OK, so it may not be a profound musical masterpiece, and not everyone may have heard it or own it (unlike the iconic Whipped Cream and Other Delights album, which everyone’s dad seemed to own), but it was not Christmas at our house unless the Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass Christmas Album was spinning on the Magnavox console several times through December. Even to this day, not a year goes by that I don’t at least play it once.
It was also the first Tijuana Brass CD I ever bought, a rare German import that I lucked into courtesy of an audiophile store nearby, a few years before A&M would start releasing TJB CDs in the US. Shout Factory has this album sounding better than ever on CD, yet I always pull out my vinyl copy and play that, as it brings back a lot of memories.
Musically it has an upbeat yet easygoing feeling to all of the tracks. Alpert handled arrangements for the musical side, yet he enlisted west coast jazz legend Shorty Rogers to handle the vocal and string arrangements. Many familiar holiday tunes get Tijuana Brass arrangements (such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride”), while a few surprises are in order. The rarely performed “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” (penned by Burt Bacharach) makes an appearance, and the album closes on a calm note with Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It is a bit different than other TJB albums, but a welcome change of pace from that tried and true formula. And now that it’s December 24th, it’s about time I gave it a spin…
Thanks for joining us in this Christmas Album Countdown series! Enjoy your holidays, and we’ll see you back here before you know it!
While Brian Setzer has gone on to record another album of Christmas tunes (Dig That Crazy Christmas) and release an album of his fantastic live Christmas show (Christmas Comes Alive!), this is the album that started it all. Boogie Woogie Christmas set Setzer’s rockabilly guitar stylings up against his full big band unit, and put out a rockin’ set of holiday favorites that breathed some life into a lot of overworn chestnuts. “Jingle Bells” busts out of the gate with some blistering Gretsch guitar, and the album doesn’t let up until the end.
Not that the whole album is uptempo: Ann-Margaret serves up a smoldering duo with Setzer on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, and the vocal-centered “O Holy Night” is a surprise. Other lesser-known tracks are the Setzer-penned “So They Say It’s Christmas,” and a cover of Lionel Hampton’s “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.” A treat for big band fans is the Orchestra’s featurette of “The Nutcracker Suite,” done to the original Les Brown arrangement. Overall, it’s a rollicking and fun romp through a fine collection of Christmas tunes.
Keep in mind that at one point, there were a few different versions of this album floating around the different big box retailers with differing “bonus” tracks. I lucked out in that an import EP had these tracks collected all in one place, with “Luck Be A Lady” as the single that anchored them together.
To accompany this release, Setzer embarked on the first of a handful of holiday tours with the Orchestra. Having seen this configuration in concert, I can vouch for the high quality throughout. Setzer’s guitar chops were impeccable, the band was sharp as a tack, and the rockabilly trio configuration (Setzer, Johnny “Spazz” Hatton and Bernie Dresel) brought things down to a smaller scale, yet still tore up the stage. The mix of tunes was just over half Christmas gems, and the rest were familiar hits from the Brian Setzer and Stray Cats catalogs. In fact, “Rock This Town” was the segue from the trio back to the full big band. All I can say is, if this program didn’t put you into the holiday spirit, nothing could! Want to see for yourself? Setzer has released one of these concerts on DVD…or better yet, catch the BSO when it next roars through town. I’ve seen the group four times, and it has never been a letdown.
One could argue that the Carpenters’ career had already crested, and that they were not at the top of their game when this album was recorded. But that would overlook the fact that this album, Christmas Portrait, not only remains one of the best they would produce, it is also one of the best holiday albums of its kind. It shines due to the total album being greater than the sum of its parts. Karen Carpenter’s vocal talents are without question–expressive, pitch-perfect and tonally rich. While Richard Carpenter’s contribution was more as a producer (rather than arranger and composer…and even pianist), his own touch is also evident throughout.
What really makes this album is the song selection, sequencing and pacing. The album as a whole comes across as an entire Christmas variety production; one can almost visualize the duo singing in heavy winter coats on a stage set with holiday decorations and fake snow. The album opens with an overture of just the right length–it hits a few familiar melodies briefly and sets the mood, and then gets out of the way for the main program. There are a lot of tunes on this album, and a few of them are combined together on one track. The length of these is just right–like the overture, the songs go by quickly and move on to the next, maintaining that flow throughout.
A couple of notes. First of all, the version of “Merry Christmas Darling” is the one you are familiar with, although it has a re-recorded lead vocal track. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” however, is not the slow and smoky arrangement that was waxed to 45 a few years prior: this is a shorter, uptempo version. That slower version would appear on the An Old-Fashioned Christmas album that followed years later (consisting of leftover Karen Carpenter tracks from Christmas Portrait, and a lot of instrumental filler to make a complete album).
And that brings us to which version of the album to track down. Hands down, the best version is the original LP version when it was originally released. This same version was briefly released in Germany, but cancelled; you can still find copies available on eBay if you are willing to pay the price for it. The first official CD version from the US was a “Special Edition” that, unfortunately, changed some of the tracks and the running order with tracks from the Old-Fashioned Christmas album. There is also a two-CD Christmas Collection that includes both full albums but be warned: the albums have been remixed and drenched in digital reverb. If you can live with that, at least you can listen to the first disc to hear the original flow of the Christmas Portrait album.
Overall, though, there are few albums out there that presented holiday music in this fashion, and this one does it brilliantly!
At the time I first purchased this disc, I was really into the “GRP sound” at the time. GRP Records was known for slickly-produced contemporary jazz that for the most part avoided the triteness of what would eventually become Smooth Jazz. It was no stretch for me to pick A GRP Christmas Collection up, as it had a few of my favorite artists on it (David Benoit, Kevin Eubanks, Chick Corea, etc.), and yet served as a sampler for other GRP artists I was not familiar with. Their “bait” worked, as I would end up buying discs from a few more artists I found on this album, such as Special EFX, Yutaka, Daryl Stuermer and Dave Valentin. Due to the “family” sound of the label, most of the tracks sit very well together.
Highlights for me are Yutaka’s vocal cover of “This Christmas,” the unique Kevin Eubanks arrangement of “Silver Bells,” and David Benoit’s re-recording of his arrangement of “Carol Of The Bells.” Stuermer’s contribution is “The Little Drummer Boy” that thankfully features his smooth guitar rather than the typical rat-a-tat-tat snare drum that mars many other versions of this song. Dave Grusin (the “G” behind GRP) himself closes out the disc with the playful and reflective “Some Children See Him.”
This album is somewhat out of print, but is available on-demand as a CD-R from Amazon if you can’t find a used copy. Or, you can also download it. The follow-up GRP Christmas Collection discs have a couple of highlights each but in my opinion, this one sets the standard and is the best of the bunch. Well worth finding!
A perennial favorite, jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli serves up a dozen holiday favorites dressed up in his fluid guitar and smooth vocal crooning on his holiday album Let’s Share Christmas. In addition to his own trio, Pizzarelli teams with an all-star cast of arrangers on this album, enlisting the talents of Don Sebesky, John Clayton, Patrick Williams, Michel Legrand, Johnny Mandel and others on the varied tracks. The mood ranges from a trio performance of “Sleigh Ride” to big band blow-outs (“Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”) and string-backed crooning (on the title track). Despite the variation in styles, the overall sound of Pizzarelli holds the whole thing together into one enjoyable holiday package. If anything, the album reaches styles of music from decades past, which we could still use today in this fast-paced modern world of ours. This holiday package is like musical comfort food for everyone tired of the mall blasting the same dozen or so songs at us for months on end. It is out of print on CD but thankfully still available as an MP3 download from Amazon.