Black Friday to many means shopping frenzy. For me it is the opening of Christmas music season. Typically I review the various holiday playlists in the weeks leading up to the season and scout out a few new albums, looking for new treasures.
Thinking back on family favorites, I realize that nostalgia often trumps the quality of the music. This might explain why broad smiles appear when my wife, Karen, and I hear Bing sing that novelty Christmas tune, “Mele Kalikimaka.” I can close my eyes and see Karen mimicking a hula with that bright twinkle in her eye.
Also, so many seasonal songs are overplayed and tired. Mariah Carey comes to mind with her “All I Want for Christmas is You.” I tried to avoid the too-familiar and the over-the-top gimmick songs in the list below. Here is a Top Ten list of my favorites. You can hear each of these on Spotify or Google Play.
10. James Taylor – Who Comes This Night
Not bad for a heathen – he is a professed agnostic pantheist. I guess many of the recordings we revere are not from Chrisitian artists. I, for one, am glad to hear beautiful Christmas music regardless the source. Lush recording of a beautiful melody written and arranged by Dave Grusin.
9. Lou Rawls – Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Hot. Funky. To quote Maceo Parker (and many others, I am sure) this one will “make your neck jerk.” Let’s dance!
8. Mel Tormé – The Christmas Song
He wrote this song. When he sings “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” you know it is from the heart. Add to that the beautifully arranged studio orchestra recorded in a large theater and you have pure magic. This is the real deal.
7. Diana Krall with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – Winter Wonderland
I have to admit some bias here. I grew up in the same small town as Jeff Hamilton and watched his growing career as I dreamed of becoming a professional musician one day. I was Diana Krall’s RA in the dorms at Berklee. I trust that familiarity does not cloud my assessment of this recording. Diana is a beautiful singer. Subtle and powerful arrangements well played by the big band. John Clayton gives a clinic on walking bass on this one as well. Swinging!
6. Joan Sutherland – Twelve Days of Christmas
Sorry for the whiplash. Big Band with a silky singer, straight to Orchestra with a renowned Soprano Diva. The arrangement is constantly surprising and the singing is in great humor. Puts a smile on my face every time.
5. The Singers Unlimited – Silent Night
This starts as a very square Germanic a capella arrangement and moves into a ethereal portrait of that mystical first Christmas eve. Gene Puerling was the quintessential vocal arranger. He proved it here.
4. Ella Fitzgerald – Sleigh Ride
We all hear this in the movie Elf. Do yourself a favor and give this one a careful, critical listen. Ella back in 1960 (as throughout her career) was simply superb. ‘Nuff said.
3. Harry Connick, Jr. – (It Must Have Been Ol’) Santa Claus
What a New Orleans romp! Big band is full of energy and personality. Clever, upbeat, nostalgic lyric. You can feel the band is having a blast with this one.
2. Les Brown and His Band of Renown – The Nutcracker Suite
I know Brian Setzer’s band revived this arrangement – you can hear it in the movie “Elf” but you owe it to yourself to hear the original. This recording is tighter, more in tune. Woodwind doublers are far more confident on the clarinet parts. Brass is glorious. Should be required listening for all aspiring big band players.
1. The Manhattan Transfer – The Christmas Album
The whole album. From uptempo romps featuring the Count Basie band to a guest appearance from Tony Bennett on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” this is one gem after another. Catch the vocalese solo on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Lifted from Paul Desmond’s solo from the Brubeck recording. Awesome. Don’t miss this one.
So, seven more days and I’ll have to pack these gems away for another ten-and-a-half months. Until then I plan to keep these and many more on constant rotation in the house, car – everywhere.
Merry Christmas to you!