“Christmas is for girls and boys/So they can have their fun and joys,’ croons Gregory Porter on “Heart for Christmas,” his velvety baritone evoking all the wonder of the festive season for little kids, big kids and all kids in between. ‘Christmas can renew your heart/Be a child all over again’.
Like Chrimbo itself, Porter loves to weave enchantment, nestle in nostalgia. So it makes sense that, in the old school Yule tradition set by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and hard-bopping pianist Duke Pearson and continued by such modern day greats as Norah Jones and Diana Krall, he has made a festival holiday album – a selection of carols, jazz standards, new tunes and deep soul cuts titled “Christmas Wish.”
Backed by his long-time band, produced by longtime collaborator Troy Miller, lifted by orchestration recorded at Abbey Road Studios, “Christmas Wish” is as classy and solemn as it is merry and fun. “Silent Night” has never sounded so magical, or “Little Drummer Boy” so heartfelt (“It chokes me up to sing ‘I am a poor boy, too’,” Porter has said, “I grew up with love but with eight kids there wasn’t a whole bunch of money”). Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” and Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas” sparkle alongside three original gems: “Christmas Wish,” “Heart for Christmas” and elegant piano ballad “Everything’s Not Lost.”
Porter strikes a deft balance between the joy of Christmas and the humble dignity of its message, gifting a work that, like Christmas itself, is a balm for troubles, a space for reset and renewal. “This type of vibe is in my original music anyway,” he has said.
On offer, too, is a feast of classic Christmas jazz on vinyl by the artists mentioned above: Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic 1960 recording “Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas.” Louis Armstrong’s “Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule,” which includes six Decca singles from the 1950s, a duet with Ella Fitzgerald (‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’) and that glorious hymn to hope, “What A Wonderful World.”
Tracks on Duke Pearson’s 1969 classic “Merry Ole Soul” jostle for highlight; there’s the celeste (bell-piano) driven “Sleigh Ride’” and “Jingle Bells” with its feature by legendary Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira.
“Jingle Bells” is there on 2005’s “Christmas Songs,” Diana Krall’s first album with a big band (The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra), which lends full bodied accompaniment on “Let It Snow,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and more.
Norah Jones sings soothingly, sometimes playfully, “On I Dream Of Christmas,” a 2021 Yuletide with six new originals, an inside-out arrangement of “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and a straight-ahead cover of Frank Loesser’s 1947 classic “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
Maybe because it’s Christmas, serendipity abounds. “Christmas Wish” finds Porter reimagining Loesser’s song with double Grammy-winning vocalist Samara Joy. Who in turn gifts us the Christmas EP “A Joyful Holiday,” a six-song extension of her latest second album “Linger Awhile,” whose similar cast of musicians includes lauded New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner (who happens to feature on “Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule,” providing a musical underbed for Armstrong’s previously unheard reading of “A Night Before Christmas”).
Samara Joy’s voice is a thing of grace and wonder on a lightly swinging “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the Supremes/Stevie Wonder-sung “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me.” Her renditions of “Warm in December” and “O Holy Night” – the latter featuring multiple generations of her vocally blessed family – speak to her gospel roots.
“Singing alongside my family has always been a special time but this holiday season I am excited to present my first role models,” says Samara Joy of “A Joyful Holiday,” which also contains a studio and a live version of “The Christmas Song,” a duet with her father Antonio McLendon. It’s proof, if proof were needed, that the apple does not fall far from the (Christmas) tree.
All this, plus “Verve Wishes You A Swinging Christmas,” a covetable 4LP boxed set that includes “Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas” by jazz guitar king Kenny Burrell, strumming and finger-picking through “Away in A Manger” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen;” “The Sound of Christmas” by jazz-pop sensations Ramsay Lewis Trio, doing their own thing on “Merry Christmas Baby” and, oh boy!, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve; Christmas ’64” by jazz organist The Incredible Jimmy Smith, delivering what is surely the definitive “We Three Kings (of Orient Are);” and “Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas,” because she really does.
Fun and joys, indeed.
Need more Christmas? Find even more festive cheer in the Everything Jazz Christmas Collection.
Jane Cornwell is an Australian-born, London-based writer on arts, travel and music for publications and platforms in the UK and Australia, including Songlines and Jazzwise. She’s the former jazz critic of the London Evening Standard.
Header photo: Gregory Porter. Courtesy of Blue Note Records.