I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas albums. Outside of a very select few that have earned and achieved unqualified timelessness – say, Johnny Mathis’s 1958 album Merry Christmas (gorgeously backed by the ever-underrated Percy Faith), Vince Guaraldi, The Carpenters (!) and George Winston – most seem like gimmicky novelty records designed for easy sales (and they do sell).
Most are downright silly or just plain boring.
Growing up, I was always partial to my mother’s album The Joy of Christmas, the 1963 classic by Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Their mesmerizing take on “Carol of the Bells” is the first Christmas tune that ever piqued my interest in holiday music. Otherwise, this scene just wasn’t my thing.
My Christmas discs are admittedly few, but the ones I have skew mostly toward jazz (I also lump the elegant Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Nutcracker in here) or Bert Kaempfert and the lovely John Zorn album A Dreamer’s Christmas.
For obvious reasons, they rarely get a spin outside of the holidays. Honestly, who wants to hear Christmas music in July? Well, sure, lots of people. Bah humbug, not me.
There is one exception: The magisterial The Magic of Christmas, the 1968 album by The Soulful Strings, a holiday mainstay and one that, like all good music, transcends temporal boundaries with genuinely original – and joyous – musicianship.
The Magic of Christmas is the fourth of seven albums the studio group The Soulful Strings recorded between 1966 and 1970 for the Chicago-based Cadet label. The Soulful Strings was evidently the brainchild of Argo/Cadet producer Esmond Edwards, who, disliking the sound of violins, thought the combination of violas and cellos would make a good jazz noise.
Edwards knew that Argo/Cadet’s house arranger, Richard Evans (who, in a 2009 interview, credited the Soulful Strings concept to the Chess label co-founder Leonard Chess) could make it happen. Evans leavened the groove with flute and guitar and something unique was born.
Richard Evans (1932-2014) was the classic musician’s musician – and someone who never got the accolades he richly deserved. The Alabama-born Evans grew up in Chicago, where he got his start as a bassist in the Sun Ra band (he wrote the band’s “Lullaby for Realville”).
He went on to play in the bands of Dinah Washington, Maynard Ferguson, Paul Winter and Eddie Higgins, releasing his solo debut, Richard’s Almanac, in 1959 (with the woefully underappreciated pianist Jack Wilson). Evans later arranged successful albums for Ahmad Jamal, Gene Shaw and Ramsey Lewis, each revealing more of his gifts as an identifiable composer and a substantially unique arranger.
The first Soulful Strings album, Paint it Black, served up a platter of rock and pop hits of the day, with Evans’s genuinely soulful approach taking the familiar tunes in totally new directions. The concept was as far from Mantovani as you could get: these strings swing. “The result is a surprise,” said Billboard. “Instead of harming the feel of the music, a new dimension is added.”
The album became something of a hit, generating further recordings and such hits as Evans’s “Burning Spear” (from the second Strings album, Groovin’ With The Soulful Strings, and covered by Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Joe Pass and S.O.U.L.) and the equally brilliant Evans collaboration with Donny Hathaway, “Zambezi” (from the sixth Strings album, String Fever, and covered by Eddy Senay and the Salsoul Orchestra).
(By the way, a month after waxing Paint it Black, Evans arranged Kenny Burrell’s intoxicating holiday classic, Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas, which is nearly as definitive a Christmas listening experience as any jazz lover could hope for.)
Recorded in Chicago during the balmy month of August 1968 and released just in time for Christmas in November of that year, The Magic of Christmas balances a dazzling program of traditional holiday favorites with well-considered plums, such as Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall.”
The album opens with an unusually and mercifully upbeat “Little Drummer Boy.” Evans’s distinctive strings carry the tune (and funky counterpoint), while Len Druss solos on flute. It’s also the first of harpist Dorothy Ashby’s turns in the album’s spotlight.
Even though Evans was working on Ashby’s worthy Cadet albums of the period, her appearance here is especially inspired. Ashby’s melodic phrasing and sensitive approach suggest nothing less than the combination of, umm, snowfall and twinkling lights. Appropriately, both Ashby and Druss feature again on Evans’s sublimely seasonal “Snowfall.”
For a hippy, trippy Christmas, Evans gives “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” a sort of soulful “Paint it Black” suit, abetted by Druss on oboe or bassoon (!), Ron Steele on sitar (!) and Bobby Christian on vibes. It works, too, even if it sounds all wrong on paper.
Evans decks “Deck the Halls” in the album’s most traditional of holiday apparel, yet it comes off as a moody musical montage from “A Christmas Carol,” traversing both the story’s light and darker moments. Not sure if the average listener would go for this, but I think it’s a magical bit of scoring.
Likewise, Mel Torme’s chestnut “The Christmas Song” gets a traditional jazz reading that works to its benefit. Christian mans the tune by himself in a way that suggests the Modern Jazz Quartet, but Evans’s touches make it seem more like Milt Jackson swinging warmly with Quincy Jones.
We’re back on the polar express with the terrifically funky “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Evans scores the melody as though it were a chant and Ramsey Lewis Trio bassist Cleveland Eaton serves up one of his deliciously distinctive scat solos in the key of Santa Claus is getting on down.
Evans funks “Jingle Bells” up, too, with an arrangement that turns the earworm into a butterfly, if such a thing is possible. The legendary Phil Upchurch rocks it up a notch, too. The miracle of Evans’s musical transformations is even evident on the strange “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” where Leon Jessel’s holiday march swings into a soulful shuffle straight out of the Motor city.
Surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” is the best, if not the hottest, cookie on the plate here, with Dorothy Ashby delivering a smoldering performance while Evans stokes the fire with a sexy string arrangement (that nods, to these ears, again to Quincy Jones). If those mixed metaphors don’t put you off, “Merry Christmas Baby” is a worthy addition to a playlist that gets attention all year long.
The Magic of Christmas, which was issued by Real Gone Music on CD in 2015 (and, thus far, the only official release of a Soulful Strings album on CD), is a delightfully diverse program that offers the covers and colors as well as the flavors and feelings of the season, while avoiding the contrivances and cliches – like sleighbells, triangles and icky children’s choirs – that lock it into an annual guilty-pleasure listening experience.
“Christmas strikes some warm chords,” said Billboard, “on the Soulful Strings’ seasonal tribute to the magic of holiday music.” But The Magic of Christmas is so much more – and better – than that. It finds the magic of the season in the soul of swing.
Your holidays – and your collection – will be happier with this joyful release.