Jazz and Christmas go together like chestnuts and an open fire. Many of the Christmas classics we all know and love were ripped straight from the pages of the Great American Songbook. Pages that Michael Bublé ripped out and made all sticky with the sugar coated fingers he used to record his 2011 album Christmas.
Although, of course the blame cannot be squarely on Bublé. He seems like a very nice man, in that way that all Canadians have a reputation for being nice. But this album is poorly arranged, produced and performed.
Here’s a list of Christmas albums that kick Bublé’s arse from Canada all the way to the North Pole.
A Christmas Gift For You – Phil Spector
One of two non-jazz offerings on this list. This album brings Christmas classics by way of early 60’s R&B. Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” production style married with the beautiful orchestral arrangements of Jack Nitzsche give the album a huge sense of scale, and a genuine sense of Christmas magic. The one original track on the album Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” offers an operatic R&B that is so affecting. And for any fans of the film Gremlins this song is the opener. The album closes on a rendition of “White Christmas”, and features a creepy monologue from Spector, pop music’s very own gremlin (seriously, look up what he looks like now). This made even creepier when one considers that he was convicted of Lana Clarkson’s murder in 2009. Don’t let this terrible man’s actions deprive you of this classic Christmas album, featuring the amazing work of The Ronettes, The Crystals and other classic R&B artists.
More Christmas hits here: https://LegacyRecordings.lnk.to/xmas_pl Darlene Love’s official audio for ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’. Click to listen to Darlene Love on Spotify: http://smarturl.it/DLSpot?IQid=DLC As featured on Unbreakable.
Big Band Holidays – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
With that massive bummer out of the way, we can get onto the first jazz album on the list.
The Lincoln Center truly are the Berlin Philharmonic of big bands – two brief honourable mentions must go to the actual Berlin Phil’s performance of the Nutcracker Suite, as well as Duke Ellington arrangement of the Tchaikovsky classic. But I choose this album over the godfather of big band music for its sheer variety. An up-tempo swing “Jingle Bells”; a soaring rendition of “A Cradle in Bethlehem” (featuring the sensational Gregory Porter); and modal jazz version of “We Three Kings” all feature. And are all amazing. This album features Wynton Marsalis, Ted Nash and many more of the finest musicians working in jazz today.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis in concert performing “We Three Kings” off their new live album, BIG BAND HOLIDAYS, performing a Grammy-nominated arrangement by Ted Nash. Buy BIG BAND HOLIDAYS and make the Yuletide swing: http://ow.ly/2AsJ306B5CY Put some swing in your holiday season with BIG BAND HOLIDAYS, the new live album from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis!
Songs for Christmas – Sufjan Stevens
Genuine religious devotion and pop music don’t tend to mix. All the big Christmas hits tend to shirk the whole Jesus thing, and focus on love, family and good times. The most explicitly religious Christmas hit I can think of is Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord”. And while still great, this song conjures up the image of a Church of England Mum, over-enthusiastically singing along at her Child’s school Christmas concert after a glass too many of sherry. Not the image of the birth of our Lord.
But Stevens is a devout Christian. His music explores this in a very genuine way, and this album is no exception. The carols are delivered vocally with a psalm-like tenderness, but with Stevens’ unusual instrumental aesthetic: a mix of indie-folk and Steve Reich-esque minimalism. And some of the originals are genuine indie bangers, notably “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!” There is another added touch of sweetness when you learn that Stevens did the songs on this album as gifts to friends and family.
Give yourself the gift of this album this yuletide.
Uploaded by Pierre Chaigneau on 2009-12-24.
Ella Wishes you A Swinging Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald
Another honourable mention must go to Mariah Carey. No Christmas Playlist is complete without ‘All I want for Christmas is You’, and her melismatic acrobatics are always impressive. But Ella Fitzgerald is the queen of the voice as an instrument. She pushes, pulls and bends these famous Christmas melodies all over the place rhythmically, but they never lose their shape. At times she whispers tenderly, and others raises her voice to the heavens.
Christmas albums tend to over orchestrate – looking at you Bing Crosby – but this is so stripped back. Arranger Frank DeVol delivers a sparse big band sound slathered in the blues, and replaces a carolling choir with tight vocal voicings. If you want to be cool this Christmas rather than cold, this is the album for you.
White Christmas – Bing Crosby
For all the Bing bashing in the previous entry, one must appreciate these seemingly timeless songs have their origins in the classic movie soundtracks of the 40’s.
The carols on this one harken back to their romantic origins through their orchestration, but with crooner (and one of the best at that) on top. This album is the Ghost of Christmas Past scratched onto vinyl – even if it was weird when he did that song with David Bowie.
Music video by Bing Crosby performing White Christmas. HLC Properties Ltd., under license to Beach Road Music, LLC
So there we have it.
Hopefully with this I have given you enough ammunition in the War of the Christmas Playlist.
When that relative – we all have the one – reaches for the Bublé CD, you will have some alternative suggestions.
Words, Barnaby Edward Goodman