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- Posted on Dec 3rd 2009 5:00PM by Tad Hendrickson
Jazz is rife with Christmas music of both varieties. A stone cold classic for me is, of course, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. As someone who grew up watching the Peanuts TV specials, I don't doubt that this music made an impact on me and my tastes today. With all due respect to his 'Black Orpheus' album, the Christmas album is his best work, soundtrack or otherwise. It's a favorite jazz record for me, and I've been known to give it a listen outside the holiday season.
Every year, a new class of jazz Christmas albums hit -- enter the words "Christmas jazz" in a search at Amazon.com and more than 2,000 albums come up. There have been some other good ones, with classics from Ella Fitzgerald, George Winston (yes, I'm counting 'December') and Nat 'King' Cole. More recent ones of note come from stars like Diana Krall, the Yellowjackets, Jane Monheit, Chris Botti and Dianne Reeves. Even lesser known but good players like Anton Schwartz and Cyrus Chestnut have gotten into the act.
Musicians do Christmas music for a number of reasons. Based on results laid down in recording sessions and a few off-the-record comments I've gotten over the years, money seems to be a part of it. This is OK: Guaraldi didn't do his album for free and his estate still appreciates the royalties. While this isn't entirely the case with 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' many Christmas songs are in the public domain, which means no royalties need be paid out. From a less cynical perspective, it's also worth noting that these musicians grew up with the music just like the rest of us, probably even learning some of the classics early on in their training for Christmas shows and gigs. Many jazz musicians also like playing music for family, friends and fans alike. From a creative standpoint, some like the challenge of putting their stamp on 'White Christmas,' 'Frosty the Snowman,' 'Jingle Bells,' 'Little Town of Bethlehem' and the rest of the canon as much as they would in tackling on 'Autumn Leaves,' 'Giant Steps' or 'Caravan.'
For the music to be successful, a few things have to be in balance. It's important to use some fresh ideas, but it's also crucial that artists avoid becoming self-indulgent: These songs are like (or sometimes are) sacred texts, so it is crucial not to dismiss the appeal of these time-tested classic tunes by thinking you can improve upon their melodies.
Personally, I think the best interpretations have a little bit of sentimentality in them. The holidays should be a time for joy and togetherness, and the music should reflect that at times, but these songs also bring back memories of Christmases past. You remember being the giddy kid waiting for the Peanuts to come on, or perhaps just hearing Bing Crosby's 'White Christmas' and Nat 'King' Cole's version of 'The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)' conjures memories of Mom baking cookies, visits to Grandma's house or Uncle Joe sitting by the fire. Sometimes the memories will be bittersweet, and healthy dose of the blues isn't necessarily a bad thing: Elvis' 'Blue Christmas' is probably top of the heap in this respect.
Of course, the songs range from religious ones like 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' or 'O Holy Night' to silly ones like 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' and ''Zat you, Santa Claus.' I'm not going to get into the commercialization of Christmas versus it being a religious holiday -- let's leave that for another time in a different column -- but I know a lot of folks grew up hearing and playing Christmas classics in church as well as home, and it seems to be one example of where religious music doesn't seem to annoy nonbelievers, or at least not any more than Christmas music in general.
There are various factors into why holiday jazz seems to work so well. One is that jazz is often instrumental music. Perhaps, to the chagrin of the players, this means that it makes ideal background music, either for shopping or for home. The other is that jazz folks have never shied away from covering standards. Pop stars have done Christmas songs over the years, but it seems only in recent times that rock musicians have tried it (usually just a single song and for a cause). Regardless, there are countless jazz offerings out there in the holiday spirit. I've already listed a few warhorses in this piece, and below are a few new albums I've heard this year on AOL's Christmas Jazz station as I've gotten into the spirit of things.
Feel free to weigh in with your own choices as well.
Kermit Ruffins: 'Have a Crazy Cool Christmas' (Basin Street):
The mayor of New Orleans jazz gets in the holiday spirit.
Carla Bley: 'Carla's Christmas Carols' (Watt-ECM):
One of jazz's great post-bop arrangers and composers takes a left turn into Christmas music.
Alexis Cole: 'The Greatest Gift' (Motema):
The young jazz singer digs deep to find the meaning of Christmas.
Here's what our friends at All About Jazz have been up to.
Tim Garland: Beyond the Frontier
Ian Shaw: From Free Jazz to Noel Coward
Chano Dominguez: Piano with 'Duende'
27th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival
The Jeff Hamilton Trio, 'Symbiosis'
Marc Copland, 'Alone'
Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6, 'Dulcet Crush'
Graham Dechter, 'Right on Time'
Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, 'Restored, Returned'