Yule Tunes

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​Vocalist Samara Joy reveals a core of benevolence on A Joyful Holiday.

(Photo: Ambe J. Williams)

’Tis the season. You enjoy Christmas music, but are leery of listening to the same old albums. Bored with, oh, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas? So, for restoration of aural cheer, consider several new releases by jazz, blues and beyond artists who put their own spin on chestnuts and offer crisp originals.

Samara Joy

A Joyful Holiday (Verve)

Samara Joy, the Gen Z jazz luminary, has the perfect stage name for someone serious about conjuring pure Christmas spirit on a holiday EP. Six songs reveal that she has a core of joyfulness and benevolence inside. She sings with an uncanny control, a keen intelligence and, for certain, a beautiful voice. Standouts are “Warm In December,” a mildly swinging revival of Julie London’s 1950s tune that has Joy at the apogee of her powers, and “O Holy Night,” with her joined by singing family members (among them is her father, Antonio McLendon) in an inspired performance fit for a Christmas Eve gospel service. On the EP are several refined accompanists, including guest pianist Sullivan Fortner and Joy’s regular guitarist Pasquale Grasso. ververecords.com


Christian Sands

Christmas Stories (Mack Avenue)

The gifted pianist is joined here by his working quartet with guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and Christian’s brother Ryan Sands on drums, plus special guests saxophonist Jimmy Greene, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, percussionist Keita Ogawa and guitarist Max Light. The music is breezy instrumental magic and includes a fine set of holiday chestnuts including a swinging “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with a Latin twist and an extended jam on “Silent Night.” The final tune, “Last Christmas,” also features a lovely string arrangement by rising star Steven Pheifke. (by Frank Alkyer)

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Gregory Porter

Christmas Wish (Blue Note)

Gregory Porter’s first holiday album at once entertains with the minor miracle of his gut-deep baritone and tracks the respect, compassion, altruism and nostalgia that he deems important to Yuletide. Savor his natural gospel-rooted renditions of three thoughtful originals, of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye X-mas tunes from the 1960s and of favorites like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” (with acclaimed young singer Samara Joy). Porter’s sincerity doesn’t waver.

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Dave Brubeck

A Dave Brubeck Christmas (Craft)

Dave Brubeck finally made a Christmas record in 1996, when he was 75. This solo piano showcase, a treasure standing with the likes of Geri Allen’s A Child Is Born and Dave McKenna’s Christmas Ivory, returns as a two-LP package. Brubeck’s religious faith almost certainly deepens meticulous probes of liturgical fare “O Tannenbaum” and “Away In A Manger.” His “Run, Run, Run To Bethlehem” and the familiar “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” sparkle like sunlight on freshly fallen snow.

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craftrecordings.com


Raphael Wressnig & Alex Schultz

Soulful Christmas–With A Touch Of Funk (Pepper Cake)

Seated at the console of his B-3, enthralled by 1960s Jimmy McGriff X-mas records, Raphael Wressnig has a great time slathering Hammond grease all over nine seasonal tunes. In the process, the Vienna-based virtuoso realizes an artistic triumph, a singular merger of jazz, blues, Memphis soul and New Orleans funk. Not confined to a back seat in Santa Wressnig’s sleigh, Alex Schultz demonstrates again and again why he’s one of America’s best blues-and-more guitarists. A protean talent in her own right, guest singer Gisele Jackson enrichens “This Christmas.” raphaelwressnig.com


Various Artists

Santa Swings … The Windup (Bear Family)

The German archival label presents in its ongoing holiday music series this collection of X-mas treats from the swing era. The roster is packed with all-star orchestra leaders: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie (with Helen Humes), Chick Webb (with Ella Fitzgerald), Don Redman, Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnett, Louis Prima, Teddy Wilson, others. There’s a jaunty confidence to the music even when Santa-hatted forgotten souls like Putney Dandridge, Bob Chester and Monette Moore take charge. Reefer madness: Johnny Guarnieri’s “Santa’s Secret.” Excellent production, liner notes, CD and LP mastering. bear-family.com


Various Artists

The Alligator Records Christmas Collection (Alligator)

The premier blues label celebrates the season by excavating a 1992 album from their bottomless catalog. More than half of the 14 featured musicians — start with Charles Brown, Koko Taylor, Son Seals — are certifiable eminences. They excel at recounting Santa’s romantic hijinks, confronting loneliness on Christmas and expressing bayou or boogie-woogie roadhouse fun. Up-and-comers such as Lil’ Charlie Baty and Rick Estrin and Lil’ Ed Williams act out their own Yule doings with enthusiasm. LP (red vinyl) and digital only. alligator.com


Lisa Biales

At Christmas (Big Song Music)

A top-level blues-roots singer with a tenderly strong voice, Lisa Biales invests nine solid originals and a Louis Prima cover with warm spirit on her debut Yule album. She’s a bit of a sentimentalist but, glad to say, doesn’t get bogged down in idyllic, sugar-plum-sweet, idyllic visions of the past. “When The Snowflakes Fell” even concerns hard times. The Ohioan was smart to travel to Los Angeles and record with illustrious folks like producer-drummer Tony Braunagel and guitarist Johnny Lee Schell.

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David Ian Vintage Christmas Trio

Melody (Prescott)

Since 2011, talented Toronto jazz pianist David Ian has released five albums that communicate the easygoing, endearing glow of spending Christmas Eve with family and friends. This time around, joined by a cooly swinging string bassist and a drummer, he dotes on the melodies of 10 classic noels, among them “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night.” His adoration is generally healthy and productive, not overbearing or mawkish. iantunes.com


George Gee Swing Orchestra

Winter Wonderland (Independent Release)

For jitterbugging fans of 1940s X-mas jazz, the George Gee Swing Orchestra’s December performance at New York’s Birdland is a big deal, as his nonet swings it way through “Jingle Bells” and other tunes appropriate to Noel. Modern-minded soloists, respectful of but not hide-bound to tradition, include baritone saxophonist Patience Higgins and pianist Steve Einerson. Singer John Dokes, his low tones suggestive of Joe Williams and Nat Cole, brings out the heart of five famous tunes with a sober, measured delivery.

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Nils Landgren

Christmas With My Friends VIII (ACT)

Nils Landgren is a Swedish holiday music institution unto himself, a jazz trombonist who every other year since the early ’00s gets colleagues together for an album and tour. He favors the low-key jazz gaiety of the season, drawn to precious European carols and a couple songs that bask in the traditional jazz of New Orleans. An unexceptional singer, Landgren relies on Swedish vocalists of authority and style, including jazz chanteuses Ida Sand and Sharon Dyall and operatic singer Jeanette Köhn. actmusic.com


Sukey Molloy

Snow Is Falling! (PlayMusic&Sing Inc.)

Charismatic singer, storyteller and teacher Sukey Molloy, in New York, reaches out to families with young children with a peppy assortment of well-known “Songs For Christmas, Hanukkah & Kwanzaa.”

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Click here to read this article in the December 2023 issue of DownBeat.

Check out all of DownBeat’s Holiday Gift Guide here! DB



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