[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — still the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene for roughly 18 years, with lengthy columns that just keep growing. Check out previous columns by clicking on the CHRISTMAS label below.]
Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey and the Carpenters have their place during the holiday season, but if you really want to impress your mistletoe-smooching friends, dig into the Christmas jazz.
Although jazz stars have recorded seasonal classics going back to the swing era of Glenn Miller and Lionel Hampton, the pickings remained quite small up through the early 1960s, despite marvelous albums such as Ella Fitzgerald’s Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960), Kenny Burrell’s Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (1966) and Duke Pearson’s Merry Ole Soul (1969).
By the early ’80s, however, compilation releases such as Mistletoe Magic and the three-album GRP Christmas series demonstrated the viability of “Christmas jazz” as its own sub-genre ... not to mention Vince Guaraldi’s steadily selling soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which received additional publicity each December, when that Peanuts special repeated on TV.
Within the next decade, everybody from Dave Brubeck to Wynton Marsalis got into the act, and we’ve enjoyed the up-tempo results ever since.
I began covering holiday jazz in 1997, when the avalanche of new releases made it necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff. I continue to be delighted by the wealth of albums, whether from established stars or newcomers doing their best to be noticed via Internet outlets such as CD Baby and iTunes. As always is true in the music world, fame is no guarantor of quality; a couple of this year’s best albums come from folks you’ve never heard of.
A handful of selections from the following list can’t help making you the hit of your own holiday party. As the lyrics insist, you gotta dig that crazy Santa Claus!
Nnenna Freelon gallops out of the gate, with a swinging assist from the John Brown Big Band, on Christmas (Brown Boulevard Records), the best blend of chanteuse and full-blown jazz orchestra we’ve heard since Diana Krall teamed with the Clayton-Hamilton ensemble back in 2005.
Freelon is a belter, often going for the back row in the second balcony; she clearly could deliver a smashing rendition of the National Anthem. She and the band get off to a great start with a lively (and appropriately re-titled) arrangement of “Swingle Jingle Bells,” which displays the obvious joy she gets from performing this material.
When she modifies the lyrics to proclaim “Oh what fun it is, to jam in a one-horse open sleigh,” she’s definitely talking about this entire album.
Brown’s ensemble is a truly big band; he leads on bass and is joined by five saxes, five trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, drums and percussion. The arrangements leave plenty of space for the band to roar, as they do during a march-oriented handling (Adonis Rose on drums) of “Little Drummer Boy” and a swinging medley of spirituals that climaxes with a heartfelt “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”