Beyond the angelic hosts: A personal Christmas soundtrack


BG Independent News

When I was growing up I remember our family having five Christmas records – a compilation of the standard pop tunes, organ and chimes of sacred tunes, pre-Rudolph Burl Ives, the Chipmunks and a ”A Christmas  Carol” performed by Lionel Barrymore. Besides that it was carols around the piano with my mother accompanying my talented older brothers, with me elbowing my way in as I could and my father in his chair tapping with both feet.  There were the pop tunes bleeding from the radio, though this was before the time of wall-to-wall holiday music from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And then there was music at church. A full-blown French Midnight Mass with “Il Est Ne, Le Divin Infant” (“He Is Born, The Holy Child”) and the climax “Minuit Chretiens (“O Holy Night”) sung with reedy ardor by a tenor who worked summers at the local amusement park, and probably in one of the factories nearly the church otherwise.

I loved the music, every year, seemingly having a favorite hymn. By high school I scoured a collection of international carols for oddities, and studied the notes about origins of tunes.

Years later when Linda and I bought a piano – our first was a freebee old upright that weighed about as much as Santa’s sleigh fully packed – the first music we bought was that same “The International Book of Christmas Carols.” Now we have three copies, one each for piano players in the family, Linda and son Phil, who declared at age 8 “it’s never too early for Christmas music,” and one for trombone – my days of reading over the pianist’s shoulder without my putting them in danger of injury from my slide are long gone.

As a high schooler, my friends and I would schlep from church to church playing for services. One particular night I and three trombone playing buddies did our part for Christian ecumenicalism by playing Bach chorales as a prelude to Midnight Mass.

My background, though, is in jazz. When I started reviewing jazz recordings for Cadence magazine. I took on the job of doing an annual survey of Christmas releases. Now I recall the days when jazz Christmas recordings were a novelty. Stan Kenton issued one, and Columbia put out a couple compilations of holiday recordings by their current roster. Then as the Christmas commercial machine gathered steam, we were greeted by an avalanche of releases. Every year in fall, UPS would drop off a package of a dozen or more Christmas jazz CDs. The quality, in general, was worse than the general run of music I reviewed. Higher percentage of bah humbugs and lower percentage of alleluias. Still I enjoyed seeing how people tried to negotiate their way through that limited collection of standard pop and sacred hymns, and their attempts of corralling the usual holiday clichés into an original songs. Reality check – how many people since the Cratchits have roasted chestnuts over an open fire?

Over the years as my feelings about the season and music matured, but certainly not mellowed, and the internet opened up new vistas and relations shared their own favorites, I accumulated a couple dozen songs that spoke in particular ways to me. Over the years I’ve done Christmas mix tapes and, later, a few CDs.

And I’ve developed my own playlist of songs that resonate with me for different reasons. My feelings about the season are complicated. I’ll be honest there are elements I hate, especially the pressure to make it “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

At heart Christmas offers the promise of light in a dark time. Unless you acknowledge the darkness no good can come of it. The most iconic text of the season, “A Christmas Carol,” the story that birthed a million Christmas villages, starts with a death.

So those looking for unrelenting holiday cheer and sanctimonious uplift should look elsewhere. I believe that as well as shepherds we should have a junkie or two. Sometimes babes lie in tenements as well as stables. And along with those pastures we should remember that Christmas comes to trenches. Peace on Earth, some 2,000 years on, is still an aspiration. The music of the season needs diversity as well. So let’s have some Tibetan throat singers along with the boys choirs, banjos and steel guitar as well as harps and, on a personal note, a little trombone is always in order. With all those Latin exultations, let’s mix in some Yiddish. That babe in the manger was a little Jewish boy, which is why a week after Christmas we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Circumcision.

Now what follows is by no means a comprehensive list of what I listen to. There’s a whole other side of more traditional music led by Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.” That music is more social. This list is personal. These for me are songs that embrace all these complications of the season, which is why it is a wonderful time of the year.

(I’ve included links to YouTube video for all but one of these recordings, usually of the version referenced, but not always as I note below.)

Waiting for Santa

  • “It’s Christmas Time” from “Christmas with Etta Jones.” First Christmas CD I got to review from Cadence. Probably set me up to think they’d all be of this quality. This actually was a rarity. Jones does great version of the American holiday songbook, but “It’s Christmas” was written for the album as far as I can tell. Not a great song of itself, mining the expected clichés, but it’s so ebullient, an adult looking at the holiday through children’s eyes. This arrived with Alma-Lynn and Phil were just babes, so they grew up with this popping up on the stereo every December. Alma-Lynn especially adopted it as her favorite, and it remains so 20+ years later. As a bonus I’ll include Jones’ version of the rhythm ‘n’ blues staple “Merry Christmas Baby.”  It’s a rousing version with solos all around including smooth blues guitar from Randy Johnston, who played in Bowling Green.
  • “Cool Yule” Louis Armstrong Armstrong put out a series of Christmas recordings in the 1950s, all as singles, and there’s still no good compilation that includes all the tracks. The closest is “Louis Armstrong & Friends: The Christmas Collection,” which has work by others and not Armstrong’s own iconic reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” where a bemused Armstrong sounds like he’s just discovering the classic poem. The recordings include some standards, but the best harken back to a time when jazz musicians took a more profane, raucous approach to Christmas. “Cool Yule” written by Steve Allen, is a hipster look at the holiday with Santa blowing a lick on a peppermint stick. But “Christmas Night in Harlem” really catches the spirit of the Jazz Age, “Zat You Santa Claus” is a bit of seasonal minstrelsy, and “Christmas in New Orleans,” is a paean to Armstrong’s hometown, which the resident of Queens, NY, loved more from a distance. “Cool Yule” sets the tone. I remember listening to it driving down Route 6 to cut our Christmas tree at Alexander’s.
  • “Santa Gey Gezunderheit,” Klezmonauts from “Oy to the World.” Here’s a tribute of one businessman to another. A celebration of what Santa Claus faces to make those deliveries “with no option to be late.” The song, full of mellifluous Yiddish, paints a portrait of Santa as “one tough cookie.” I have my brother-in-law Erik to thank for sending this along. The rest of the CD is traditional carols and faux traditional carols including “Little Drummer Boy” with a touch of “Wipeout.” I recall being at a party and putting this on, and it spun on repeat the whole night through. One of those people grooving to these klezmer strains was my late friend and colleague Chris Miller. I often think of him when I play this.
  • “Sherburne (Original Version),” Nowell Sing We Clear Phil posted this on social media a few years back. He has an interest in Sacred Harp singing, an old American style of hymn singing, and that has rough yet vibrant harmonies. Nowell We Sing Clear, which specializes in old English tunes that predate the more standard carols we know, sets the words of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to an old Sacred Harp tune. It’s a hoot.
  • “Christmas Spirit,” Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends Looking for recordings of Louis Armstrong Christmas songs I came upon a collection “Hipsters’ Holiday.” The whole collection captures the satirical, good-time take on Christmas that has all but disappeared. “Christmas Spirit” is one of those laments about Christmas alone. But then maybe Santa may want to stop by and plan to stay. If he loves jazz, and we know he does, that’s a tempting proposition. By the way, one of the Boyfriends is the inimitable trombonist Vic Dickinson who takes a wry, bluesy chorus. That’s probably the biggest reason I keep this track stays in rotation.

Peace on Earth

  • “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” from Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What.” Simon’s one of those artists I appreciate even his lesser work. Built around samples of a sermon from an African-American gospel church, Simon reflects on the modern dilemma of celebrating Christmas. It includes a verse about the narrator’s nephew who “with the luck of a beginner/ will be eating turkey dinner / on a mountaintop in Pakistan.”
  • “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. This is a folk song classic but I only learned about it when John McCutcheon played the Black Swamp Arts Festival’s Main and Family stages in 1999. His children’s albums were an exception my aversion to music targeted at kids. Let ‘em dig Sinatra… and Bruce Springsteen … and Ella … and Louis Armstrong …  and whatever was passing through the stereo system because of my duties as a music journalist. But this song clung to me, and I listen to this ballad about the Christmas Truce during the first year of World War I, probably a couple times every Christmas Eve. A pacifist anthem, its only flaw is the seeming optimistic ending. We have not learned the lessons of World War I well. Not given that a generation later those soldiers who shared secret brandy and photographs from home in 1914 sent their sons to die in World War II, and steady stream of conflicts ever since. Still as with so many Christmas songs I cheer and am cheered by the sentiment.
  • “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Johnny Cash, Talk about dark times. Henry Longfellow wrote these words in Boston in the middle of the Civil War. His son, an officer in the Union Army, had been wounded. The end of rebellion must have seemed far off, and the outcome uncertain. “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men,” he writes before affirming his faith in God and that “right will prevail.” I wish this song didn’t feel so relevant.

Angelic voices

  • “O Holy Night,” Mahalia Jackson from “Christmas with Mahalia.” Each Christmas I play “O Holy Night” it is a measure of how badly I’ve neglected my horn. This may be why my brother-in-law Erik sent us a single of this as a Christmas card many years ago. I later bought the album. The richness of her voice, and the way she soars with devotional intensity pretty much sets the mark for me. Nothing else will do, but I’ll still get the horn out to play it. Several Christmases ago I played it with Phil. His piano buoyed me through the tune, giving me the sense I could play anything. Then I reached for the high notes. He couldn’t lift me that far. Still I will in the spirit and hope of the season, try again this year.
  • “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Judy Garland from the soundtrack of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” This song is proof I can have strong opinions about certain arcane musical matters. In this case it is one phrase, albeit the climatic phrase in this song. Here’s a test: What comes after the line “from now on we all will be together if the fates allow”? You’ve heard Sinatra sing it. You’ve heard the Muppets sing it. “Hang a shining star on the highest bough.” But listen to what Garland, in full lustrous voice, sings to little Margaret O’Brien in the original, “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” That sentiment is what the heart of this song is. I’ve included a link to the entire sequence from the movie. Garland’s singing brings O’Brien’s character to tears and in the end she rushes out and starts beheading snowmen. But when Sinatra, who had already recorded the song, wanted to include it on his album “A Jolly Christmas” he asked the songwriting team of Martin and Blaine for an alternative lyric more fitting to the theme. What are artists to do when asked to alter maybe the best song they’d written? Consider how many royalties they’d earn from a recording by Sinatra. So they scaled that ladder and planted the star. Now that’s the standard lyric. My rants have done little to change that. Occasionally someone, James Taylor, say will revert to the original. My son Erik dutifully reports on sightings of the original, but it’s a futile battle against the wages of institutional holiday cheer. I guess we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.

Other voices

  • “White Wine in the Sun,” Tim Minchin. Minchin who’s known for his criticism of organized religion reflects on the mixed feelings he as an atheist has at the holidays. As he sings from the top “I really like Christmas / It’s sentimental I know / but still I really like it.” He rehearses his aversions to religion, in biting, but clever turns of phrase including a reference to “a dead Palestinian press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer.” For those who think this is heavy handed, you should check out the lyrics of your favorite Christmas carols, especially those beyond the first, familiar chorus, for some really dense theology. Some will see this as the marching song of the War on Christmas. I find much to relate to. Then, halfway through, just in case you missed the import of the opening line, Minchin sings about his baby daughter and it’s pedal to the sentimental, a tear jerker in ways other more traditional songs never achieve.
  • “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl Not sure how I hooked onto it, surely it was during some trip down an internet wormhole. This dark tale told from a drunk tank in New York City tells of deeply trouble love affair. Seldom do you find the words “maggot,” “slut” and “junkie” in a Christmas song. But here they are. Despite that there’s still that rousing chorus about “the boys of the NYPD choir singing ‘Galway Bay’” sets the holiday spirit, and may just have you singing along.
  • “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” Neko Case Neko Case covered this for a Tom Waits tribute album. I was first exposed to Case when she played a concert at the ClaZel in November, 2009. Since then I’ve soaked up as much as I can of her solo work. But the beauty of this is, you forget it’s Neko Case. The singer just disappears into the character.  Linda listening to this and then realizing I was writing about Christmas music, noted someone would not know the connection to the season without the title. That’s true.  But Waits embeds a few references to the Christmas story in here. This is a story of despair and seeking the road to redemption. That makes it Christmas enough for me.

Carols upended

  • “Our Little Town” by Heath Brothers This comes from one of those Columbia compilations “God Rest Merry Jazz Men,” which was released in the late 1970s at the dawn of the Wynton Marsalis Era. Based on “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it is the best jazz arrangement of a traditional carol I’ve encountered.  It keeps just enough of the original to set the holiday tone, while transforming it into a swinging jazz tune that elicits strong blowing from all hands including Toledo native Stanley Cowell on piano. All the players are savvy enough to reference the melody in their solos, which gives a sense of unity, rather than just a disconnected series of solos. Several years ago Heath visited Bowling Green State University where at 88 he schooled students in just what it means to be an old-school jazzman.
  • “Twelve Days of Christmas” by Bela Fleck  from “Jingle All  the Way”  In the more than a decade in which I reviewed holiday CDs this was the only one that made my annual 10 best list (though in retrospect the Etta Jones Christmas deserved the honor as well). More prestigiously it won a Grammy for best pop instrumental album. As if banjo isn’t enough of an intruder on the usual Christmas sonic palette, Fleck invites in a group of Tibetan Tuvan throat singers who elicit an eerie sound creating more than one tone at a time. “Twelve Days of Christmas” is a tour de force. The tune constantly shifts styles, keys and time signatures, spinning out in dizzying, and hilarious fashion.
  • “Sleigh Ride” by Ella Fitzgerald from “Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.” Despite being written for the Arthur Fiedler-era Boston Pops, this Leroy Anderson number swings effortlessly, and when Fitzgerald is driving it accelerates off more like a 400-horse power sports car than a one-horse open sleigh. This is a well-known session, and several of the tracks from the album get regular rotation. But it wasn’t until one day when I was in Finders Records and heard it that its propulsive power hit me. This is the best jazz vocal holiday album ever and will remain so until the big man in the red suit retires.
  • “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” The Campbell Brothers This was a Cadence discovery and my introduction to Sacred Steel, style of steel guitar gospel music. My appreciation deepened as first Calvin Cooke, an elder in the style, and then a series of other bands, including the Campbell Brothers, graced the stages of the Black Swamp Arts Festival. It’s a rousing, hand clapping storefront church version of one of my favorite carols.

All jazzed up

  • “White Christmas,” Charlie Parker So Charlie Parker and his band are gigging at the Royal Roost on Christmas, 1948 (the gig probably started on Christmas Eve). And someone suggests playing a Christmas song, so the band launches into “White Christmas.” This is bebop before it went to school, when it had more in common in attitude to hip hop than its last syllable.  This was also “White Christmas,” already popular though just six years old, before it became the biggest of the America songbook’s holiday chestnuts. Parker is raw, exploratory, tearing through the sentimental tune with a mix of menace, ebullience and wit. I discovered this back in high school. The Holyoke Public Library had a box set of the live Parker recordings put out by Le Cool Jazz. The music was over 20 years old, but it struck me as revolutionary. I can imagine Jack Kerouac grooving in the audience.
  • “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance)” Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, “Three Suites,” This piece, which is largely the work of Ellington protégé Billy Strayhorn, is what launched the whole Nutcracker jazz up thing. It is a marvelous piece of music, and, as Linda notes, very sensual. More adult than we usually think of the Nutcracker. Strayhorn really bends the music to resources of the Ellington band. The whole suite is worth a listen. I picked this track because it displays two of the qualities of the Ellington band. One is the way he and Strayhorn could blend instruments to create piquant sounds. As has been said, a studio composer can write a 12-part chord, and other musicians dissect it and figure out how he achieved the effect. Ellington can voice two horns, and it leaves them scratching their heads. That’s evident here with voicing for clarinet and bass clarinet. Then there’s the way he employed the individual voices of his musicians. Ellington didn’t hire faceless session musicians; everyone had a personality. Here a phrase is passed from one trombone to another, the same few notes but each time expressed by the individual trombonist’s personality.
  • “Winter Weather,” Fats Waller Waller at his sly, wolfish best. Great stride piano and some “yardbird” trumpet. A celebration of one of the benefits of cold weather—getting cozy with your sweetheart.

I’ll close with some medleys of versions of two popular tunes.

  • “Jingle Bells” is the earliest example of a song not about Christmas that was swept into the holiday’s vortex. It originally was a Thanksgiving song, and as such symbolizes that American holiday’s fate of being reduced to a prelude to the Big Day. Now just the first three notes signals Christmas is on its way. Just tapping out the rhythm out is enough. Not surprisingly it has been rendered in variety of ways. Bela Fleck brings on the Tuvan throat singers while someone in Fats Waller’s band gets infected with “the jingle bells” in a comedy routine that leads to a round a swinging solos Duke Ellington recorded it for another of those holiday samplers. He gives the song a streamlined treatment that turns the sleigh into a train. His star soloists, including trombonist Lawrence Brown, each offers a greeting.
  • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” another tune that’s not about Christmas that’s now relegated mostly to holiday playlists, has become controversial as we worry more about consent in sexual relations. A recent NPR piece explored the controversy and included an updated version by Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski. The line “what’s in this drink” has taken on an entirely new meaning than it had when Frank Loesser wrote the song as a number for him and his wife, Lynn, to perform at swanky parties. This recording of them singing it is interesting, and quite different from how it’s now performed. They take it faster than is now the custom, and their lines overlap, giving the sense, not so much of a conversation, but as two people talking past each other. Controversy or not the song remains a favorite as a way of pairing off male and female stars, whether there’s any chemistry at all. To my ears you can’t beat the version by Ray Charles and a young Betty Carter. Knowing Charles’ reputation as a womanizer, gives this an edge. Carter for her part already shows how she can bend a line to her will. But if you want to avoid those touchy issues why not go with an instrumental version. Trombonist extraordinaire Roswell Rudd celebrated his 80th birthday last year with an album “Trombone for Lovers,” on which he played “Baby” as a duet with slide trumpeter Steve Bernstein with John Medeski on organ. No link to this track but there is a copy of the CD for sale at Finders because regardless of the season a little trombone is always in order.