Here is a playlist that makes my holiday season bright. Roy Budd and John Zorn might also have made the cut, but those pieces weren’t readily available online. The presence of three certain Kings is a happy coincidence that shows just how much great musicians can make of a timeless tune. Suffice to say, all of this music is festive, timeless and wonderfully satisfying:
”Carol of the Bells” – David Benoit: A favorite holiday tune that first entered my orbit on the 1963 album The Joy of Christmas by Leonard Bernstein Conducting The New York Philharmonic and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Benoit has a very warm and special place in Christmas music.
”My Favorite Things – Kenny Burrell: Sure, John Coltrane turned this into a jazz standard and it’s as close as he got to a holiday tune. But while I treasure what McCoy Tyner does there, guitarist Kenny Burrell is, hands down, my favorite purveyor of this Richard Evans-arranged Sound of Music classic.
”Hallelujah from The Messiah” – The Classical Jazz Quartet (Kenny Barron/Ron Carter/Stefon Harris/Lewis Nash): The all-star CJQ’s fantastic Christmas disc is rife with terrific takes on classic-oriented holiday fare. This is always a lot of fun to hear.
”Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)” – Duke Ellington: Of course. Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite” is one of the greatest pieces of jazz and Christmas ever.
”Skating” – Vince Guaraldi Trio: Of course. The pianist’s “Christmas Time is Here” has, of course, become a standard (I would like to have included John Zorn’s version here) but “Skating” is one of jazz’s greatest tunes and one that spells the magic of Christmas to me.
”Toy Parade” – Bert Kaempfert and His Orchestra: From Kaempfert’s great 1963 Christmas album that also includes “Jingo Jangle” and “Holiday for Bells.”
”The Sound of Christmas” – The Ramsey Lewis Trio: From the first of the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s first of two Christmas albums, this is one of my favorite, if little-known holiday tunes. I’m sad we lost Ramsey Lewis this year.
”We Three Kings” – The Ramsey Lewis Trio: From the Lewis Trio’s second holiday disc, rife with fun party trifles. This is one King that swings.
”Good King Winceslas” – Mannheim Steamroller: Sometimes you gotta love the eighties. This is when I do.
”Christmas Waltz” – Oscar Peterson: This was originally written for Frank Sinatra, and while it has been covered by a few jazzers, it makes sense that it unwraps itself in pianist Oscar Peterson’s nimble hands.
”We Three Kings” – Jimmy Ponder: The Pittsburgh born and bred guitarist put out all-too few albums. But one of his last was a Christmas record. This is among one of its highlights - tapping into a certain version of "My Favorite Things."
”Christmas Time” – Salsoul Orchestra: Come on, how fun is this? A little disco mixed with a little calypso (and some rather silly lyrics) make for a festive bit of holiday cheer.
”God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” – The George Shearing Quintet: Mixing this standard with another standard (Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”) was brilliant. (Shearing likewise beautifully imposed Zawinul’s “Birdland” on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”)
”We Three Kings (Of Orient Are)” – Jimmy Smith: Surprisingly, one of producer Creed Taylor’s few holiday-oriented albums, “the Boss” or “the Incredible” Smith knocks this one out of the park in a magnificently-arranged piece of holiday-ana.
”Merry Christmas, Baby” – Soulful Strings (featuring Dorothy Ashby): This comes from a Christmas album I could listen to throughout the year. Arranged and produced by the magisterial Richard Evans, “Merry Christmas, Baby” makes the holiday warm and bright.
”The Holly and the Ivy” – George Winston: This is a gorgeous piece of holiday lore that is delivered beautifully by San Francisco-based pianist George Winston. His classic December album has many other notable solo features, including the moving “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head.” (Bob James arranges a nice version of this – as “The Ivy Variations” – on the Fourplay disc Snowbound.)