Every year at this time I choose a favorite jazz Christmas album to share with you. My annual selection has nothing to do with new releases or hot new artists. My criterion simply is beauty, which isn't so easy, since a great Christmas album is hard to find. For me, most tend to be too solemn or sticky sweet. Just right is a fine line in this genre. To make the cut, a holiday jazz album needs to be uplifting and sentimental, but not dreary or noisy. I know, I know—picky, picky. My evergreen selection this year is Eddie Higgins' Christmas Songs.
Recorded in 2004, the album features pianist Higgins [pictured] with bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Joe Ascione. What I love about Christmas Songs is the drifting-feather quality of Higgins' piano playing, not to mention the perfect song list. All the chestnuts are here, and Higgins roasts each one with jolly grace.
Higgins, who died in 2009, was one of those rare jazz pianists who knew exactly where the best chord voicings were hidden on the keyboard. He also knew how to cover the entire ivory landscape without pounding or over-indulging. As you listen to him play (on all of his albums, in fact), you can almost hear song lyrics dancing around in his head.
On Christmas Songs, Higgins delivers a top-hat-and-tails holiday card with just a peck of jazz mischief and a pinch of frosty nostalgia.
In case you missed my Christmas pick from 2009 and 2008...
June Christy—This Time of Year (1961). This is an unusual holiday album that grows on you fast. The tunes have intricate melodies and restless lyrics, but the real star here is Pete Rugolo, whose arrangements adhere to a jazz feel without selling out. And all the while, the charts frame Christy's hip, dry-vermouth vocal sound perfectly. It's tough not to love an album with a cover featuring Christy in red stretch ski pants and a waist-length shearling jacket poised to hurl a snowball.
Jo Stafford—Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather (1955-56). Much of this CD has been culled from Stafford's Happy Holiday (1955) and Ski Trails (1956), both released by Columbia. Each track on this CD collection is a work of art, with Stafford's inimitable warm, maternal singing style backed by the handsome, clarinet-high orchestrations of husband Paul Weston.
JazzWax notes: The covers of both Eddie Higgins' albums were painted by jazz singer Meredith d'Ambrosio, Higgins' wife. My 2009 interview with Meredith can be found here. My remembrance of Higgins is here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Eddie Higgins Trio playing The Christmas Song...