A lot of people hate Christmas music. Like a lot of people, I find most Christmas music pretty annoying. However, there is one sub-genre of Christmas music that I actually really like. It’s Christmas music played by great jazz musicians. Holiday music works well as jazz, because the melodies are so familiar. You only need to brush the surface of the original song and the listener will get the gist of where you’re coming from. This gives the musicians tremendous freedom to go wherever they want. That’s when jazz is best—when the musicians are unconstrained.
To help explore this, I’m going to take you through five completely different versions of We Three Kings. We will start with my favorite jazz(ish) holiday album of all time, Holiday Drive by The Beltway Brass. If you don’t already own this album, shame on you. You can buy the tracks here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.) Here is their version of We Three Kings:
Have I mentioned that The Beltway Brass is one of my brother’s bands? Yeah. That’s him on lead trumpet and it’s his arrangement, of course. The time signature here is 3/4, which means three beats per measure, like a waltz. Other than the fact that it’s a really cool jazz-like take with the walking tuba baseline and the dissonant trumpet solo at the end, it’s a pretty stock version of the song. So we’ll use it as our reference point.
Next we hit a Dave Brubeck version. This is from an album called A Jazz Christmas: Hot Jazz for a Cool Night. Here’s the full album on iTunes. I’ve clipped out a minute of it for our discussion:
You know Dave Brubeck. He’s the piano player whose band recorded Take Five (which was actually written by his sax player, Paul Desmond). I absolutely love the intro. It’s in 2/4 (two beats to a measure), and after some really popping Afro-Cuban drums, the base comes in with this really cool fast walk. Then Dave comes in on piano, and the clarinet joins right away.
I’m going out on a limb and say that’s a clarinet. Dave played with Paul, and Paul played alto sax on everything I’ve ever heard him record with Dave. But that is definitely not an alto sax. It could be a soprano sax, but there’s a richness to the tone that’s almost impossible to achieve on soprano. The soprano sax is a naturally shrill beast. Clarinet was actually Paul’s first instrument, so it kinda makes sense that if he wasn’t going to play alto, he’d go to the clarinet instead. Honestly, I can’t even prove that’s Paul playing. But if it isn’t Paul, this cat is doing one hell of a great Paul Desmond impression.
Now for a completely different take, let’s go to Wynton Marsalis on the album Crescent City Christmas Card. Here’s the full album on iTunes. This is typical New Orleans jazz with a whole mess of different instruments just going all over the place. But it works. A sample:
The soloist at about 45 seconds is a soprano sax, and underscores the fact that it wasn’t a soprano sax in the Brubeck track. At 1:20, we go to a straight ahead jazz feel with a really cool piano solo. This song is going a variety of places. It’s all a slow 4/4 (4 beats to the measure) feel.
Our next track is a version I ripped from an album called Noel Holiday Music 2000 Collection by the ever-popular Various Artists. Yeah, sorry, I have no fucking idea who this is or where you can find this recording:
I’m including the whole damn thing here, since I’m pretty sure whoever made this won’t give a shit. We are back to 3/4 time, like my brother’s version. Rich chords like Dave’s version. And there’s a soprano sax, again! But after the piano introduces the tune, we get into a much bigger group. Not necessarily a big band, but at least an octet. I really like the solo section here. It’s got a really driving chord progression, and the horn player seriously knows his scales. This is a solid piece of jazz music.
So when I got the idea to put together this post, I just set my iPhone to “Songs,” scrolled down to We Three Kings, and listened to what came up. And I was delighted to find this last piece. I suppose most people wouldn’t classify Straight No Chaser as a Jazz ensemble, but I do. They are named after a Thelonious Monk song, for crying out loud. But yeah, they are mostly known for doing a cappella vocal versions of pop songs. The album is Christmas Cheers. Here is the iTunes link.
The Mission Impossible-sounding part at the beginning is in 5/4. That’s an unusual time signature—one generally associated with Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, actually. They do the first part of the melody in 5, then switch to 3/4 for the bridge. Then 5, then 3, then 5, then 3, and suddenly it goes to a Reggae beat in 4. These guys are so fucking cool. And they end with a little Baptist Church choir thing. I mean, damn. If that isn’t jazz, nothing is.