Ramsey Lewis, Sound of Christmas

Album of the Week, December 16, 2023

There are some jazz performers who make a career out of breaking boundaries, who record staggering works of genius that don’t connect with the public in their lifetimes but who are celebrated only by a marginally small audience. Ramsey Lewis is not among those performers. A classically trained pianist with populist instincts, he made a career over more than sixty years of recording popular, crowd pleasing jazz influenced by blues, soul, and pop. That’s not to say they weren’t also staggering works of genius in their own right. Case in point: his 1961 holiday album Sound of Christmas, which combines all those influences with the Christmas songbook, in both piano trio and orchestral arrangements.

Ramsey Lewis was born in 1935, half a generation younger than many of the 1960s jazz luminaries we’ve explored in this column, in Chicago to parents who had both migrated from the South. His father was a church choir director, and young Ramsey wanted to follow in his footsteps; when piano lessons were offered to his older sister but not to him, Lewis threw a fit until he was able to take lessons as well. He studied classical piano performance, played in a number of ensembles, and eventually formed his own trio. In October 1961, the trio entered the studio to record their ninth album, and first holiday-themed record. In addition to Lewis, the players included Issac “Red” Holt on drums and Eldee Young on bass, as they had since 1958. In addition to the trio, there was also a string section arranged by Riley Hampton, who was the house bandleader at Chess Records. Hampton had just provided Etta James with the string arrangements behind her career-making smash hit “At Last,” and his skills are on full display on this album… or at least on the second half; the first half is just the trio.

Merry Christmas, Baby” is a low-key opener. A blues written by Charles Brown and Lou Baxter and recorded by Brown when Baxter needed money for medical care, the lyrics of the song (“Merry Christmas, baby/You sure did treat me nice”) are what distinguish it from any other mid-tempo blues, and they’re not evident in this recording. But the performance here is sprightly and the interaction between Lewis, Holt and Young is electric.

Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard, with lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith; originally about a couple’s romance, later lyrics added in 1947 remade the song into a children’s winter fable. Lewis’s version rollicks all over, with help from “Red” Holt’s drumming.

We’ve written about the origins of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” before, when Bill Evans featured it on Trio 64. Unlike Evans’ brisk romp, Lewis takes the song as a bluesy ballad, lending a late-night feel to the classic Christmas tune.

The Christmas Blues” should not be confused with the other “Christmas Blues,” written by Sammy Cahn and David Jack Holt. This version is written by the pianist and composer Skitch Henderson, and is a straightforward major blues, introduced by a mean Eldee Young bass solo with jingle bells added for flavor.

Here Comes Santa Claus” was written by Gene Autry, to a tune composed by Oakley Haldeman. Autry was no stranger to Christmas music, having written “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939—and he would go on to debut “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950, making him the single most Christmassy cowboy in America. Lewis’s rendition adds a little boogie-woogie and stride to the performance.

Flipping the record over puts us in a different soundscape, with Lewis’ composition “The Sound of Christmas” introduced by Riley Hampton’s string section and the sound of Lewis on the Celeste. But “Red” Holt’s syncopated beat links it with the first side, and the composition is a jaunty little holiday bop, mingling the flavors of traditional Christmas pop music with Lewis’s blues-flavored piano.

We wrote a bit about the origins of “The Christmas Song” a few weeks ago, and this is a more traditional rendition than Guaraldi’s, with the melody played first in the Celeste, then in the violin before Lewis’s piano takes over with some octave-spanning soulful flavor. The Celeste returns at the end to gently play us out.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is introduced on tubular bells, and then a hard cut into Lewis’s piano and the strings (so hard a cut that it sounds like it might have been an edit rather than part of the original arrangement). Lewis plays a set of blues variations on the ancient melody, bringing in snippets of “My Favorite Things” and a few other standards along the way. The arrangement swings hard, with the strings sounding like they had just come off a Wes Montgomery record.

Lewis’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” by contrast, is pretty straightforward, with the strings doing much of the heavy lifting in recreating the Leroy Anderson composition. Lewis blues some of the chords around the edges a little in his solo but otherwise plays it straight—appropriate since the original number swings pretty hard already.

The record closes with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?,” surely the most lovesick of the traditional holiday songs. As Loesser’s daughter Susan explained, her father intended that the narrator was asking for a commitment many months in advance: “It always annoyed my father when the song was sung during the holidays.” Lewis’s version incorporates jazz ballad style alongside a snippet of “Für Elise” to close out this bluesy, soulful romp through the Christmas songbook.

Lewis would go on to have a long and varied career in jazz, performing with both jazz trio and extended fusion ensembles (which we’ll hear later). Along the way he recorded a sequel to Sounds of Christmas, which we’ll hear another time. Next week we’ll veer back into the traditional lane for a personal favorite of mine.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

King’s College Choir, O Come All Ye Faithful

Album of the Week, December 9, 2023

Today we go from one of the most popular albums I’ve ever reviewed (judging from the number of complete strangers who have visited my site to read about it) to one of the more obscure, sort of. I say “sort of” because while not a lot of people may have this particular record (to be precise, right now I’m one of seven folks on Discogs who own a copy of this pressing), it’s the most traditional of Christmas traditions: the English cathedral carol album. And it’s by a completely top-notch group with a top-shelf conductor.

Of the musical groups I’ve reviewed on this page, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge is undoubtedly the oldest and most established, having been created by King Henry VI to provide daily singing in his chapel (he is the “King” in King’s College, having founded it in 1441). The men and boys choir has from its inception consisted of 16 boy choristers accompanied by adult male voices, and at least throughout the last four hundred years by organ, though the form and particulars have changed over time. The first recorded director of music was one John Tomkins, the half-brother of composer Thomas Tomkins, who was the successor to Orlando Gibbons as the organist at King’s College.

Between Tomkins’ appointment in 1606 and the late 20th century there were fourteen directors of the choir, most notably including Sir David Willcocks, who directed the choir from 1957 to 1974 and in numerous recordings and broadcasts (and wrote numerous descants which are memorialized in the collections Carols for Choirs). Willcocks was succeeded by Sir Philip Ledger, who conducted the choir for nine years before taking the reins of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Ledger was succeeded by Stephen Cleobury, who directed the choir from 1982 until 2019, a few months before his death from cancer at age 70. Today’s album was recorded in 1984, a few short years into his tenure.

There is something quintessentially English about the King’s College Christmas Eve services, in the form of “lessons in songs and carols,” that have been broadcast worldwide by the BBC for at least the entire time I’ve been alive. A good amount of it has to do with the precise Received Pronunciation of the speakers, but perhaps equally much has to do with the English choral tradition— the clarity of the voices of the trebles, the precision of the diction, and the very English musical choices. This record is a good example of all of the above. It is full of great carol arrangements, but I’ll pick out a few:

“Once in Royal David’s City” is famous for beginning the Lessons services, as it has done since 1918. Written by organist Henry Gauntlett to a text by Cecil Frances Alexander, the carol, originally written for a child’s songbook, is here heard in the expansive arrangement by King’s organist Dr. Arthur Henry Mann which, Erik Routley has written, “turns the homely children’s hymn into a processional of immense spaciousness.” One of the other legendary bits about the carol is that the boy soloist who sings the first verse is only told that he will sing the solo a few minutes before the start of the service; we trust that the unnamed soloist on this recording got a little more notice.

I sometimes forget that Ralph Vaughan Williams, in addition to his considerable talents as a composer, was also a folklorist and song collector, much as Arthur Kyle Davis or Bascom Lamar Lunsford were on this side of the Atlantic. “On Christmas Night” is also known as the “Sussex Carol” after the location where Vaughan Williams heard it sung, in the hamlet of Monk’s Gate in Horsham by Harriett Verrell. It might be one of the definitive English carols, featuring the adult and treble voices in dialog with each other and then in harmony at the end. You can hear more English oral tradition at work in “The Seven Joys of Mary,” which was collected as an anonymous folk song as #278 in the Roud index.

“Ding dong! merrily on high” consists of words written by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) to a secular tune by 16th century French composer Thoinot Arbeau. Woodward directed bell choirs, and you can hear the tintinnabulations in his writing.

Cleobury’s version of the Kings College Choir is the one I grew up listening to every Christmas Eve, but it’s worth reflecting that his version is in some ways also Willcocks’, and Tomkins’, and indeed all the different masters of the choir to this point, all blended into one continuous tradition.

We’ll continue to veer all over the map in our appreciation of Christmas music for the next few weeks, jumping back over to the American side of the pond to check out a different take on the holiday. Until then, you can listen to today’s album, which I’ve posted here since there are no streams to be found of it anywhere.