The best Christmas jazz albums

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2014, 12:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 12:31pm

Jazz and Christmas carols are not natural partners, but the combination has produced a smattering of genuinely classic albums, and year after year more seasonal jazz is released.

Artists to have put out Christmas collections this year include saxophonist Dave Koz ( The 25th of December), singer Maysa ( A Very Maysa Christmas), organist Joey DeFrancesco ( Home for the Holidays) and bluesman Taj Mahal with The Blind Boys of Alabama ( Talkin' Christmas).

Joining their number is Singaporean pianist, organist and composer Jeremy Monteiro, who has a long tradition of performing Christmas concerts at The Esplanade in Singapore, and who was in Hong Kong recently to play the opening party for Operation Santa Claus, but who has not previously recorded a festive album.

It has been a good year for Monteiro. He made his debut on the Verve label with Jazz-Blues Brothers, a collaboration with Italian organist Alberto Marsico, and played Ronnie Scott's Club and the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of the bill for the EFG London Jazz Festival, garnering enthusiastic reviews.

Marsico also appears in Christmas in Our Hearts, on which Monteiro and musical friends perform carols, contemporary Christmas songs, one original, and one jazz standard, Thad Jones' A Child is Born.

Helping him out are bassist Christy Smith, drummer Shawn Kelley, saxophonist Tony Lakatos, trumpeter Axel Schlosser, guitarist Wesley Gehring, harmonica player Jens Bunge, vocalist Rani Singam and the Sunshine Gospel Choir, conducted by Alex Negro.

The album's big production number is Monteiro's original, Let's Keep Christmas in Our Hearts, the album's only vocal, performed by Singam. It also features a fine harmonica solo, very much in Stevie Wonder's style, from Bunge, and a rousing finale featuring Marsico's organ and the choir.

The other tracks are lower key, with some nice interplay between Monteiro on organ and Gehring's guitar on What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?, and some soulful saxophone from Lakatos on A Child is Born. The album is a fine addition to the jazz Christmas canon.

Most jazz Christmas albums are focused on singers or "smooth jazz" instrumentalists but some have been made by more substantial players.

A personal favourite is Dave Brubeck's A Dave Brubeck Christmas released in 1996, which includes one of the very few versions of Santa Claus is Coming to Town I can bear to listen to.

Apart from two originals - Run, Run, Run to Bethlehem and To Us is Given - the album consists of the usual staples of the Christmas soundtrack, meditatively rendered as solo piano pieces.

Another Christmas CD on which Brubeck appears, and one worth having in any collection, is Yo-Yo Ma and Friends' Songs of Joy and Peace, which isn't strictly speaking a jazz album, but does feature contributions from Diana Krall, Paquito D'Rivera, Joshua Redman and Chris Botti along with Brubeck and his son Matt.

There are also a number of seasonally themed various artists jazz compilations. Newly released is It's Christmas on Mack Avenue, which features an assortment of artists who record for that label, including The Christian McBride Trio, The Hot Club of Detroit and vibraphonist Warren Wolf.

The Very Best of Christmas Jazz features 14 artists including Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Ramsey Lewis trio, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Evans.

Take Three

Three of the most popular Christmas jazz albums.

  • Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960, Verve): Fitzgerald with Frank DeVol and his Orchestra jointly deliver the one indispensable album of Christmas vocal jazz. The CD edition includes six bonus tracks in addition to the original 12.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965, Fantasy): Vince Guaraldi's music for the Peanuts Christmas special of 1965 is a favourite seasonal soundtrack for Americans, and the CD version - different from the original LP in small ways which appalled some older listeners who felt their childhood nostalgia was being interfered with - still sells briskly every year.
  • What a Wonderful Christmas (1997, Hip-O Records): Six of the tracks feature Armstrong, including Christmas in New Orleans, Christmas Night in Harlem, and his take on his friend Bing Crosby's White Christmas. Other tracks include Mel Tormé singing The Christmas Song live during a club engagement, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra doing Jingle Bells.