14 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Battle of Xmas Jazz

Verve vs. Blue Note

It's another of our battle days, and also the first day of a week of album entries. In the mid '90's when I bought these two, I did have a surprisingly hard time finding decent compilations, only a third album (which I now forget) even came under consideration. Now that there's probably more money in the back catalogue stuff that actually appeals to people who still pay for their music, you can't avoid
them. There are a plethora of Jazz Christmas albums, but I'm just considering two that I actually own, rather than trying to rate the merits of every compilation out there.

Have Yourself A Jazzy Little Christmas / Verve
1 Child Is Born, A - Oscar Peterson
2 Christmas Medley / Carol Of The Bells / Melodies For The Day / O Sanctissimo - The Swingle Singers
3 Jingle Bells - Jimmy Smith
4 The Secret of Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald
5 We Free Kings - Rahsaan Roland Kirk
6 Christmas Eve - Billy Eckstine
7 I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Billie Holiday
8 Ole Santa - Dinah Washington
9 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town - Bill Evans
10 White Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald
11 O Little Town of Bethlehem - Sister Rosetta Tharpe
12 Christmas Song, The - Mel Torme
13 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Jimmy Smith
14 Silent Night - Dinah Washington
15 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald

This is a really solid collection, you could try to accuse it of playing safe, mostly mining the great vocalists in the Verve catalogue. Don't forget they have all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks and then some. The quality trumps any quibbles about these perfectly executed standards. Some zest is added in the choice of instrumentals, even if the most contemporary cut is the 1961 Rashaan Roland Kirk's bop inflected We Free Kings. The impeccable roster shines through.

We Free Kings - Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Verve Records : Have Yourself A Jazzy Little Christmas

Yule Struttin' A Blue Note Christmas
1 Vauncing Chimes - Bobby Watson/Horizon
2 Silent Night - Stanley Jordan
3 The Christmas Song - Lou Rawls
4 I'll Be Home For Christmas / Sleigh Ride - Eliane Elias
5 Winter Wonderland - Chet Baker
6 A Merrier Christmas - Benny Green
7 A Merrier Christmas - Dianne Reeves
8 O Tannenbaum - John Hart
9 Jingle Bells - Count Basie
10 Chipmunk Christmas - John Scofield
11 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Joey Calderazzo
12 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Dexter Gordon
13 Silent Night - Benny Green
14 Little Drummer Boy - Rick Margitza

On paper this collection from the great jazz label Blue Note seems a bit underwhelming. There's a bit of lazy curation in having two versions of the same song twice, one pair played consecutively in the track order and that's two covers of the relatively obscure Thelonious Monk song A Merrier Christmas. Material and artist match up is uneven, Stanley Jordan's frenetic and distinctive guitar picking style doesn't really do anything for Silent Night (I'd like to hear what he'd do with Carol of the Bells), but you do get Benny Green's version later on. The vocals aren't all the same calibre, nothing against the fine Lou Rawls, but his version of The Christmas Song is a superior lounge singer take rather than a classic moment of Jazz. It is harder to argue with the line up of the likes of Chet Baker, Count Basie, Benny Green and Dexter Gordon, and their contributions are worth the price of admission, particularly Gordon's reading of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Here's one of the album's more surprising successes, an instrumental, without its original novelty pitch shifted vocals, proves to be a hidden gem of Christmas standards:

Chipmunk Christmas - John Scofield

Winner: Verve! I've been a bit hard on the Blue Note album, and it certainly doesn't stand as well on its own as the Verve, but its contents have enough quality and unusual interest to be a fine addition to your random mix of seasonal tunes. The Verve you can easily listen through without the shuffle. Here's two of the vocal tracks, thoughtfully wrapped up in one YouTube offering:

White Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald and Silent Night - Dinah Washington

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