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For me one of the things that makes Christmas time so special is the music. Judging from the popularity of Christmas music this is true for many of us. As a Jazz and Blues fan I particularly like Christmas songs styled in those genres. Every year my wife Tammy and I add a CD or two to our collection and we have accumulated a number of them, so I thought I would let you know what I consider are the top 5 Jazz and Blues Christmas albums of all time. Here they are, starting with a new “Honorable Mention” followed by number 5 through number 1:
Artist: Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
Label: Surfdog Records, 2010
I fell in love with the music of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks back in the early ‘70s when he had his most popular band, featuring Sid Page on violin and back up vocalists Naomi Eisenberg and Maryann Price (otherwise known as “the Lickettes”). In those days of drug influenced, electric rock music Dan Hicks and his band were unusual. They played a unique blend of acoustic jazz, western swing and pop music (Hicks calls it “folk-swing”) combined with witty and funny lyrics written mostly by Hicks himself. Dan and the band recorded three popular albums in those days; 1971’s “Where’s the Money”, 1972”s “Striking it Rich” and 1973’s “Last Train to Hicksville” after which Hicks abruptly ended the band stating that he never wanted to be a band leader. It’s too bad he felt that way because he was good at it, which you will realize for yourself if you listen to these albums or ever get to see him perform, as I did one sun splashed say at Volunteer Park in Seattle in the summer of 1972. What a show and what a showman: Hicks, the band and the Lickettes were something! Understanding this you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I stumbled across “Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks: Crazy for Christmas” at a CD store last year. I immediately bought it and upon listening to it the album has quickly become one of my favorites, rating this honorable mention in my list of top Jazz and Blues Christmas CDs. Page, Price and Eisenberg are gone but the new Lickettes and musicians don’t miss a beat. Particularly good cuts are “Santa Gotta Choo Choo” and Hicks’ version of “Run Run Rudolph”. Take a listen and see if you don’t agree.
Artist: Diana Krall
Label: Verve, 2005
We picked this one up a couple years ago and it has been one of our favorites from the moment we played it. We are big Diana Krall fans generally and this CD does not disappoint. Diana does a fabulous job swinging her way through a dozen holiday standards ranging from “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow” to “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and “Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep”, the latter included as a tribute to Rosemary Clooney who sang it in Tammy’s favorite Christmas movie “White Christmas”. Diana is great on piano of course and she is backed by a great band , the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. An added bonus is that when you buy the CD you get to look at the great pictures of Diana on the front and back cover and in the liner notes. The girl is a knockout!!!!!
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
Label: Verve, 1988 (from sessions recorded in 1960)
This one would make the top 5 of anyone’s jazz/blues Christmas list; the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald blows your holiday socks off. This CD starts off with “Jingle Bells”, just like Diana Krall’s does, and when you hear Ella you will also hear the impact she has had on later jazz interpreters (like Diana Krall). Specifically check out Ella’s versions of “Good Morning Blues” and “What Are You Doing New Years Eve” (they are my personal favorites) but the whole CD is great. The Frank DeVol Orchestra backs Ella on all of the cuts. There is only one Ella Fitzgerald and there will never be another. If you do not have “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” in your Jazz/Blues Christmas collection then you are truly missing out.
Artist: Compilation, 18 different artists or bands
Label: Rhino, 1994 (from sessions recorded between 1948 and 1991)
Back around 1998 or so my stepson Aaron gave this CD to Tammy and I for Christmas. I am not big on compilation CDs and I just thought it would go the way of many CDs given and received at Christmas. (After a few months sold or exchanged at the CD store, if they’ll take it.) That’s what I thought until I played it. Now I would never think of selling it. There are too many artists on this CD to mention them all but every single track (all 18 of them) are exceptional. Those I would specifically highlight are Duke Ellington (who unfortunately never recorded a Christmas album) performing “Jingle Bells”, Charlie Parker and his band performing a beboppy version of “White Christmas” (recorded on Christmas Day of 1948), and Booker T and the MGs with a soulful version of “Merry Christmas Baby”. These are all great but for me what takes the cake on this CD is Lou Rawls’ interpretation of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. Once you hear Rawls sing this tune every other version you may have heard will pale in comparison…I guarantee it. And don’t mistake this version with a later version Rawls did for a Christmas CD he released in 1993. This version was recorded in 1967 and the band behind Lou swings while his voice is in perfect form. You can’t beat it.
Artist: Roomful Of Blues
Label: Bullseye Blues, 1997
If you are not familiar with the band “Roomful of Blues” you should be. Back in the mid ‘90s I got really revitalized on music, particularly the blues, and as a result became familiar with a blues/jazz guitar player named Duke Robillard. (I have since become a huge fan of Duke’s and see him live whenever he comes to Seattle.) Duke founded “Roomful…” in 1967 with fellow musicians from their home state of Rhode Island and the band has been swinging and rocking ever since (though Robillard left them in 1980). In “Roomful Of Christmas” the band performs a set of 10 songs, most being holiday standards but several you may not recognize unless you are well steeped in rhythm and blues artists and history. All the musicians are in top form on all of them and you will find yourself toe tapping if not outright dancing as the band rollicks its way through the songs. The vocals by Sugar Ray Norcia are particularly good. If you like “jump” blues and swing, which I personally love, you can do no better than “Roomful of Christmas”…which is why it is number two on my list.
And now …drum roll if you please…my number ONE Jazz/Blues Christmas Album of all time:
Artist: Charles Brown
Label: Bullseye Blues, 1994
I just can’t think of Christmas without thinking of “Cool Christmas Blues” by Charles Brown. If I had this record in vinyl it would be worn through by now. Charles Brown is a blues piano playing virtuoso who was born in 1922 and died in 1999. Basically he had two careers, one in the mid 40s to mid 50s in which he established himself both as a great bluesman and also as a recording artist and live performer. During this time he had several national hits. As rock and roll came on the scene later in the ‘50s Charles faded from popularity but in the late ‘80s and on into the ‘90s he made a comeback, recording 8 albums between 1990 and his death in ’99, including 1994’s “Cool Christmas Blues”. For me this recording is the definitive Rhythm and Blues Holiday album. I love piano blues anyway and Charles will have you singing and bouncing to the music, whether he is playing any of the traditional songs included in this collection, or the two famous holiday songs he penned himself; “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home For Christmas”. I guarantee you will love them all, if you love the blues, and so I have awarded Charles Brown and his “Cool Christmas Blues” number one status on my list.
There you go…the top 5 Jazz/Blues albums of all time, with an “Honorable Mention” for 2013. Check ‘em out yourself and if you have others you think are better do let me know. I am always on the look out for great Jazz and Blues Christmas music.