This month we’re deviating from our usual Cool Spins format so I cangive a tip o’ the Santa hat to some favorite holiday CDs in differentgenres. In our household, we listen to a lot of Christmas music duringDecember. Herewith, a dozen time-tested classics for the Twelve Days ofChristmas.
Frank Sinatra: Christmas Dreaming (Columbia)
Not surprisingly, there are several different Sinatra holidaycollections available, the most popular being The Sinatra ChristmasAlbum, which includes several tracks performed with his kids in themid- and late ’60s. I prefer this admitedly rather short set recordedin the ’40s and early ’50s; it’s the young crooner Frank, and his voicehas rarely sounded more angelic. The emphasis is on Christmas ballads,with “White Christmas” and a truly heartbreaking rendition of “HaveYourself a Merry Little Christmas” the clear standouts.
No recording information available, but it was cut in New York andLos Angeles.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Joy to the World (CBS, 1964)
This is Christmas bombast at its most stirring, with the famous375-voice choir backed by the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble and thelargest pipe organ in the world. The group is more convincing on”serious” religious material than lighthearted carols, but all areperformed with gusto and feeling. This is the musical equivalent ofputting too many lights and beautiful ornaments on a tree – but itstill dazzles.
Producer: Thomas Frost. Engineers: Edward Graham and Arthur Kandy.Recorded at the Mormon Tabernacle (Salt Lake City).
Leon Redbone: Christmas Island (Private, 1989)
If you know Redbone’s ouevre, you can guess what this disc sounds like- sort of a ’30s swing approach; Django Reinhardt meets Burl Ives.Redbone is in excellent form vocally and he’s got a great acousticgroup backing him, including Dr. John on piano (and shared lead vocalson a delightful version of “Frosty the Snowman”). Redbone’s crooning isclearly Sinatra-influenced, but he has both the chops and a certainwhimsical quality that makes his retro approach pretty darnappealing.
Producers: Beryl Handler and Leon Redbone. Engineer: Doug Epstein.Studio: Manhattan Recording Studio.
George Winston: December (Windham Hill, 1982)
A beautiful solo piano voyage through the holiday season ranging fromWinston originals such as “Thanksgiving” and the three-part “Night” tovariations on Pachelbel’s “Kanon” (which by its inclusion on thispopular CD is now considered by some to be a holiday piece), “The Holyand the Ivy,” “Carol of the Bells,” and more. A true modernclassic.
Producers: William Ackerman and George Winston. Engineers: StevenMiller and Karen Kirsch. Studio: Different Fur (San Francisco).
Various Artists: Hipster’s Holiday (Rhino, 1989)
This totally swingin’ and often hilarious disc features 18 tracks, mostof them from the ’50s. What a cast: Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton,Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Miles Davis and Bob Dorough, Eartha Kitt,Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and more give the holidays a fresh twiston songs such as “Cool Yule,” “Santa Baby,” “Dig That Crazy SantaClaus,” “We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo,” “Christmas Night in Harlem”and “‘Zat You, Santa Claus.” Wild!
Compilation Producer: James Austin.
Various Artists: Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (Warner/Spector,1963)
From the first note of this famous holiday record, you know it can onlybe a Phil Spector production; in its own way it’s as grand as theMormon Tabernacle Choir. The Wrecking Crew’s inimitable Wall of Soundis in all its glory on tracks sung by Spector stablemates The Ronettes,Darlene Love, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans and The Crystals. Someof this is over-the-top even for Christmas, but the best songs are sooverflowing with Spectorian spirit that only a Grinch would complain.The arrangements are by the late, great Jack Nitzsche.
Producer: Phil Spector. Engineer: Larry Levine. Studio: Gold Star(Hollywood).
The Roches: We Three Kings (MCA, 1990)
Sisters Maggie, Terre and Suzzy Roche put their beautiful anddistinctive harmony blend to marvelous use on this 24-song collectionof mostly well-known holiday tunes. Whether soaring through religioushymns or scampering through playful numbers, The Roches’ deft touchalways sounds fresh and inspired. My one disappointment with the discis that it does not include their fabulous arrangement of Handel’s”Hallelujah Chorus,” the Easter chorale that’s become so closelyidentified with Christmas.
Producers: The Roches and Jeffrey Lesser. Engineer: Jeffrey Lesser.Studio: RPM (NY).
Wynton Marsalis: Crescent City Christmas Card (CBS, 1989)
In a mainly up and lighthearted mood, jazz trumpeter Marsalis leads hislate ’80s sextet through a well-chosen collection of holiday standards,many of them rearranged to have a little N’awlins feel. High-profileguests include clarinetist Alvin Batiste and singers Kathleen Battleand Jon Hendricks.
Producer: Stephen Epstein. Engineers: Tim Geelan and DennisFerrante. Studio: CBS (NY).
David Grisman’s Acoustic Christmas (Rounder, 1986)
Like everything mandolinist David Grisman does, this CD is loaded withchops, spirit and good taste. His group on this outing includes some ofthe best players of the new acoustic movement, all of whom have gone onto do great things since their days with Dawg Grisman: Mike Marshall,Darol Anger, Rob Wasserman, Martin Taylor and Bela Fleck, augmented byrecorders (the instrument), piano and sax on several cuts. Theensemble’s jazzy take “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has a flutteringbebop flavor, while the ballads “White Christmas” and “Auld Lang Syne”are warm and affecting.
Producer: David Grisman. Engineers: Bob Shumaker and Phil Sawyer.Studio: 1750 Arch Studios (Berkeley, CA).
Various Artists: Narada Christmas Collection (Narada, 1988)
At its best, so-called “new age” music (an odious term) has a soothingand relaxing quality that does elevate the spirit and set the mind towandering in pleasant directions. This collection features some of thebest-known pioneers of the genre – including David Arkenstone, DavidLanz & Paul Speer, Peter Buffett, Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel -floating through some familiar and obscure seasonal numbers. Synthwashes abound, as you’d expect, but there is also lovely soloing oncello, guitar, lute, harp guitar, ocarina, piano and otherinstruments.
Producers: Eric Lindert, Spencer Brewer, Peter Buffett, David Lanzand Paul Speer, Nancy Rumbel, William Elwood, Billy Oskay. Engineers:David Vartanian, Russell Bond, David Scott, Paul Speer, Lary (sic)Nefzger, Ian Thomas, Billy Oskay. Studios: DV Productions (Milwaukee),Edenwood Studios (Dallas), Music Annex (Menlo Park, CA), IndependentSound (San Francisco), Miramar Studios (Seattle), Triad Studios(Redmond, WA), Ian Thomas Productions (Winona, Ont.).
Various Artists: Jingle Bell Jazz (Columbia, 1962)
This is the granddaddy of the many fine Christmas jazz compilations, arecord so good you might even play it after the holidays are over.There are lots of big names here – Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton,Carmen McRae, Paul Horn, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis,Dave Brubeck and more – and, without fail, the arrangements and theplaying are stellar, whether for a large group or an intimate ensemble.A couple of these tracks also appear on Hipster’s Holiday; both areworth owning.
Producers: Teo Macero, Irving Townsend (one track), Frank Driggs(one track). Engineers: Frank Laico, Murray Zimney, Harold Chapman.Studio: Columbia (NY).
King’s College Choir: O Come All Ye Faithful (Argo/Decca,1984)
This is a CD of traditional religious and secular carols and a fewlesser-known holiday folk tunes, beautifully sung by the world-renownedKing’s College Choir of Cambridge, England. It’s a relatively smallgroup (especially compared to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), and thatmeans you can hear more character in the individual voices rather thanjust a giant choral schmear. The KCC has put out a number of CDs ofChristmas music since this one – in fact it’s become something of acottage industry for the group – but this is the only one I can vouchfor personally. Pass the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding!
Producer: Chris Hazell. Engineer: Simon Eadon. Recorded at King’sCollege Chapel.