December 23, 2019. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s (JALCO) Big Band Holidays II is a thoroughly enjoyable holiday-time jazz album, and those aren’t always so easy to come by.
Jazz Christmas albums can be polarizing; that’s more than just a punned-reference to the nerve center of Chris Cringle’s business operations. There are plenty worth setting near those chestnuts and an open flame. Those who’ve done it best—Nat King Cole, Satch, Ella, Nancy Wilson—have used the holiday tunes as a means to showcase their musicality, rather than as ends in themselves.
Among the living, Wynton Marsalis, JALCO’s music director, has presided over recent history’s best holiday compilations because…he’s Wynton Marsalis. Because the best musicians don’t let his calls go to voicemail, and because Marsalis, like Art Blakey, encourages his musicians to write and arrange and bring the best of their own styles to holiday favorites that in many cases are overdue for a sprucing-up.
Marsalis and Blue Engine Records, JALCO’s record label, have access to the entire archive of JALCO performances; they can pick and choose the best for their records. And they do. This latest album of cleverly arranged Christmas favorites, a follow up to 2015’s Big Band Holidays, is no exception.
There is another reason why these albums always succeed: guest appearances by the biggest and best jazz vocalists of the moment. This second Big Band Holidays compilation has all the guest-vocal firepower you’d imagine. Catherine Russell, the veritable Swiss Army knife of jazz vocalists who can kill it in any of jazz’s idioms, sings three tunes. Denzal Sinclaire, the Canadian who’s made a name mastering the Nat King Cole songbook, lends his smooth baritone to two, and Audrey Shakir and Veronica Swift, one of the jazz world’s brightest young voices, each appear on another.
But none of them bring the gravitas, the electricity, of one vocalist who, literally all by herself, makes this album worth a listen.
The late Aretha Franklin was a surprise guest at JALCO’s holiday concert in 2015, where she delivered a version of “O Tannenbaum” that will get hair you didn’t even know you had on the back of your neck standing at attention. Even that late in her life, the recording is vintage Franklin and is one of just a handful that’s been newly released since her death in August 2018.
There’s a full stocking’s worth of additional highlights. There’s Carlos Henriquez’s arrangement of “Brazilian Sleigh Bells,” with Sherman Irby’s soaring solo on alto saxophone; there’s Veronica Swift’s scatting exhibition and Vincent Gardner’s (trombone) tease of “Frosty the Snowman” on “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag”; and there’s the swing-era vibe of Louis Prima’s “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)” featuring Catherine Russell, who earlier this year released an entire album of reimagined swing-era tunes—this one was right in her wheelhouse.
This is another, perhaps overlooked, aspect of Marsalis’s genius. Like a great coach or director, he knows exactly how to put his musicians in positions where they’re most likely to shine, to showcase their best selves. It is the best of improvisation within a framework carefully orchestrated and enabled by Marsalis, the maestro. Of course, it all sounds effortless.