Yuletide Music Roundup For 2020

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Jamie Cullum’s new holiday album, The Pianoman At Christmas, features 10 original compositions.

(Photo: Courtesy Blue Note Records)

As the year 2020 draws to a close, music fans have a bevy of new releases from which to choose to help them celebrate the Christmas and Hanukkah season. The list below includes big bands, singers, contemporary stars and a box set featuring four jazz icons, including DownBeat Hall of Fame inductees Ella Fitzgerald and Jimmy Smith. Keep the following titles in mind when making your shopping list.

Jamie Cullum

The Pianoman At Christmas

(Blue Note)

During the Yuletide season, the arrival of a holiday album featuring all original compositions is about as rare as a partridge in a pear tree. British jazz-pop star Jamie Cullum, who released a few holiday singles last year, has delivered the goods with The Pianoman At Christmas, a collection of 10 new tunes. On this big-band endeavor, featuring 57 musicians, the variety of moods that Cullum explores is noteworthy and admirable.

Cullum channels his inner Sinatra on “So Many Santas,” while “Hang Your Lights” merges the infectious abandon of Louis Prima with backing vocalists whose harmonies are reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. The comedic tune “The Jolly Fat Man” borrows a page from the Jack Fox gem “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” (recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1953). Punctuated with screaming brass yet packed with smooth, big-band bravado, Cullum’s tune expresses empathy for Santa: “Everybody needs a holiday/ Wouldn’t you, if you’d been ’round the whole world in your sleigh?/ Coming down the chimney/ And that’s no mean feat/ I think you can forgive him if he overeats.”

Despite those chuckle-worthy lyrics, the holiday season is not all about eggnog, toys and candy canes in Cullum’s worldview, as evidenced by the powerful ballad “Christmas Caught Me Crying.” The title track is another tearjerker, the tale of a heartbroken musician slogging from gig to gig in late December, facing an identity crisis while cranking out well-worn holiday fare for the residents of a senior living facility.

Cullum is his own man, brave enough to chronicle sad emotions here, but savvy enough to leaven those numbers with uptempo tunes designed to make listeners forget their troubles. And there are plenty of uplifting moments, too. On “Beautiful Together,” one of the inspiring, slower numbers, he belts with gusto, in full Tony Bennett mode, at one point holding a note for an impressive five seconds. Featuring a sweet string section, this sentimental song’s lyrics are particularly relevant for 2020, as many families will refrain from traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic: “I know we’ve been untethered/ But it’s true/ Whatever the weather/ We’re beautiful when we’re all together.”

Like the hero of a holiday rom-com, Cullum wins us over with a potent mixture of charisma, talent and vulnerability. Bobby Reed

BUY IT NOW: Jamie Cullum


Down For The Count

Swing Into Christmas

(Self Release)

It has become a cliché for jazz critics to declare, “This ain’t your grandparents’ big band.” But that’s not a critique that neatly applies to Down For The Count’s retro-leaning Swing Into Christmas. The program features songs that have fueled holiday pageants for decades, such as “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.”

Down For The Count is a British collective with a fluid lineup, featuring male and female singers, a rhythm section and horns. For this outing, the group expanded to become a 28-piece big band with vocalists, incorporating the talents of the City String Ensemble, led by Sophie Poteratchi. Among the gifted singers participating in these sessions, recorded in January, was Hannah Castleman (who is also a member of the Spitfire Sisters).

In crafting the album, bandleader, producer and arranger Mike Paul-Smith aimed to evoke the grandeur of arrangements by the likes of Gordon Jenkins and Nelson Riddle, both of whom worked with Frank Sinatra. Alongside old standards like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and more modern ones, such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” the musicians offer a smooth, lush reading of a tune not related to the Nativity story or the North Pole: “The Things We Did Last Summer.” (Dean Martin crooned it on 1959’s A Winter Romance and 1966’s The Dean Martin Christmas Album.) Romance also is in the air for a pair of more predictable tracks: “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Fans yearning for a sonic sleigh ride back to the sounds of Capitol Studios in the 1950s might want to check out Paul-Smith’s tasteful ensemble. —Bobby Reed

BUY IT NOW: Down For The Count


David Garfield

Holidays Outside The Box

(Creatchy)

To say that keyboardist and composer David Garfield—who’s been hunkered down in L.A. studios since the mid-1970s—has had a busy career is an understatement. The former musical director for George Benson has appeared on more than 100 albums. One recent project is Garfield’s “Outside The Box” series. Its fifth Installment is a huge Christmas celebration involving about 50 colleagues, among them members of Yellowjackets, the Rippingtons, Santana, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer entourage. Meeting Garfield’s high standards of professionalism, the crew delivers sleek pop-jazz versions of well-known Yule songs—tasty truffles, if empty calories.

The gala is at its most entertaining when the leader adds a world-music dimension. His modernization of the old Italian carol “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle,” which features singer Daniela Spagnolo and saxophonist Enzo Anastasio, projects reams of Noel exuberance, and his arrangements of Polish and Afro-Cuban Christmas tunes are packed with persuasive goodwill. Garfield open-heartedly offers an eccentric reggae makeover of “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” complete with Jewish music singing star Sam Glaser, War’s harmonica wizard Lee Oskar and Israeli guitarist Oz Noy. Listeners can find solace in the estimable saxophonist Ernie Watts waxing poetic on the too-brief instrumental “Heavenly Peace.” —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: David Garfield


Lauren Henderson

Classic Christmas

(Brontosaurus)

Lauren Henderson is blessed with a rich, appealing voice, which she uses with discipline and precision when emotionally investing herself in the music and lyrics of the four songs on this holiday EP, three of which are quartet tunes. With new lyrics, she caringly adapts Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” to reflect today’s social climate. She sounds genuinely moved by the sentiments of “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas,” and her interpretation of “What A Wonderful World” is attuned to the salutary aspects of the season. The latter chestnut, a duet, is memorable for the depth and thoughtfulness exhibited by pianist Sullivan Fortner (a frequent collaborator of both Henderson and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant).

Give Henderson extra credit for unearthing the 19th-century carol “Once In Royal David’s City,” traditionally concerning the Nativity story, but now expanded with the singer’s lyrics on the strength of women. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Lauren Henderson


Gabriel Latchin Trio

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

(Alys Jazz)

Need a break from the familiar holiday piano jazz from the likes of Vince Guaraldi and Oscar Peterson? If so, turn to Gabriel Latchin’s new album for a blast of fresh, wintry air. Supported by bassist Dario Di Lecce and drummer Josh Morrison, this stalwart on the London jazz scene exhibits a swinging dynamism and a cool, relaxed temperament. Latchin—who holds degrees from Edinburgh University and the Guildhall School of Music—clearly understands how important tempo is to the feeling of Christmas staples, and he relishes investigating melodies to find what works harmonically.

Latchin assimilates the art of multiple influential pianists into his creative vision: His pensive treatment of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is reminiscent of Bill Evans’ work on his 1962 LP Moon Beams, while a fleet-footed reading of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” uses Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 classic At The Pershing as a reference point. The effortless flow of Latchin’s playing on “The Christmas Song” conjures visions of Cedar Walton in Santa’s suit. Latchin’s one original in the program, “A Toast To Friends,” illustrates an appreciation for the panache of Barry Harris. Charitable in his displays of warmth at Christmastime, the pianist always keeps his distance from emulation, pretension and false sentiment. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Gabriel Latchin Trio


Peggy Lee

Ultimate Christmas

(Capitol/UMe)

The legacy of Peggy Lee, indisputably one of the major singers of jazz and popular music in the 20th-century, has been served well by Capitol Records this year, the centennial of her birth: There are new compilations (including two reserved for public television pledge drives) available in a variety of formats. Carrying an air of sophistication and possessing an amazing sense of rhythm, Lee habitually paid close attention to the lyrics of songs, whether singing jazz, blues, folk, Great American Songbook tunes or Christmas music.

This 22-track collection of Xmas evergreens and obscurities—available digitally, on CD and on LP—features material recorded for the Capitol label (between 1949 and ’68) and for Decca (1952 to ’55). Her humanity shines through in every word she sings.

Nine of the tracks here are culled from her truly classic 1960 record Christmas Carousel; three come from 1965’s Happy Holiday; several first appeared as singles; and there are two duets with Bing Crosby (“Little Jack Frost Get Lost” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”). Lee composed the music and lyrics for several tracks on Christmas Carousel, including “Don’t Forget To Feed The Reindeer,” which celebrates the season while also showcasing her love of animals and her compositional acumen. The production on this new compilation occasionally gets clogged up in treacle, but Lee always wins out, thanks to her tremendous powers. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Peggy Lee

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