Various Artists – God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen [Columbia Records FC 37551, LP, 1981.]
Listening to the cool jazz of the Vince Guaraldi Trio on A Charlie Brown Christmas made me think about some of the other fine Christmas jazz albums in my collection. I’ll feature one of them here today, but I’ll talk a little about another one as well since they were blended together in the age of CDs.
God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen came to my attention during the 1981 Christmas season when I heard one cut in particular played on the Los Angeles jazz radio station KLON (now KKJZ – KJAZZ, based at California State University Long Beach.) The cut was a groovin’, straight ahead bop version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by the Dexter Gordon Quartet, the lead-off track on the album. As a young person who was newly discovering the world of jazz music – I was 17 at the time – it really caught my ear. My first love in music has always been rock ’n’ roll of one kind or another, but, as you can perhaps tell, I have rather eclectic tastes. Jazz music is a very close second when it comes to what you might find me listening to on a daily basis. (I can thank John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” for that, which is a story for another day…) Dexter Gordon has been a favorite saxophone player of mine ever since hearing him on this record. If you’ve never seen the great jazz film Round Midnight, watch it if you get the chance. Dexter was nominated for an Academy for his starring role in the movie that also features jazz luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton, among others.
This whole album is really solid all the way through and it’s still my favorite Christmas jazz album – well, along with the earlier Jingle Bell Jazz album that was also released on Columbia Records, but more on that in a moment.
You can actually take a listen to all of God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen here; “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the first song:
As far as I know, all the tunes on God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen were recorded specifically for this album, and they feature groups filled with some of the best straight ahead jazz players of the era, including a very young Wynton Marsalis leading a quintet. And all the players were allowed to stretch out with swinging improvisational solos on these tunes, which is nice to hear; there are only six tracks on the whole album, three on each side. That opening track clocks in as the longest of them all at 9:37. Here’s a photo of the back cover listing all the tunes and players:
Unfortunately, the album as it is pictured above is out of print. You can find used, relatively inexpensive LP and CD copies of this pretty easily through the usual sources on the internet, but the rare, still new and sealed copies I’ve seen listed sell for hundreds of dollars. Which leads me to that other really great jazz Christmas album I mentioned, Jingle Bell Jazz. This album was released by Columbia in 1962 (my copy pictured below is a 1980 reissue,) and it’s also a truly excellent compilation of swinging Christmas jazz with a bit more stylistic variety than God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen. It’s not just all hard driving bop.
But this album in its entirety is out of print, too. Again, used copies, especially of the 1980 reissue that I have, are relatively easy to find.
There is hope, though, for the casual music consumer. You can get all the tracks from the God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen album on a CD that was released in 2001 entitled Jingle Bell Jazz. That CD also contains 8 of the 12 tracks found on the original 1962 Jingle Bell Jazz LP, but sadly not all of them. Confused yet?! It took some looking for me to figure this all out!
Anyway, as far as Christmas jazz goes, these are two of the very best albums out there. God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen was one of the first Christmas albums of any kind that I bought for myself in my early record collecting days some 33 years ago, and it has remained a favorite all this time. It still sounds as good to me now as it did way back then when my 17-year old self heard Dexter Gordon’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” coming through the car radio for the very first time. That’s the sign of a true classic.