Let’s take as a given that the essentials of any Christmas music collection are Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, maybe Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Vince Guaraldi. You add in some Mariah Carey and you’ve basically got an FM radio station’s all-Christmas-all-December playlist. And, in all honesty, all the Christmas music you need. I mean, if a musician releases a Christmas album that’s not at least as good as these albums, the album isn’t really all that necessary.[fn1]
And yet. Every now and then, I hear a Christmas album that does something new. Yesterday, for example, I heard Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O. And then I listened to it again. And a third time.[fn2]
The album isn’t really new—it was released in 2010. But it’s new to me. And it is a stunning Christmas album, a jazz trio sans piano that largely eschews jingle bells and other traditional signifiers of Christmas music in favor of melodic left turns, walls of sound, and unexpected but fortunate improvisational choices. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the musicians are clearly having a blast, and the songs are, as often as not, hilarious.
In listening, it helps to already be familiar with the melodies. It’s not that they’re missing or disguised, but this is definitely free jazz. And free jazz is not our traditional language of Christmas. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.
The album isn’t on Spotify, but you can hear the Tree-O’s version of “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” here, and they play an NPR Tiny Desk Concert here. (I’m sad I can’t link to their version of “Mele Kalikimaka,” my favorite song on the album.)
So that’s my 2015 Christmas album discovery; what new (to you, at least) Christmas music have you been listening to this December?
[fn1] Cf. Jeffrey Steingarten, It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, discussing barely-edible chocolate chip cookies: “And yet the dilemma is so easily solved that it hardly deserves the name of dilemma. All you need do is go to the supermarket, wheel your cart to the Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels aisle, grab hold of a happy yellow bag of Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels, and let the recipe printed on the back—nearly unchanged for the past 68 years—guide the rest of your shopping and baking experience. Et viola—a perfectly nice chocolate-chip cookie, especially if you go light on the flour. Then how is it possible for anybody to bake an inferior specimen? That’s my point.”
[fn2] I should note that Matt Wilson’s 2014 album Gathering Call made my top-5-of-2014 list.