Christmas music filled with the crisply swinging rhythms of jazz, the drifting timbres of flutes and synthesizers, the acoustic sounds of world music? It's not precisely what one imagines as an audio track for jolly St. Nick's trip down the chimney.
But don't be fooled: Louis Armstrong recorded "Santa Claus Blues" in 1924, Fats Waller had his way with "Jingle Bells" in the '30s, "White Christmas" has been rendered by players ranging from the legendary Charlie Parker to new star saxophonist James Carter, and New Age music and world music have proven felicitous settings for seasonal sounds.
This year's bountiful collection of yuletide recordings stretches the repertoire even further, demonstrating that the energies of the winter solstice can generate a lot more than Christmas carols.
Mainstream Jazz: If swing is what you're looking for, nobody does it better than Oscar Peterson on "An Oscar Peterson Christmas" (Telarc). Most of the grooving in this attractive mix of carols and standard tunes, in fact, is provided by Peterson's ever-driving piano work. And his elegant harmonizations of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night" (complete with string ensemble) and his subtle solo impromptu on "O Christmas Tree" are added bonuses.
A stellar lineup is on hand for "Jazz to the World" (Blue Note). The album, like "A Very Special Christmas" 1 & 2, benefits the Special Olympics. With Dianne Reeves, Fourplay, Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker and Chick Corea--among others--present, expect widely divergent readings of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (Reeves), "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" (Fourplay) and "The Christmas Song" (Baker).
But the high points are supplied by more unusual interpretations: Cassandra Wilson's poignant "The Little Drummer Boy," the Brecker Brothers' Latin-tinged "Christmas Waltz," John McLaughlin's guitar on "O Come O Come Emmanuel" (with rich accompaniment from Jim Beard's superb synthesizer score) and Chick Corea's gentle "What Child Is This?"
"Swing Into Christmas" (Columbia), featuring trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., pianist Marcus Roberts and gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins, was recorded a year ago before a studio audience and will be televised as an A&E; cable Christmas Day special.
The music doesn't always live up to the usual standards of the high-visibility performers, but Roberts' stride-style "Winter Wonderland," Blanchard's reading of Vince Guaraldi's lovely "Christmas Time Is Here" and Marsalis' spirited, Ellingtonesque, nine-piece band arrangements of "Carol of the Bells" and "Let It Snow!" are well worth the price of admission.
Pop Jazz for Christmas: Fans of the pop instrumental music inaccurately identified as contemporary jazz will also find something on this year's menu. Russ Freeman's "Holiday" (GRP) is a personal collection of songs, many of them multi-tracked by the Rippingtons' leader and guitarist. Freeman has come up with novel rhythmic graftings--quasi-reggae for "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," salsa for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"--that don't do much to enhance the originals. Better, despite occasionally questionable intonation and a number of curious harmonic choices, are his acoustic versions of "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Angels We Have Heard on High."
Roberto Perera's "Christmas Fantasies" (Heads Up) showcases the harpist's breezy romps through "Sleigh Ride" and "Winter Wonderland" in performances that will delight Wave-music fans. But Perera's playing is more musically appealing on the lesser-known Latin tunes "La Peregrinacion" and "Nino Lindo."
"It's a Wonderful Life: Sax at the Movies for Christmas" (Discovery) is a seasonal installment in the company's series of film-oriented productions. There are few surprises in the smooth-as-silk, let's-sit-by-the-fire interpretations of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "The Christmas Song," etc. by a group featuring pianist Bill Cunliffe, trumpeter Bobby Shew and saxophonists Gary Foster and Nino Tempo. But the inclusion of such items as Jimmy Webb's "Christmas Will Return" (from "The Santa Clause") and Paul Williams' "When Love Is Gone" (from "The Muppets Christmas Carol") places a slightly uncommon spin on an otherwise predictable outing.
Cornucopias: No one sells as many Christmas recordings as Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller--currently 8 million and counting. "Christmas in the Aire" (American Gramaphone) is the ensemble's third Christmas album, and first in seven years. The formula remains the same: familiar pieces--"Joy to the World" and "Jingle Bells"--mixed with works from around the globe such as "Pat a Pan," "Gagliarda" and "Los Peces en el Rio." Arrangements are conceived within a variety of backdrops, juxtaposing full orchestra, choirs, synthesizers and solo instruments, often sustained by vigorous rhythms. And it's all recorded in fidelity brilliant enough to test the parameters of the finest stereo system. How successful is the formula? Look at it this way: 4 million retail orders had been placed before the CD was in the stores.
The most far-ranging musical gathering, however, is "Winter, Fire & Snow" (Atlantic). The 15 artists include American pop veterans Robbie Robertson, Phoebe Snow and Tuck & Patti, as well as the Gypsy Kings, Ottmar Liebert, Jane Siberry, the Norwegian trio Bel Canto, the Irish band Clannad and the Ivory Coast's Manu Dibango. It would be hard to imagine a more colorful or more consistently entertaining anthology of cross-cultural holiday music.
Atlantic also has an alternative pop collection, "You Sleigh Me!," with numbers by Tori Amos, Victoria Williams, Daniel Johnston and others, in addition to the above-noted James Carter examination of "White Christmas"--an iconoclastic translation that probably would have motivated Irving Berlin to have a serious conversation with his lawyers.
Windham Hill, a dependable source of pleasant yuletide sounds, has released "A Winter's Solstice V," its fifth assemblage of carols and the like, performed by the company's roster of New Age artists. In addition to the well-known carols--"Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "The First Noel," etc.--there is a captivating Norwegian song, "Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker" played by organist Oystein Sevag, and the Native American "Doo'Iit'Saa'Da (Another Silent Night)," rendered on wooden flute by Douglas Spotted Eagle.
Also from Windham Hill, "Celtic Christmas" is an endlessly fascinating sampler of Celtic traditional tunes and original works. The impressive array of musicians includes Nightnoise's singer-keyboardist Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, Uilleann piper Liam O'Flynn and the remarkable, jazz-based low whistle player Cormac Breatnach. This is one that could easily slip through the cracks, but which should not be missed.
The Turtle Island Quartet's "By the Fireside" (Windham Hill) has only problem: It can't seem to decide upon a Christmas destination. Among the wildly eclectic selections are compositions by the group's members and some idiosyncratic re-arrangements of "Winter" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," a monologue by Garrison Keillor and a vocal rendition of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."
Another New Age label, Narada, has also made Christmas music one of its continuing priorities. This year's entry is "Christmas Blessings: The Narada Christmas Collection, Vol. 3." With the exception of David Arkenstone's version of "Silver Bells" and William Ellwood's "The Little Drummer Boy," the program is devoted to carols, thoughtfully performed by such Narada artists as Nancy Rumbel, Eric Tingstad and Michael Jones.