I am not a religious person and I’m highly allergic to earworms. So, around this time of year, with Christmas music everywhere, I’m the guy at the supermarket with my fingers in my ears. I just can’t bear to hear Paul McCartney sing “Wonderful Christmas Time” ever again.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t like holiday music. It’s just that most of what I like was recorded so long ago, I would need a time machine to shop in peace. The newest song on the following playlist of holiday music is three decades old. The oldest goes back six centuries. But from hard bop jazz to Renaissance music, the tunes here evoke enough wonder to keep me in the holiday spirit.
John Coltrane: "My Favorite Things"
The great saxophonist’s 1960 recording of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s song from “The Sound of Music” is 14 minutes of pure joy. The minimal modal chord pattern is evidence of Coltrane’s emerging interest in the music of India, making the tune gorgeously cross-cultural. Coltrane is playing a soprano sax given to him by Miles Davis, whose band he had just left. McCoy Tyner is a great contributor here, taking a long, lyrical piano solo while bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones keep things swinging along. Coltrane takes a song emblematic of mainstream, American-apple-pie music and transforms it into a subversive modal masterpiece.
Judy Collins: “The Blizzard”
By the time Judy Collins released her 1990 album “Fires of Eden,” she was no longer merely covering the best songs by others; she was writing her own great songs. One of her finest, “The Blizzard,” is about being overtaken by a snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains, forcing her to stop, reflect on her life, trust strangers, and ultimately overcome adversity. All the while, her piano playing builds and swirls, perfectly evoking the raging storm. Collins’s voice soars as she tells a story in a way that few artists can in song.
Cannonball Adderley: “Fiddler on the Roof" (album)
Where can you find great Jewish music to celebrate Hanukkah? The surprising answer: an album by the Cannonball Adderley Sextet. In 1964, one of the greatest jazz bands of all time created an album of songs from the hit Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof." With Adderley on alto saxophone, his brother Nat Adderley on cornet and trumpet, Charles Lloyd on tenor sax and flute, pianist Joe Zawinul, and a rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and Louis Hayes on drums, the band could not have been better. Tunes like “To Life,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and the title tune, which includes “Tradition,” (all by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) are perfect vehicles for improvisation. My favorite tune, “Chavalah,” seems to have been channeled through Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Donny Hathaway: "This Christmas"
Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul singers of the 20th century, died at the age of 33 of an apparent suicide. But before he left us, he wrote (with Nadine McKinnor) and sang the best holiday pop song I’ve ever heard. In 1970, Hathaway not only recorded “This Christmas,” he wrote and arranged the great off-kilter horn lines that punctuate every chorus. If “This Christmas” comes on the radio just as I’m pulling into my driveway, I’ll stay in the car until it’s over. No matter how many times I hear it, I want to hear it again.
Eartha Kitt:"Santa Baby"
This song has been recorded many times by pop stars of every succeeding generation, but Eartha Kitt’s original 1953 version of Joan Javits and Philip Springer’s “Santa Baby” remains unsurpassed. A seductive appeal to the holidays’ conspicuous consumption, the lyrics build in absurdity, verse after verse, with the kind of skillful internal rhymes that no one bothers with anymore. Kitt’s voice and attitude are simply perfect.
Don Byron: “Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Siberian Sleighride”
In 1996, clarinetist Don Byron recorded “Bug Music,” an album exploring the tunes of Raymond Scott, John Kirby, and Duke Ellington. The disc took me right back to my childhood because much of the music was featured in Looney Tunes cartoons. The album includes two evocative holiday tunes: “Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” — Kirby’s take on part of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” — and Raymond Scott’s wonderfully frenetic “Siberian Sleighride.”
Ellen Hargis and Paul O'Dette: “The Christmas Album” (album)
Talk about transcending time! On this album, soaring soprano Ellen Hargis is accompanied by Eastman School of Music professor Paul O’Dette on lute and theorbo. The repertoire is a collection of medieval and Renaissance Christmas pieces from England, France, Italy, and Germany. Aside from an occasional hallelujah, I have no idea what she’s singing about on many of the songs. But her voice is beautiful, the melodies are strange and haunting, and the lute and theorbo provide the ethereal counterpoint of another place and time.
Mahalia Jackson: “O Holy Night”
My favorite Christmas carol began as a poem by Placide Cappeau, written in celebration of a church organ renovation in the French town of Roquemaure in 1843. Adolphe Adam composed the music later that year, and John Sullivan Dwight wrote the English lyrics in 1855. I do believe in transcendent music, and the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s 1968 performance of “O Holy Night” is nothing short of incredible.
Ron Netsky is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.