Deck the Halls with Big Band Carols
Having mentioned the Army Blues, it should be noted that seasonal albums by armed service bands are usually hard to come by. Not that they haven't been recorded, but unless one learns about them through some other source they may as well be nonexistent, as such albums target a limited audience and aren't offered for sale. We do, however, have two by the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note, Christmas Time Is Here (from 1998) and A Holiday Note from Home (2005). Unlike those mentioned so far (except for NYJO), these include vocals, three by Tracey Wright on Christmas Time, four by Paige Wroble on Note from Home. Despite sizable personnel changes between the recording dates (only the trombone section remains unscathed), there is absolutely no letdown when it comes to proficiency, and both albums are warmly recommendedif one can find them.
In the "numbers don't lie" (or do they?) department, composer / arranger / saxophonist Tom Kubis and his big band have recorded three holiday albumssort ofstarting with It's Not Just for Christmas Anymore! (1995) and including You Just Can't Have Enough Christmas! (1997) and A Jazz Musician's Christmas (2002). Each of these albums is admirable, even though eight tracks from You Can't Have Enough and nine from It's Not Just for Christmas comprise the entire Jazz Musician's Christmas. So instead of three recordings we have two-plus, as the only songs on the earlier albums that aren't repeated on the third are "Frosty the Snowman" (sung by Jack Sheldon), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (sung by Carol Jolin), "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "White Christmas" (You Just Can't Have Enough), "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" (Sheldon), "Still, Still, Still" (Jolin), "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Christmas Bells Are Ringing," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Waltz" (It's Not Just for Christmas). The most recent album has a decided edge, as it includes both of Sheldon's humorous monologues, "A Jazz Musician's Christmas" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas (My Agent Gave to Me").
Two more albums are devoted (again, sort of) to the music of Tchaikovsky, Shorty Rogers' The Swinging Nutcracker and David Berger's The Harlem Nutcracker, which transcribes in part music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn based on Tchaikovsky's well-known ballet. Rogers' album, recorded in 1960, boasts an all-star lineup that includes trumpeters Conte Candoli, Jimmy Zito and John Audino; saxophonists Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca, Bill Holman, Art Pepper and Bud Shank; trombonists Frank Rosolino and George Roberts; pianists Pete Jolly and Lou Levy; bassist Joe Mondragon; and drummers Mel Lewis and Frank Capp, with arrangements by Rogers. Enough said. Berger's less well-known Sultans of Swing are no less capable, skating easily through five prismatic Ellington / Strayhorn charts and nine of his own. Nine selections from the Ellington / Strayhorn Nutcracker can be found on another impressive album, the New England Jazz Ensemble's Wishes You a Cookin' Christmas, recorded in 2003. The first half of the disc is devoted to contemporary themes from "Jolly Ole St. Nick," "The Christmas Song" and "Rudolph" to "Winter Wonderland," "Frosty," "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the second to the Nutcracker suite.
Swedish composer Nils Lindberg's A Christmas Cantata for choir, big band and two vocalists is arguably the most enterprising of the various anthologies, including as it does passages from Isaiah, Matthew, Luke and John set to music and interspersed with the carols "Ding, Dong Merrily on High," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "A Sussex Carol," the Welsh anthem "Deck the Hall," the traditional Swedish tune "Glad dig ku Kristi brud" and the English hymn "Sing, O Sing This Blessed Morn." As a bonus, Lindberg appends three Swedish folk songs arranged for choir, helping to make this a cornucopia of seasonal pleasure.
Of the 11 albums remaining, six stand narrowly above the rest in terms of content and performance, and each one can be endorsed without pause. They include the Adventures in Jazz Orchestra Celebrates Christmas, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's Carol of the Bells, the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra's Christmas Jazz, The North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra's Holiday Jazz Blizzard, the Nova Jazz Orchestra's An Odd Christmas and the Trilogy Big Band Does Christmas.