Thursday, December 22, 2011

C# or Yule B-flat

Thousands of records and CDs purporting to celebrate Christmas have been issued over the 60 to 70 effective years of record albums. Seen from the vantage point of 2011, it’s evident that a certain miniscule number of them have attained the status of classics, still admired and eagerly listened to each holiday season… while the other 99.9 per cent (well, really a much smaller number from that percentage) have their few adherents yet for the most part merely appear, sell for a season or three, and then recede into the dim history of yule logs and mistletoe and forgotten Xmas records. Classical to “contemporary,” calypso to country, and with all the genre stops in between, I find Christmas music releases generally desperate in their claims of originality and rather depressing to contemplate,
much less listen to.

So I don’t. I resolutely play only non-seasonal stuff, ignoring the all-out radio stations and relinquishing the turntable/disc player controls only at two junctures, ones that even I will concede are way more important than my grumpy Grinchness; i.e., the hours devoted to tree decorating and then, at last, Christmas morning.

Then I too succumb… to Bing singing “White Christmas” or “Adeste Fidelis,” Nat Cole warming up “The Christmas Song” or those restive “Merry Gentlemen,” and a few modernist, rockin’ rites and rewrites courtesy of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys (differing Walls of Sound), Springsteen, Elvis and Charles Brown (dueling “Merry Christmas, Baby”s). Nor do I neglect a spin or two of the sainted Louis A. savoring “The Night Before…” while also asking, "'Zat You,
Santa Claus?” Follow that maybe with Run D.M.C. dis-cussin’ “Christmas in Hollis,” and then Steve Earle condemning the in-different poltroons politricking “Christmas in Washington”—his song sadly more pertinent with each passing year.

For a kinder and gentler definition of greed, there’s always “Santa Baby,” whether poseured by the Material Girl or purred by the immaterial Ms. Kitt. To clear the aural palate, I usually make room as well for a few skirtin’-the-edge-of-Bluegrass tunes by invincible Vince Gill, gritty Patty Loveless, and the ineffable Emmylou. (I picked up the expanded version of her pluperfect Light of the Stable album just the other day, in fact.)

And so it goes, my momentary madness soon admitting stocking stuffers by Sinatra, Ella (jinglin’ her bells) and, gritting my teeth a bit, Vince Guaraldi—but with that particular saccharin-high soon eased by John Fahey, or maybe Joan Baez. (You need a right vocalist to scale the heights of “O Holy Night.”) But contemplating guitarist Fahey’s flowing X-mastery reminds me of another matter…

Christmas at its best is a vocal celebration: hymns sung in some church and heartfelt caroling elsewhere, good wishes and good company in excelsis, excited kids and their grown-ups enjoying it all… Joy to the world, in effect and in fact. It’s practically sacrilege for a Jazz fan to admit, but I don’t find many gladsome tidings in instrumental versions of Xmas songs. Only rarely do clever arrangements and busy improvisation rise above vaguely creative Muzak to sound truly inspired. I probably own two dozen such Xmas CDs,
anthologies and single artist albums alike offering Jazz or Blues only, and I trot them out every year. Plenty of fine performances there, but no one really wants to hear them, not even me.

Still, I usually manage to slip in a tune or two from Jazz compilations issued years ago on Columbia and Blue Note, and older stuff brought back by Stash, but ultimately they just don’t beat Ray Charles singing anything from “Jingle Bells” to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or, for that matter, the early Xmas album by Harry Belafonte, who “saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day in the morning.”

No need to belabor this more. I know I’m being totally subjective, and that anyone reading this has his or her own favorites that I failed to recognize. Fine; let’s have
some feedback. Your nominations for best/favorite/classic/neglected Xmas albums are welcome and will be treated with respect. (Hanukah submissions too!) Please convince me how I’ve sold Jazzy Xmas short.

Hoping to hear back, I leave you with sincere wishes for a Very Merry... and one final thought. It’s common to sing overly familiar songs without thinking about their lyrics, which occasionally may be deserving of closer attention. By withholding mention of the Christ Child, this lyricist created what might well be a mysterious, beautifully poetic, secular experience happening at any time--or, indeed, out of time:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.


Steve Provizer said...

Kurt Elling recently recorded this, but the everlasting champ is Pops' version. Have a Yule That's Cool:

I Witness said...

good one, and though the "Cool Yule" expression is familiar, I can't recall ever hearing Satch sing it. and then there's his "Christmas Night in Harlem," another rough gem. Heard that one?

Steve Provizer said...

I'll look for it. Happy H's.