Swingin’ the Season: Holiday Album Guide 2021

The holiday season usually brings a trickle of new Christmas jazz offerings. This year, however, it’s obvious that more than a few musicians spent the spring and summer of the pandemic preparing musical presents for our antlers and ears. The result is that 2021 may have produced the most Christmas jazz releases in one season ever.

When unwrapping this huge bounty of gifts, listeners could find the musical equivalent of coal in their stockings. The proceeding list has been checked in no particular order by Santa more than twice and is loaded with music that is not naughty but very nice.

Christmas music can be like comfort food that stirs remnants of childhood or the recent past. Fans of all stripes have their holiday favorite that evokes a certain warm feeling.  A few examples for this writer are the classic Johnny Mathis “Merry Christmas” (Columbia) and “An Oscar Peterson Christmas” (Telarc.)  It’s the musicianship and the incredible arrangements on “Merry & Bright (Capri Music) by the Jeff Hamilton Trio that could be etched into holiday memories for years to come.

With a limited almost fixed repertoire, arrangements are the absolute key to standing out among the hundreds of other versions of Christmas standards.  Hamilton with his impressive trio of pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Jon Humar make fresh season greetings with chestnuts like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “Santa Baby,” and naturally “The Little Drummer Boy.”  Half of the ten tracks though are sparkling jewels that haven’t been covered as much like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and others.

Making memorable original Christmas music is even more of a challenge. Entering an original song into the holiday lexicon is even more impressive. It’s also possibly lucrative due to the evergreen nature of the music and the potential cover versions. “All I Want For Christmas” from Mariah Carey’s Christmas album is the most extreme example. At 16 million copies, it is one of the all-time best-selling singles. We’re talking general market not just for Christmas, and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is number one at 50 million.

On “How Does Christmas Sound (Artistry Music) revered sax man Kirk Whalum answers the album’s title question with his authoritative spiritual tone on tenor and a couple of stirring turns on soprano.  He takes Ms. Carey’s hit and slows it way down to an exquisite ballad that gets to the holiday essence of the melody.  And the versatile reed player uses “Angels, We Have Heard On High,” as a tour-de-force, overdubbing his horns from baritone to flute.

There are also a couple of nice originals, including the title track where Whalum reaches into the deep reservoir of his very talented family. His nephew Kortland sings lead vocals while his son Kyle is the bassist on “How Does Christmas Sound. ” It is a smart, snappy piece that like most of this disc falls in the smooth jazz/neo-soul category. The song “Seven,” which the musician describes as a gift to a friend features his vocalist brother Kevin and a holiday background vocal vibe from the exquisite Take 6.

The Hamilton and Whalum albums are diametrically opposed on the jazz spectrum with one, let’s say on the left, and the other on the right; one acoustic, the other electric; straight ahead vs. smooth. If your holiday gathering is firmly on either side, these two recordings can play through with no family squabbling interrupting the holiday groove.

The only other smooth jazz album that sparkles with R&B-influenced grooves and is consistently pleasing through and through comes from “The Holidays Are Here” (Pacific Coast Jazz) by guitarist. Ronny Smith.

If big bands are what you looking for in your stockings, two of the best 2021 Christmas albums come from that genre.

Sleighing in from the Windy City is “The Twelve Grooves of Christmas” (One, Two, Tree Records)  by the Pete Ellman Big Band.  It’s a cooking baker’s dozen of traditional arrangements of mostly well-known carols including the self-described “O Schwingenbaum” and Kurt Elling boldly crooning and swinging with a children’s choir on “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Two ascending stars of the New York jazz scene have gotten together for what is definitely one of the most fun holiday releases of the year.  “Season’s Swingin’ Greetings” (Cellar Music Group) finds the young trumpeter/vocalist Benny Benack III the perfect ornament for the Steven Feifke Big Band.

With novelty songs and affects a firm staple of the holiday spirit, with “My Girlfriend Is An Elf” Benack may have written a song that may have legs for future silly covers a la “Cool Yule” or “You’re A Mean On Mr. Grinch.”  It’s one of his three smart Christmas originals that lineup brightly with Feifke’s high-spirited arrangements that smacks of old school Marty Paich and Gordon Jenkins colliding 21st-century echoes of Maria Schneider and Gordon Goodwin.

Benack comes off with more polish than just some Harry Connick clone as he has his own voice on trumpet and a confident panache that sets him apart.  Feifke put both of his talents to effective use throughout the sometimes surprising ten-song set.  From a great instrumental version of “Sleigh Ride,” to the rare up-tempo vocal version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” not to mention the two Hanukah musical treats included, Benack swaggers up to the mic and kiss these tunes like they are treasured jazzy mistletoes.

The two big-name jazz vocal records that will surely get attention this holiday season comes from Norah Jones, “I Dream of Christmas” (Blue Note) and “Merry Christmas From Jose James” (Rainbow Blonde.)

The recently expatriated James is coming off successful crowd-pleasing highly produced tribute albums to Billie Holiday and Bill Withers.  Ironically, one of the most satisfying part of his new very sweet, highly listenable album is the sparse production values that feature the now Amsterdam-based singer with just the trio of Aaron Parks on piano, Ben Williams on bass and drummer Jharis Yokley.

Known as an exquisite balladeer in jazz, R&B and pop, James manages to squeeze all three elements into Nat Cole’s “Christmas Song” and the aforementioned “White Christmas”  But while the musical accompaniment may be traditional a musical chameleon like James won’t let a 20th century setting keep him from keeping a foot in the future.  The sure-footed singer has his straight ahead-4/4-swingers like “Let It Snow- or  a ¾ swinger in the case of crisp version of “The Christmas Waltz”  as well as a couple of inspired funky hip-hop inspired twists with “This Christmas,” and a passionate “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

What James’ Christmas gift may have really unwrapped is his ability as a songwriter.  Both of the two originals sound organic and not forced, which is a problem for most musicians trying to write a song just for this hallowed holiday.   The Minneapolis bred singer has two really good ones in “Christmas Day” and he felt so good about the ode to the city he recently left, “Christmas In New York,” leads off his album.  He didn’t make a bad decision as it sets the tone for the whole album as a holiday experience.

Norah Jones also leads off her 13-song set with one of four Christmas originals, “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones.)”  Opening with one of the five well-known standards, like her romp through “White Christmas” could have changed the flavor and tone of this oil-slicked produced package.  The album may not even classify as a “jazz” holiday experience to some, which is fine for both the platinum-kissed singer and her historic jazz label Blue Note.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a good Christmas record.  It’s really cute and playful with her inimitable style coming through on Chuck Berry’s  hit “Run Rudolph Run,” and a slowed down New Orleans-dripped version of Alvin & the Chipmunks “Christmas Don’t Be Late.”  The originals may not stand out but she’s roasting the chestnuts on offerings like “Christmas Time Is Here” and others.

Fans of Norah Jones may actually find the releases Kat Edmonson and June Bizant nice to wrap or unwrap gifts to.

“Holiday Swingin’ (A Kat Edmonson Christmas) Vol 1 (Spinnerette Records) also has the same Chipmunk song  on it, as nine of the ten songs are all very well known Christmas songs.  While they both come from the Lone Star State Ms. Edmonson seems a little more Texas bona fide than Jones.  The roots are deeper and with Texas blues, Bob Wills and Ray Benson as much an influence as Billie Holiday and maybe Norah herself.  Maybe because of the warmth of familiarity from the selections, more traditional fans will find Edmonson’s swinging a more satisfying jazz Christmas experience.

There are certain albums from childhood that automatically ignites a holiday glow inside.  If  June Christy’s 1961 classic “This Time of the Year” warms your heart, then 7 Shades of Snow (Arabesque Records) by June Bisantz should be on your wish list.

Stylistic concept vocalist and noted visual artist June Bisantz may be an acquired taste for some, but that was also the case for her late muse. If one doesn’t know the original historical document, the songs will be new as they were all originally customed for Christy by the husband and wife team of Connie Pearce and Arnold Miller and arranged by the legendary Pete Rugolo.  They are given fresh new treatments by bassist Jon Burr and his sextet of top NY pros.

The three sleeper vocal Christmas albums this year are like those small gifts that you waited to open after all the big ones were savored.  There near the bottom of this gift bag are “Fools For Yule” (House Kat Records) by the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet and “Christmas Ain’t What It Used To Be” (Night Is Alive) by Night Is Alive and the re-release of the 1972 classic “Christmas” (MPS Records) by the Singers Unlimited.

While Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, regrettably never made a holiday record featuring their groundbreaking vocalese style of singing – although LHR fans should hear Jon Hendricks “How Santa Got Thin” on the 1992 “Christmas Stocking Stuffer” (Capri Records) by Al Grey – their musical offspring have. Take 6 won the Best Jazz Vocal Grammy in 1991 for “He Is Christmas” (Reprise) and the next year the Manhattan Transfer delivered “The Christmas Album” (Atlantic Records)  a present wrapped by Johnny Mandel arrangements. The Transfer also did “An A Capella Christmas” (King Records) in 2005 but neither were done in the vocalese style pioneered by Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson.

Both TMT and especially T6 were also heavily influenced by the Hi-Lo’s and the Singers Unlimited, two groups co-founded by vocal harmony master Gene Puerling. The 1971 debut album of the latter group was titled “A Capella.”  Their second album was “Christmas.” Now 50 years later that classic album has been re-released on vinyl with the resurrection of the German MPS Record label. Like the aforementioned June Christy release, if you know this from that era it will automatically put you in the Christmas spirit.

On later releases, particularly when they recorded with Oscar Peterson, the Singers Unlimited swung with the best of them.

The fifth album by the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet is the warm and humorous “Fools For Yule.”  This 21st-century group has absorbed shredded, woodshedded and distilled all the influences of their 20th-century musical ancestors and seem to be finding their own voice.

While not quoting any famous jazz solos- one of the qualifiers of the vocalese style- the UVJQ have five humorous and snappy originals that appropriate the genre. The arrangements of the new songs and the other six mostly well-known favorites make their holiday record jazzier than those of the other vocal groups mentioned in this rundown.

From “Fool For Yule” and the very funny plea from an ignored Mrs. Claus on “Dear Santa, Where’s Mine” to “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas,” a gentle swinger that is an ode to those melancholy this time of year, the originals feel as comfortable standards. Plus the much simpler production values also gives the UJVQ a cozier feel when played against their more prosperous and shinier older musical cousins

A quartet of musical holiday greeting cards from the Great Lakes cities of Cleveland and Detroit winds up this review of what has to be a record number of Christmas jazz releases in one season.  There are many others that either aren’t worthy of the mention or didn’t make the publication deadline.

Every year there are always a few Christmas releases that somehow don’t find their way up the chain until Santa gone and the lights are dimmed.  To that end three of these last four can be considered repurposed gifts from 2020.

In Cleveland producer Kathy Salem has managed to release a Christmas album each of the last couple of years.   “Christmas Ain’t What It Use To Be” (Night Is Alive Productions) is the 2021 release that features an all-star band with the same name as the record label.  With a nearly all-original presentation Salem was wise to hire John DiMartino, one of the most inventive small group arrangers in NYC.

DiMartino is augmented by Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums and tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffrey, who really jams on an up-tempo version of “Blue Christmas.”  But the brightest bulb on this tree is Andromeda Turre, the vocalist who is the daughter of cellist Akua Dixon and trombonist Steve Turre.

Ms. Turre brings life and an honest sincerity to originals “Our First Christmas,” “A Christmas Love Song,” and “Make December Stay.”  While she obviously has the credibility of “Growing Up Jazz,” which is also the name of her web series, she has a bold hint of an r&b influence a la Phyliss Hyman or Angela Bofill.

Salem’s release last year is a truly stunning piano set “Christmas In The Dog House” (Night Is Alive Productions) led by veteran L.A. arranger Bill Cunliffe.  He has among his ten tunes a haunting version of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” from the 1983 David Bowie movie of the same name, and tenor sax great Ralph Moore joins Cunliff’s trio on three tunes including a gospel-tinged romp on “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”

Also from Cleveland comes Vanessa Rubin who we don’t nearly hear enough from.  She is  among a number of singers on the album from bassist and Michigan State University, Rodney Whitaker.  “Cranbrook Christmas Jazz” (Origin) by Whitaker got a late December release in 2020 but should not go overlooked this year.

The title church is where Whitaker commuted from Lasing to Detroit to play with the Christ Church Cranbrook Choir.  He’s crafted progressive jazz arrangements with the choir and their director, Christopher Wells who comes across as a classic jazz crooners on his turns especially “I Love The Winter Weather.”  But it’s clearly Rubin who is the star here from swinging like a horn on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and a Coltrane-ish “My Favorite Things” to a sultry version of “Christmas Time Is Here.”

Detroit is also the home to the major jazz label Mack Avenue Records which in 2014 put out an adequate compilation featuring their artists titled “It’s Christmas on Mack Avenue”(Mack Avenue Records) that included vibraphonist Warren Wolf interpreting “Carol of the Bells.”

Last year Wolf really got into the Christmas spirit with his excellent “Christmas Vibes” (Mack Avenue Records.)  This multi-instrumentalist and producer from Baltimore also plays keys, drums and is friends with the Dashiell family.  Because the sessions were starting just when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, it was important to use folks from his hometown including drummer C.V. Dashiell and rising star vocalist Christie Dashiell.

Wolf’s has always been an important part of the sound of Christmas and he proudly overdubs himself to give the vibes the full Yuletide effect on songs that already scream “Christmas” like the Charlie Brown chestnut “Skating,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker” and “Sleigh Ride.”

On many tracks the leader is a co-star to some dazzling Maryland-based vocalists including the angelic Ms. Dasheill who sings “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” to Wolf’s gospel piano.  Allison Bordlemay wrings all the optimism out of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and jazz and r&b singer Micah Thomas does the funkiest Dr. Seuss on “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch.”

It’s a really fun record that more than lives up to delivering on its title, “Christmas Vibes.”  Actually the same can be said of all these Christmas recordings.

Feature photo of José James courtesy the artist. 

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