As my friends and family well know, I take holiday music seriously. Too seriously, perhaps. Mostly because for the last 15 years I’ve put together two mix CDs—one for Christmas and one for Hanukkah—that my wife and I send out by the hundreds in lieu of a campy card or a humble-brag newsletter. From the beginning, I made a vow never to repeat a selection, and though I’ve broken it a few times to pay tribute to an artist who died during that year, the annual curation still adds up to a “catalog” of about 250 songs for each holiday. Accordingly, my collection of seasonal CDs grows each year, thanks to a plethora of artists feeling like it was their turn to take a swing at creating a holiday-music masterpiece. Many call, but we choose just a few.
This year was no exception, as we received about a dozen or so jazz or jazz-leaning Christmas albums … but not one Hanukkah recording. The last one that I can recall celebrating the Festival of Lights (which came early this year) was Sam Broverman’s witty and brilliant A Jewish Boy’s Christmas, a real keeper for those of us venturing outside the Xmas box. Regardless, what follows below, organized in alphabetical order by artist name, is my very biased assessment of most of this year’s batch of Christian-leaning holiday albums. The opinions are wholly my own, but I feel a certain authority in the field, much like Dr. Demento might, were he questioned about novelty tunes.
Happiness Is … Christmas! (Concord)
I’m very sorry to say this, but happiness to me is not hearing Ms. Chenoweth sing again. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s because my ears are highly developed or highly undeveloped. I know that she’s a successful Broadway singer and entertainer, as well as an accomplished television actress, but her very straight and outstretched-arms vocal style is simply not my cup of tea. If it’s yours, then you’ll enjoy this fun collection of upbeat tunes such as “Everybody’s Waiting for the Man with the Bag,” “Santa, I’ve Got a Bone to Pick with You,” and “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day?”—all backed by a Nashville-based big band and produced by Jay Landers, who’s worked with Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, and Bette Midler. Chenoweth even duets with Keb’ Mo’ on “Merry Christmas, Baby,” so she’s got that going for her. Which is nice. Christmas here isn’t blue but a very bright red, and that counts for something.
Nat King Cole & Friends
A Sentimental Christmas with Nat “King” Cole and Friends: Cole Classics Reimagined (Capitol)
I guess since Natalie Cole kicked off the whole “record yourself with the past” trend with her “Unforgettable” duet with her father in 1991, I can’t be too judgmental about someone going back to that well, even though the practice opened the door most recently to a live Kenny G playing with a dead Stan Getz, conditions that many jazz fans might wish reversed. In the case of Nat King Cole’s Christmas songs, the material does feel like hallowed ground, at least to older listeners. Younger music fans might need a crash course in his legacy, though. Accordingly, most of the collaborators on this album are from the pop world, including John Legend, Gloria Estefan, Calum Scott, and the aforementioned Ms. Chenoweth. Each did their best to complement the legendary Mr. Cole with these post-mortem duets. The album also includes Cole singing his tunes without help from contemporary pop stars, and somehow that manages to be the highlight, including a song I hadn’t heard before: “The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot.” A little corny, but beautiful still.
Have Yourself an Alto Madness Christmas (RCP)
This in-the-pocket recording, produced by drummer Reid Hoyson, was initially released in 2016 but is getting a reissue of sorts owing to Cole’s recent passing in 2020. The late alto saxophonist brings his bop stylings to the usual fare like “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” as well as three originals, including “Bad Santa” and “Mr. Grinch B. Bopsky,” whose titles give you an idea of Cole’s well-known sense of humor. He devoted his musical career to unapologetic swinging bebop, and this album is a fitting example of that focus. Unlike the first two albums in this roundup, Alto Madness Christmas isn’t just jazz-leaning; it features nothing but straight-ahead acoustic jazz.
The Pianoman at Christmas – The Complete Edition (Blue Note)
The first disc in this two-CD set features Cullum’s album of 10 originals by the same name from a year ago; the second is a whole new set of 13 tunes, including 11 covers and two originals. In addition, the singer/songwriter/pianist collaborates with scenesters Kansas Smitty’s, the Vernon Spring, and Lady Blackbird. I particularly enjoyed his takes on “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.” All in all, it’s a spirited and high-energy collection of holiday music from the British jazz star.
Holiday Swingin’! A Kat Edmonson Christmas Vol. 1 (Spinnerette)
Let me say that Edmonson is a very tasteful and artful singer, who seems to have absorbed the idiosyncratic phrasing that Billie Holiday became famous for. Edmonson’s voice is quite different from Holiday’s, though, and is, I think, an acquired taste, albeit one that many a jazz fan (if not me) has embraced. Regardless, in the same way that vocalists like Kurt Elling and Dianne Reeves can recast a song in their own style, Edmonson too adapts the Christmas tunes here to make them her own, as with her honky-tonk version of “Jingle Bell Rock” and a Django-inspired “O Christmas Tree.” She even manages to pull off a swinging version of “The Chipmunk Song.” There’s something of an old soul in Ms. Edmonson, and that’s an asset with holiday material.
Pete Ellman Big Band
The Twelve Grooves of Christmas (One Too Tree)
A swinging Christmas is this year’s theme, apparently. This recording of 13 familiar Christmas tunes features a Chicago-based big band led by trumpeter Ellman. Making cameo appearances are vocalists Kurt Elling (on “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”) and Katie Ernst (on “Mister Santa”). The tight horn arrangements are by band members Daniel Moore, Larry Harris, and Ted Hogarth, as well as Tom Kubis and Jim Martin. The album also has a charitable aspect, with 50% of the proceeds going directly toward getting instruments into the hands of deserving music students, through Ellman’s GIFTS (Giving Instruments for Teaching Students) program.
Benny Benack III with the Steven Feifke Big Band
Season’s Swingin’ Greetings: Deluxe Edition (Cellar Live)
This engaging and well-played big-band session is, yes, swingin’, what with Benack, the charismatic trumpeter and singer, collaborating with pianist and bandleader Feifke. A few years in the making, it reminded me of those recordings of Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra. Obviously, Benack is not a vocal icon like the Chairman, nor is Feifke’s band quite on the same level as the Count’s, but the sound and vibe are uncannily similar, which is no small feat. Plus, Benack is an accomplished trumpeter. Take that, Frank. Like several of the albums in this roundup, it contains several originals, including “My Girlfriend Is an Elf,” “When Christmas Time Comes Around,” and “My Wish List Is You,” the latter a duet with Alita Moses. The album also features cameos from emerging jazz talents like Alexa Tarantino, Sasha Berliner, Warren Wolf, Sam Dillon, and Javier Nero. Best of all, they do killing versions of two Hanukkah songs: “The Dreidel Song” and “Ma’oz Tzur.” I used both for this year’s Lee & Mergner Family Hanukkah music mix CDs. Sorry, guys, no mechanical-rights money coming your way, just a whole lotta love.
Jeff Hamilton Trio
Merry & Bright (Capri)
For his first holiday album as a leader, the virtuoso drummer selected material based on memories of his family singing Christmas songs in four-part harmony around the house. No vocals on this recording, though; just a hard-swinging set from Hamilton, pianist Tamir Hendelman, and bassist Jon Hamar, who play mostly familiar tunes such as “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Santa Baby,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as well as lesser-known compositions like “It’s the Holiday Season” and “Bright Bright the Holly Berries.” One highlight is their version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” so appropriate for this acknowledged master of the brushes and snare. Overall, a burning set from one of the very best piano trios on today’s scene.
Merry Christmas from José James (Rainbow Blonde)
One of the most gifted and versatile jazz singers of his generation, James has crafted an excellent Christmas album, aided by a crack band of Aaron Parks, Marcus Strickland, Ben Williams, and Jharis Yokley. And he gets extra points for writing two originals with his wife and partner Talia Bilig: “Christmas in New York” and “Christmas Day.” The Christmas-music canon can always use new material. Although he didn’t record any Hanukkah songs (no surprise given the album’s title), he does include a version of “My Favorite Things” that’s remarkably faithful to Coltrane’s iconic rendition, albeit without McCoy’s famous clunker. I included that tune on this year’s Hanukkah music mix CD and his take on “This Christmas” on my Christmas one.
I Dream of Christmas (Blue Note)
At this point in her career, Jones is sui generis, with a languid approach to singing and accompanying herself on piano that’s instantly recognizable. She’s dabbled with holiday tunes in the past, doing Horace Silver’s “Peace” (a composition that has somehow passed into the Yuletide canon) as well as recording a very sassy Christmas EP with her compatriots in the all-woman roots-rock group Puss N Boots. On her own here, she takes on modern holiday classics such as “Blue Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here,” and adds her own originals “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones),” “It’s Only Christmas Once a Year,” and “A Holiday with You.” Produced by Leon Michels and featuring Tony Scherr, Brian Blade, and Marika Hughes, the end result is a very warm and enjoyable recording with the timeless quality that usually equates to long-term holiday-album success.
Joy to the World EP (LeChateau Earl)
A successful gospel singer, Sneed may not be widely known in jazz circles, but he’s always been jazz-leaning and, more importantly, a major voice in the spiritual-music field. This EP of just four songs features a small sampling of material from a live show he’s been doing with a band and choir called “Joy to the World: A Christmas Musical Journey.” Putting aside the power and energy of the gospel choir on the other three cuts, my favorite selection is actually a stripped-down version of “A Child Is Born,” originally written by Thad Jones with lyrics later added by Alec Wilder. With just voice and piano, Sneed captures the simple beauty of this jazz standard that has been adopted as a holiday song.
Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet
Fools for Yule (HouseKat)
If you dig jazz vocalese, then this is the holiday album for you. Vocalist Ginny Carr Goldberg leads and serves as the chief arranger for this vocal-jazz quartet along the lines of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross or Manhattan Transfer. She and her fellow singers (Robert McBride, Holly Shockey, and Lane Stowe) are ably backed by a quintet that includes vibraphonist Chuck Redd. Goldberg also wrote four songs for the album, but it’s her exquisite arrangement of the Vince Guaraldi classic “Christmas Time Is Here” that really stood out for me.
How Does Christmas Sound? (Artistry/Mack Avenue)
This is the second Christmas album by the soulful jazz saxophonist. As an artist with deep roots in gospel, Whalum naturally includes several spiritual tunes such as “Mary, Did You Know?” and “Thorns in the Straw,” in addition to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (on which he plays flute) and more secular fare like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The album is truly a Whalum family affair: The saxophonist’s brother Kevin sings several cuts on the recording, and on the title track, one of two new holiday songs penned by Whalum, his actor/singer nephew Kortland is the featured vocalist, while his son Kyle plays bass. This album gracefully leans in on the joy and beauty of the holiday.