Christmas cheer for all to hear

Don’t let the humbugs get you down: there’s nothing wrong with getting in the spirit through music.

Don’t let the humbugs get you down: there’s nothing wrong with getting in the spirit through music. We surround ourselves in our homes and workplaces with upbeat carols and rejoicing hymns to celebrate the season. Without “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Baby,” the holiday is just not complete, but with so many Christmas albums being released each year, we’re left to wade through the fruit cakes to find the stuffed turkeys.

So what makes good Christmas music? There’s a certain quality that a so-called “Christmas” album has to have to do the trick. Sleigh bells certainly help, but it goes way beyond regurgitating a Christmas carol to make an album that’s worth adding to your holiday rotation. Everyone will have their own thoughts on what makes music acceptable for the season, but here are six albums — three new and three classic — that are worthy of your consideration this year.

New releases

Kermit Ruffins – Have A Crazy Cool Christmas (Basin Street Records, 2009)

Kermit Ruffins is the ultimate party musician. After all, much of New Orleans jazz is party music, and Ruffins has been holding down that scene since putting together the Rebirth Brass band in 1983. Here, he turns even the most traditional of Christmas carols into party fare. This is familiar music with an upbeat twist that’s distinctly Kermit. His trumpet playing and unabashed singing fronts the band, and the great Herlin Riley on drums keeps it funky on the back line. As always, his singing doesn’t compare with the technical abilities or flawless tones of today’s great jazz vocalists. But it’s his devil-may-care attitude that makes every song a drunken party. When is that more appropriate than Christmas? Besides Mardis Gras, that is. iTunes

Alexis Cole – The Greatest Gift (Motéma, 2009)

The Greatest Gift begins with an instrumental modern jazz knock-out version of “Joy To The World” a la Brian Blade Fellowship Band (pianist Jon Cowherd is the link between that band and this one) and develops with variety. Lots and lots of variety. Take, for instance, the Caribbean-styled “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” the Indian tambura and tablas of “Rise Up Shepherd, And Follow,” or the string quartet chamber music of the Vince Guaraldi favorite “Christmas Time is Here.” Jazz is at the heart of it all, musically, with spirited solos and unique arrangements, many of which feature vocal quartets and children choirs. Pieces evolve in unsuspecting ways, and there’s even father-daughter vocal duet time on many tracks with vocalist Cole and dad Mark Finkin. Best of all, the album is a benefit for the World Bicycle Relief, which provides “simple, sustainable transportation” for people in areas of disaster and poverty. iTunes

Jerry Douglas – Jerry Christmas (Koch Records, 2009)

Those who caught Jerry Douglas at this year’s Richmond Folk Festival won’t be surprised that this album is a delight. Jerry Christmas is a mostly instrumental country and bluegrass take on Christmas favorites and a couple of original tracks that might be perfect when friends and a fireplace is involved. Douglas’s lovely dobro, as well as finger-picked acoustic guitar and violin swells, provides a timbre that is ripe with tradition, while the musicians’ improvisations and embellishments on the melodies keep the music current and interesting. Even for someone who doesn’t listen to country music, the album is undeniably Christmas. iTunes

Classic albums

Duke Ellington – Nutcracker Suite from Three Suites (Columbia, 1960)

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is a Christmas staple for many. For Duke Ellington and right-hand man Billy Strayhorn, it was a piece of music that was practically begging to be re-arranged into their unique jazz orchestra style. And let’s get one thing straight: Tchaikovsky was perfectly happy with Ellington putting his signature on the 1892 ballet. The heavily swinging version was written in 1960, well into the period when Ellington was writing much for extended suites. All of the favorite movements from the ballet are here with new titles — like “Sugar Rum Cherry” (originally “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”), “Peanut Brittle Brigade” (“March”), and “Danse of the Floreadores” (“Waltz of the Flowers”) — that all add up to an indispensable, and vaguely familiar, album of upbeat holiday cheer. The nine movements appear on the Three Suites album along with Ellington’s take on Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites and an original piece, Suite Thursday, inspired by author John Steinbeck. iTunes

Ray Charles – The Spirit of Christmas (re-released on Concord, 2009)

This one’s a fantastic Christmas album from a legendary American musician. It’s the Ray you know and love — complete with his Raelettes — singing Christmas standards and the uplifting original “That Spirit of Christmas.” There’s gospel, soul, some pop ballads, big band jazz, and even a little country flavor on this album recorded in 1985. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard appears with solos on two big band pieces: “What Child Is This,” which opens the album in a tempo-shifting and unpredictable fashion; and “All I Want For Christmas,” a light waltz that lets Ray’s vocal abilities really shine. Singer Betty Carter’s crystalline voice graces the inevitable Christmas duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” iTunes

Various Artists – Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol, 2002)

Most of the jolly tunes on this 2002 compilation were recorded between ’57 and ’67 and originally appeared on various Christmas albums by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Two Dean & Frank duets recorded on the former’s Christmas TV extravaganzas are released for the first time here (Dino’s shenanigans incite practically non-stop laughter from the television audience). Poor Sammy is under-represented on the disc, but two of his three songs are released for the first time on this compilation. Any fans of these crooners are seriously missing out if this isn’t in their Christmas collections. This is a relatively new addition to mine; but, already, it’s not Christmas without it. iTunes

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Dean Christesen

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