Once upon a time, everybody cut a Christmas song. Country singers, R&B singers, surf bands and crooners—they along with countless jazz men and novelty artists cut celebrations of Santa, snow and the spirit of the season. These days, Christmas albums aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were. There are still the exploit- the-market-while-you-can releases (cough, Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe, cough) and tasteful-until-joyless (violinist Mark O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas), but there are also those with genuine signs of life—albums that reflect a personal relationship with the holiday, its music or both. Here are a few:
A New Orleans Christmas Carol
Ellis Marsalis’ recordings always reflect wisdom. You have the sense that he’s thought carefully about the composition, what’s at its core, and what he understands as the possibilities. He last examined Christmas music in 2002 when he released May Your Christmas Be Bright: Jazz at Christmas in New Orleans, and he recently re-released an edited, expanded version of the album as A New Orleans Christmas Carol. It moves as you would expect: patiently, and with impeccable taste as subtle changes play out in the performance, but like anything Christmas oriented, it has a few pleasant surprises.
Many of these songs were meant to be celebratory, and a tight little groove behind “God Rest Ye Gentlemen” puts the fun back in a song that too often lumbers under the weight of its message. Bill Huntington’s bass adds a hint of funk to “The Little Drummer Boy” that keeps the song playful when Marsalis solos. For this release, he has composed a new Christmas song, “Christmas Joy,” sung by Johnaye Kendrick. As you’d expect, Marsalis understands the genre and writes effectively in it. The lyrics are snapshots from the holiday and the melody is circular, swirling gorgeously upward. The result sounds classic—a track that may have been around for 40 years and could be around for 40 more.
A New Orleans Christmas Carol ends with two additional versions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” one that is a duet between Marsalis and son Jason, who plays drums on the album. The space created by the absence of a bass leads Ellis in a very different direction on his solo, one that evokes a little Storyville. It’s followed by a solo version that features Marsalis at his most adventurous, playing with tension and mild dissonance between the spare, insistent bass chords on his left hand that emerge and recede in volume, and the sober, complex statement and consideration of the melody on his right. It’s the side of his playing that emerges once or twice a set when he performs, and it’s welcome every time.
These last two tracks, combined with the third version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that appears earlier on the album, provide insight into Marsalis’ musical imagination, and how a change or two prompts radically different results. A New Orleans Christmas Carol is not only a lovely holiday album, but a valuable illustration of Marsalis’ gifts as well.
Marcus Roberts Trio
Celebrating Christmas is jazz pianist Marcus Roberts’ second album of Christmas music. A decade after his solo piano Prayer for Peace, he embraces the spirit of play this time around, albeit at a sophisticated level. On the opening “Jingle Bells,” Roberts and his trio—including Jason Marsalis on drums—take the tune with the appropriate lightness, trying out different articulations of the melody on the verses, including a piano student’s slightly hesitant walk-through note by note until they get to the chorus, where Roberts joins the fierce groove that Marsalis opens and closes with. “Silent Night” is slinky and elegant, while “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” has a theatrical strut.
That’s not to say that Celebrating Christmas lacks gravity, but it doesn’t indulge it any more than necessary. “O Holy Night” remains spiritual, and “Little Drummer Boy” stays straight-faced, even as Roberts’ sparer-than-usual playing leaves plenty of room for Marsalis’ churning snare. That restraint doesn’t mean the album lacks invention, though. On “Little Drummer Boy,” Marsalis plays the song at a swifter tempo than Roberts and bassist Rodney Jordan, which creates a simmering tension for much of the track, then a rush when they come together.
Nor does Roberts restrain his almost compulsive creativity. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is far more listenable than usual because the trio changes key with each verse, and each change sparks another mode of attack and another unlikely approach that he makes work. And, they take the song at a sufficient pace to get it done four minutes and 22 seconds later.
She & Him
A Very She & Him Christmas
Most duets on “Baby, It’s Cold Out There” stress the song’s flirtation. When indie rock duo She & Him—M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel—try it on, they take it spryly. It’s not an elaborate dance of seduction; it’s flirtation through good-natured roughhousing. It’s not the typical tempo for A Very She & Him Christmas, but it’s representative of the album’s subtle intelligence. The two keep it spare, down to a voice and ukulele for “Silver Bells,” but they’re not dogmatic about it. They stack up harmony vocal tracks on two Beach Boys covers, but the energy’s dialed down. On “Christmas Day,” the addition of guitars and a muffled percussion presents Deschanel as a lonely surfer girl walking the beach at sundown on Christmas Eve.
Throughout, they choose songs that play to their strengths: Deschanel’s sweetness and Ward’s impeccably tasteful guitar. They acknowledge their musical debts with clarity and delicacy while embracing the good-natured spirit of the season. It’s no surprise that one of the highlights is their version of NRBQ’s “Christmas Wish.” They covered the ‘Q’s “Riding in My Car” on their previous album, and “Christmas Wish” is startlingly open to the spirit of the season.
A Very She & Him Christmas succeeds for the same reason that some Christmases succeed: Deschanel and Ward keep it real. They don’t get unduly irreverent, nor do they embrace the holiday or its trappings with forced gusto. They’re amused by the corniness but not so much so that they’re condescending, and they find the charm in traditions—even commercial ones.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland could only be a rock star because no other profession would have someone as humorless and odd. The only thing less likely than a Scott Weiland Christmas album is the one he actually made, an album that presents him as a crooner without a hint of irony or wit. The orchestrations are the stuff of Sinatra and Tony Bennett—heavy on the strings and the gentle swing—and vocally, he wears the pose well enough. Not with much distinction, but he’s comfortable if a bit formal in his lower register with the exception of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Inexplicably, he gives the song his most affected vocal, singing as if he chugged the bowl of spiked egg nog and can no longer make his mouth form words. Set against a string arrangement straight out of 1957, it’s truly strange.
That song aside, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is a love letter to Christmas records as Weiland steps into classic tracks. He brings the same high-mindedness to Christmas music that Sinatra did, and when he drops the croon, he flashes forward to Esquivel’s early 1960s for a space-age bachelor pad “Silent Night.” The bossa nova version is pulsed forward by a Rhythm Ace, synthetic steel drums and a Spanish guitar. The same instrumentation shows up for “Happy Christmas and Many More,” which sounds at first like a bossa nova take on Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.”
Since the high water mark for Christmas music is the time frame he references—pre-Beatles, pre-JFK’s assassination (as Dave Marsh and Steve Propes argue in Merry Christmas Baby)—Weiland’s album feels familiar and nostalgic until you get to the white reggae “O Holy Night,” which suffers the way most white reggae suffers. As the album leaves its two dominant modes to finish in an unconvincing third one, the final impression is that The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is simply half-assed instead of profoundly referential, though there’s a long tradition of knocked-off Christmas albums too. Maybe I’m just focusing on the wrong riff.