Every November, around Thanksgiving Day, I move my holiday music collection into the living room. It takes some effort, because I have to shift a couple of CD storage shelves down to the basement and bring my seasonal CD collection upstairs. Then I bring the holiday LPs up from the basement, and they displace the records I’ve been playing recently. I don’t know how much of my holiday music ends up hitting my turntable or CD player from late November through early January, but it takes up a good bit of living-room real estate.
Only my wife and one of my friends share my affection for this music, so I realize it’s a bit of eccentricity on my part. Still, it serves two purposes. First, it locks the season in for me. I was in a Kohl’s department store a week before Halloween, and they were already playing Christmas music. Sorry, but no. For me, the holiday season begins on Thanksgiving Day and ends on Epiphany (January 6)—that’s plenty of time to play all the yuletide music I own. My collection grows because my wife gives me at least two new discs of holiday music each year, and I can never resist the urge to buy myself at least one new Christmas LP.
Second, having a collection of holiday music I like lets me choose what I want to hear. It’s an antidote to all the sappy Christmas music at malls, dentist offices, and other places, which can make me even crankier than usual.
Beginning this year, I can play one holiday record a little early. In October, Lee Mendelson Film Productions released the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (LP, Lee Mendelson Film Productions LM02301) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the animated special’s broadcast on the CBS TV network. Vince Guaraldi composed and performed the music for the show, as he did for many of the Peanuts animated specials over the years. Even after he died, in 1976, his themes continued to be used in later Peanuts specials.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving doesn’t have the emotional resonance of A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), in part because of its brevity. The music from the soundtrack runs a little over 21 minutes, and several alternate takes add another 12 minutes. There are still plenty of reasons to own the album, however, especially if you are a Guaraldi fan. He takes the lead vocal for “Little Birdie,” his buoyant ditty about Woodstock, Snoopy’s avian sidekick, and his voice has an amusing everyman quality that gives the track its humor and soul. Trumpeter Tom Harrell’s horn arrangement adds tremendous vitality, as do his well-paced improvisations throughout.
Guaraldi multitracks acoustic, electric, and Wurlitzer pianos on “Peppermint Patty,” which deftly combines Guaraldi’s easy jazz with bossa nova. Two passes at “Charlie Brown Blues,” one on acoustic piano and a slower version on electric and acoustic piano, are reminders of how blues and gospel music forms the basis of Guaraldi’s playing. He plays a creditable blues guitar on “Is It James or Charlie?,” which is aided mightily by Mike Clark’s Bay Area funk drumming.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Linus and Lucy,” but Harrell’s horn arrangement for this version of the tune brings something new to a song I never tire of hearing. The album includes several passes at “Thanksgiving Theme” and “Thanksgiving Interlude,” including a few alternate takes, and Guaraldi was such an engaging melodist that they make for enjoyable background music as you carve the turkey (a chore I leave to my wife’s more skilled hands).
The producers have left some studio chatter on the tracks, including Guaraldi counting in the band on each track. I think the music might have flowed more naturally without that inclusion, but A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is a fine addition to my holiday music collection and a good way to ease into the season.
As I said, I have a lot of holiday music, and I might return to a column like this each year to point out some gems, but here are some titles to get you started.
Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Timeless and essential. Guaraldi brings his blues-based style to traditionals, including “O Tannenbaum” and “What Child Is This?,” and his original themes for the Peanuts Christmas special—first broadcast in 1965—capture the essence of the characters and the spirit of the holidays. I dare anyone to avoid smiling as “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating” play. “Christmas Time Is Here” is bittersweet enough to make you think of those who aren’t around to share the holidays with you, and a reprise of the song, with a chorus of children singing to Guaraldi’s accompaniment, is somehow both happy and wistful. “Christmas Is Coming” embraces the joy of the season without descending into sentimentality. I bought the original CD release in 1986 (Fantasy Records FCD 8431) and it has hit the disc drawer more than any CD in my collection. There are many, many vinyl reissues available, but I doubt any of them sound as good as the Craft Recordings pressing from 2017 (Craft Recordings CR00061), mastered by George Horn.
Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960)
Ella Fitzgerald’s collection of secular Christmas songs appeared on Verve Records in 1960. She doesn’t treat the tracks on the album as novelties, even though many of them certainly are. She gives the songs spirited and enjoyable readings, with the aid of Frank De Vol’s smart arrangements. There are many delightful moments, like the close of “Jingle Bells,” where Fitzgerald tells us she’s “just crazy ’bout horses!” The backing vocals on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” are very 1960s, and a bit MOR, but Fitzgerald doesn’t allow the song not to swing. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is downright sexy, and I wish whoever played the terrific vibes on “The Christmas Song” was listed in the album credits. Fitzgerald can even make you snap your fingers to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The 2002 CD reissue (Verve Records 440 065 086-2) adds five tracks from the original sessions, but the Verve Records / Acoustic Sounds vinyl reissue from 2021 (Verve B0033746-01) is still available, and it’s sonically superior.
Carla Bley: Carla’s Christmas Carols (2009)
Carla Bley, who died in October at age 87, was a formidable composer, arranger, bandleader, and keyboard master. She recorded Carla’s Christmas Carols in December 2008 with bassist Steve Swallow and the Partyka Brass Quintet. Watt / ECM Records released it on CD the following November. Bley reimagines ten well-known Christmas tunes and adds two of her own compositions. The opening bars of “O Tannenbaum” sound familiar, but the tune soon moves into more complex chords and unusual variations on the melody. Bley introduces “Away in a Manger” on celesta but then switches to piano; her chords begin to pull the song into unexpected harmonic territory, prompting a beautiful, moving solo from Swallow. If you tire of “The Christmas Song,” allow Bley’s arrangement to reawaken your affection for the song. Bley’s “Hell’s Bells” is lively and swinging, and her “Jesus Maria” is contemplative and delicate. “Jingle Bells” sounds as it would if played by a New Orleans street band. Carla’s Christmas Carols is one holiday album I’m tempted to play at other times of the year. Alas, no vinyl, but the CD release sounds wonderful (ECM Records B0013428-02).
Det Norske Jentekor, Anne Karin Sundal-Ask, Tord Gustavsen: Stille grender (2020)
Det Norske Jentekor is the Norwegian Girls’ Choir, under the direction of Anne Karin Sundal-Ask. Stille grender (2L 2L-164-SABD) consists largely of interpretations of Norwegian carols, sensitively arranged by Sundal-Ask and sung with great beauty by the choir. Jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen accompanies the singers on most tracks and has two solo features. The familiar “Carol of the Bells” pulls you into the disc with the ethereal charm of the choir, which contrasts with Gustavsen’s slightly tense accompaniment. As I wrote in my 2021 review of Stille grender: “Gustavsen evokes the noise and intensity of modern life and the voices of the choir invite us to set those pressures aside.” The pianist plays beautifully throughout, and never overshadows the choir, whose voices capture the wonder and grace of the season. His piano on “Det lyser i stille grender” (“The Glow of a Peaceful Village”) has an old-church grandeur that gives the song a spiritual glow, and the two tracks sung by the choir without accompaniment are stunning. The set is on Norway’s 2L label, which specializes in high-resolution releases. It consists of a hybrid CD/SACD disc and a Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc. The Blu-ray has an expanded program with ten solo tracks by Gustavsen.
Jimmy Smith: Christmas Cookin’ (originally released in 1964 as Christmas ’64; reissued in 1965 as Christmas Cookin’ with a new cover)
The title tells you everything you need to know. The master of the Hammond B-3 interprets eight yuletide classics (ten on my 1992 CD version) that help you bounce through the holidays. A big-band arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” starts with timpani, joined quickly by a tuba that states the melody. Other horns enter to fill things out before Smith and the rest of the orchestra swing the tune hard. The big band accompanies Smith on four more tracks, and arrangements by Billy Byers and Al Cohn give Smith plenty of opportunity to burn through “We Three Kings (of Orient Are),” “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas,” and even “Silent Night.” Smith’s trio, with Quentin Warren on guitar and Billy Hart on drums, play on three other tracks, including a return to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that the group brings to a slow simmer to close the original album. The CD (Verve 314 513 711 2) adds two more tracks, including an instrumental version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with co-leader Wes Montgomery. Christmas ’64 is the same album, but Christmas Cookin’ has the way-cool cover photo of Smith, dressed as Santa, delivering gifts in a red Alfa Romeo.
Various Artists: Soul Christmas (1968)
The original LP consists of 11 holiday tunes by Stax/Volt and Atlantic Records soul artists. Otis Redding’s version of “White Christmas” has made its way to a few movie soundtracks, and for good reason, but he also does a rousing “Merry Christmas Baby,” a 1947 hit for Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” is lascivious and funny, and Joe Tex’s impassioned vocals on “I’ll Make Every Day Christmas (for My Woman)” transcend the somewhat over-lush arrangement. King Curtis’s take on “The Christmas Song” is a prime example of his elegant soulfulness, which is never in danger of being overwhelmed by the strings surrounding it. Roughly half the tunes were new when the LP was released, and my Christmas is not complete until I hear Solomon Burke singing his own “Presents for Christmas.” The CD adds three tracks, and Carla Thomas’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is not Mariah Carey’s massive hit. Thomas’s other song on the disc, “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas,” is much better. Even on the expanded CD, Soul Christmas contains no duds. A vinyl reissue is available, but the 1994 CD (Rhino Records R2 71788) is out of print. No worries—used copies on Discogs go for less than ten bucks.
Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song (1962)
If you’re a boomer, this was likely in your parents’ collection. Cole did the definitive version of Mel Tormé’s justly loved classic, and brings his class, taste, and understated sense of swing to 13 other tracks. Those qualities could have been lost in a version of “Deck the Hall” that is the epitome of MOR blandness, but Cole transcends it, as he does on many of the other tracks. He sings “O Tannenbaum” in German and makes that harsh language sound beautiful. His phasing and playful sense of timing on “I Saw Three Ships” could have been swamped by the arrangement, but Cole rises above it. A nostalgic entry in this list, perhaps, but a holiday season without Cole is as unthinkable as one without Guaraldi. The 1999 CD reissue (Capitol 72435-21251-2-8) adds three tracks, but the LP (Capitol Records SW 1967) has been reissued many times and often turns up in used bins.
James Taylor: At Christmas (2006)
As Taylor wrote in the liner notes for this album: “Christmas holiday music is a rich and varied bag.” Those words describe the album, too. James leans toward jazz on most of his interpretations of holiday classics on At Christmas (CD, Columbia Records CD 88697 00323 2), with a nod here and there to his folk-rock roots. Dave Grusin produced and handled the horn and string arrangements for At Christmas, which was first released by Hallmark two years previously with a different title and track listing. Grusin avoids his smooth-jazz tendencies in the understated arrangements. Trumpeter Chris Botti does a nice turn on “Winter Wonderland,” and John Pizzarelli’s guitar gives several other tracks their old-style swing. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is Taylor at his folk-rock best, but with a strong gospel touch. “Jingle Bells” has a soul-jazz vibe, thanks to Larry Goldings on organ—Taylor, like Ella Fitzgerald on her Christmas album, takes this overdone carol and makes it new. Toots Thielemans gives “The Christmas Song” just what it needs in an arrangement that otherwise is a bit too sweet. That’s the only track about which I have any reservations, and they’re slight. And Taylor makes up for it with a beautiful reading of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The album’s a holiday favorite in this Taylor house, and if I had forgotten to list it here my wife would have asked me why.
Bruce Cockburn: Christmas (1993)
Cockburn opens Christmas (CD, Columbia CK 53026) with a brief display of his mastery of the acoustic guitar on “Adeste Fideles.” The next track, “Early on One Christmas Morn,” is an exuberant tune from the late 1920s, first recorded by the Cotten Top Mountain Sanctified Singers as “Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn.” From solemn to joyful in two tracks. Cockburn does fine versions of well-known holiday tunes on Christmas, but the album is notable for his less predictable choices. “Ríu Ríu Chíu,” a Spanish carol from the 16th century, features Cockburn’s dazzling guitar work, but gains much of its interest from the vocal arrangement. “Down in Yon Forest” is a traditional English folk song dating from the Renaissance era, and its strange melody and unsettling lyrics are the perfect antidote to Christmas schmaltz. It turns out that the popular Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” was originally a traditional French carol titled “Les anges dans nos campagnes.” Cockburn sings the French version, and his harmonica and the unusual percussion arrangement enliven the tune. The haunting “Iesus Ahatonnia (The Huron Carol)” is a 16th-century hymn written for the Iroquoian-speaking Wendat in Canada in their native tongue by a French missionary. Cockburn’s formidable guitar skills and his abilities as an arranger even refresh an old chestnut like “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”
The Singers Unlimited: Christmas (1972)
Gene Puerling started Singers Unlimited in 1966, after he left the Hi-Lo’s, an all-male jazz vocal quartet. The Singers Unlimited had a woman as the fourth voice, and Bonnie Herman’s energetic singing gave Puerling’s arrangements an effortless high register. Christmas (CD, MPS Records 821 859-2) mixes familiar carols with lesser-known holiday tunes, all sung a cappella. The quartet sings a bubbly “Merry merry, merry merry, merry, merry Christmas!” in four-part harmony to open the first track, “Deck the Halls.” Puerling varies the harmonies and tempo of the song to keep it fresh and unpredictable, and the result is infectious and upbeat. Christmas includes six songs by Alfred Burt, a jazz musician who composed carols for his family. You’ll know “Caroling, Caroling,” but the other five songs are just as memorable, and the quartet’s vocals and timing are marvelous. Puerling’s arrangement of Burt’s “Jesu Parvule” combines jazz harmony and Baroque-era elegance. “Carol of the Russian Children,” a traditional, is achingly beautiful; “Good King Wenceslas” is a bit of old England; and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” closes things on a gentle note. My wife gave me this CD reissue several years ago, and each Christmas morning it plays as we have our pre-gift hot chocolate and cinnamon buns.
As I noted before, I have lots of holiday music, and I’ll make new recommendations every year. One quick mention: You can read my review of Duke Pearson’s Merry Ole Soul here. Grab the LP while copies are still available on vinyl.
. . . Joseph Taylor