New Holiday Music!

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Tis the season. Treasurable Christmas jazz albums from the past are getting gift-wrapped again. The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (first out in 1965, with multiple reissues since) returns as a vinyl record from Craft, its jacket decked with a silver foil. Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960) comes to town with Santa one more time as part of the Verve Acoustic Sounds line of record releases. And Duke Pearson’s Merry Ole Soul (1969) now appears in the Blue Note Classic Vinyl Reissue Series. There’s plenty of other newly released holiday music to check out, too; a few of the albums reviewed below may even stand the test of time. And check out our entire Gift Guide from the December issue HERE.

Norah Jones
I Dream Of Christmas (Blue Note)
Back in 2012, Norah Jones showed she was good company for Christmas by recording the single “Home For The Holidays” with Cyndi Lauper. Further holiday music activity in the studio hasn’t followed … until now. Worth the wait, her initial Yule album, the equivalent of a box of cherry cordials, has her determined to find new ways to freshen standards such as “White Christmas,” “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Winter Wonderland.” For a surprise, she lends maturity to Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” a 1960s pop bagatelle recast here as a stroll through Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans. With her phrasing and breath control ever so precise, the singer also connects clear-eyed emotional concentration with a holiday feel in thoughtful songs of her own. Temperamentally and musically attuned to Jones’ personality are producer-saxophonist Leon Michels and other colleagues like drummer Brian Blade and bassist Tony Scheer.

Jeff Hamilton Trio
Merry & Bright (Capri)
Over the last 20-plus years, five albums by Jeff Hamilton Trio featuring the drummer and pianist Tamir Hendelman have engendered considerable acclaim. (Current bass player Jon Hamar came aboard in 2018.) The winning streak continues with their first perusal of the Yule songbook, yielding fresh-as-newly-fallen-snow revisions of standards “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “The Little Drummer Boy” as well as two unexpected delights composed by 1940s/’50s jazz man Alfred Burt: “Caroling Caroling” and “Bright Bright The Holy Berries.” Hendelman endears himself to the melodies but he’s really on his game stretching out a bit in medium-tempo and ballad arrangements. The stimulating sense of creativity in the studio and the overall warm vibe of the music is also attributable to Hamilton and Hamar. As expected, the trio leader plays with easy lyricism; he has keen, unstudied instincts and a sublime time feel. Jeff Hamilton Trio Christmas jazz is like hot mulled cider: mildly exhilarating, a little sweet, perfect for the moment.

Benny Benack III With The Steven Feifke Big Band
Season’s Swingin’ Greetings (Cellar Music Group)
Recording almost half of this jazz album remotely, singer-trumpeter Benny Benack III and pianist-conductor-arranger Steven Feifke put their enthusiasm for Christmastime and the eight days of Hanukkah to good use on wintry material played by a 16-piece band and smaller groups. Just shy of Rat Pack smarminess, Benack’s suave voice exploits the mirth in “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the fruitcake humor in the self-penned “My Girlfriend Is An Elf.”

José James, Merry Christmas From Josė James (Rainbow Blond) Josė James relies on his smooth-textured voice and charisma to give listeners relief from stress during Yuletide. He’s comfortable with time-hallowed melodies, and he shows empathy for the lighthearted grace of “The Christmas Song” and other evergreens like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Very nice, but one wishes he had given freer rein to his imagination when picking tunes for his first holiday album. James’s most intimate performance comes on his self-written tune “Christmas In New York,” where pianist Aaron Parks gives a good accounting of himself.

Mick Kolassa
Uncle Mick’s Christmas Album (Endless Blues)
Unheralded bluesman Mick Kolassa, who lived for three decades in Mississippi before relocating to Memphis, makes good albums on a regular basis. His first Xmas one is better than good; it has the stuff to become a minor classic. Inventive makeovers of the usual Xmas picks and some strong original songs show the value of Kolassa’s slow-and-easy approach to singing lyrics. His weathered, imprecise voice aches with true-blue experience, even when he keeps a strong upper lip. The performance with its sharpest edge of emotion is his bittersweet tune “The Best Christmas Ever.”

Morgan James
A Very Magnetic Christmas (Hedonist)
Morgan James, a Juilliard-trained singer with Broadway credits, announced herself as a soul-rock singer with Memphis Magnetic in 2020. For her first Christmas outing, she continues to steer her new stylistic course with returning producer-guitarist Doug Wamble, who’s no stranger to jazz fans, and with a few other musicians from the earlier record. James employs a formula: She starts off predictable material and original tunes at a slow, friendly pace then gradually builds her voice up to nuclear-strength passion à la Etta James (no relation) or Otis Redding. More revealing singing of a quieter sort introduces a version of “O Holy Night” and stirs a revival of Julie London and Bobby Troup’s mid-1950s tune “Warm In December.”

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