this song some urban Chicago “swagga”.  It’s almost too cool for Christmas (Albums: Merry Christmas Baby – Lou Rawls; Back 2 Back Hits: Christmas – Nancy Wilson & Lou Rawls)
  • My Favorite Things – Kenny Burrell – Burrell’s 1966 Christmas disc is an underappreciated gem. This track makes the list because of Burrell’s playing and Richard Evans fantastic horn arrangement, which push Kenny to take things even higher. Get this disc before it disappears again. This track is one of many standouts on it. (Album: Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas – Kenny Burrell [Verve])
  • Sleigh Ride – Ella Fitzgerald – Ella’s joyous sound meeting up with this most joyous of Christmas tunes is a perfect match.  I love Frank DeVol’s arrangements throughout the album, but I love it here that they took it at a finger snapping mid-tempo instead of the breakneck pace that many have tried.  Ella is having a ball singing it and you’ll have one listening to it at well (Album: Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald [Verve])
  • Toyland – Diane Delin – I wanted to have a sleeper pick, as a part of this dozen and this is it.  Diane Delin is a Chicago based jazz violinist, who plays with a light swing and striking lyrical beauty (think Ray Nance).  Victor Herbert’s Toyland is one song of the season that is not overplayed.  Ms. Delin performs it in a spare version, backed by piano, bass and drums, bringing her gorgeous tone to the fore.  This is one of the highlights of her Offerings for a Peaceable Season CD, which is one of the more refreshingly non-traditional Holiday jazz discs, around today.  Another highlight is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, with just Delin’s violin, Larry Kohut’s bass and Eric Montzka’s percussion. Not easy to find, but worth tracking down (Album: Offerings for a Peaceable Season – Diane Delin [Blu Jazz Records] – available through artist’s website www.DianeDelin.com )
  • Winter Wonderland – Ray Charles – Ray Charles’ lone Christmas album, from 1985, was honestly, a mixed bag. His legendary status long secure, he was capable of lapsing into self-parody by then and he does a few times on this disc.  However, he could still rise to the occasion and show you flashes of “The Genius”, when he felt like it.  “Winter Wonderland” was one such track.  Cool, sweet and swinging, with some tasty electric piano by Ray in the middle.  Just relax, pour another eggnog and tap your toes, as you envision Brother Ray, and that unforgettable grin. (Album: The Spirit of Christmas – Ray Charles [Concord])

  • ‘Zat You Santa Claus – Louis Armstrong – This was my dad’s all time favorite Christmas song.  Satchmo, the storyteller and entertainer take center stage on this famed, humorous track.  Many others, from Harry Connick, Jr. to Garth Brooks have performed this Jack Fox tune, but they all fall short of Louis Armstrong & the Commanders definitive performance and Tutti Camarata’s brassy arrangement. (Album: Louis Armstrong & Friends: The Christmas Collection [Hip-O Records])

These tracks and many, many others are featured on Curt’s Café’s 24/7 jazz Christmas party. We are playing nothing but instrumentals and vocals by great jazz artists, around the clock until December 27.  Join the party by clicking this link http://www.live365.com/stations/curtjazz?play

Curt’s Quick Christmas CD Buying Guide

One more thing before I go.  I listed a bunch of great Christmas CDs as a part of the 12 tracks.  If you’re still looking to jazz up your Holidays, here are a few more good ones, that are heavy on the jazz content and not overplayed.  All are in available in CD and/or mp3 through on-line dealers, such as Amazon.com

Compilations

OOP – Pick up if you can

Here are three out of print Christmas CD that have some great music. They are worth picking up if you see them somewhere at a reasonable price:

May you and those you love, have a happy, healthy and abundantly blessed Holiday Season and a prosperous New Year.  Thanks for making my station and my blog a part of your musical year.

Until the next time the jazz continues…

One Response to “The 12 Tracks of Christmas”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Curtis Davenport and Curtis Davenport, Curtis Davenport. Curtis Davenport said: Gr8 Day TwittaFam. Brand new blog post "12 Tracks of Christmas" all about Christmas #jazz http://wp.me/pFsCc-1s […]

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