God knows I hate the fact that I even have to consider this a category. But there it is. Every year brings out a reprise of that awful Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album, or the next umpteenth installment of the Windham Hill Christmas series. The early Windham Hill ones were ok, I admit, particularly the second one, but please, enough is enough. And then there are those other labels, which just noodle on and on, without even bothering to check to see if any of their recording artists actually know how to play. Fortunately, there’s one that rises above the pack, because it isn’t really “New Age” at all. It’s a straight up jazz album by an artist, Liz Story, who somehow has never been able to overcome the fact that she got typecast into this particular section of the record store. It’s called The Gift, and it’s great. Solo piano, and her interpretations are flawless. My favorite cut is her version of What Child is This? But all the cuts are great, and you’ll keep going back to it. It’s hypnotic.
I guess I tend to think of New Age as kind of a 1980s phenomenon. That’s when Wyndham Hill started putting out albums by an interesting group of people—Liz Story, Michael Hedges, Shadowfax, William Ackerman (who founded the label), and others. It was a refreshing change from the awful corporate rock of the 1980s, and the fact that jazz seemed to be stuck in something of a rut. And I seem to recall Philip Glass being hailed as a genius about this time as well. So what was not to like about some straight up, simple guitar or piano, with knowledgeable improvisation often thrown in? But “refreshing” often has a habit of become “stale,” and that’s what happened here, especially when “New Age” hooked up, inevitably, with “Celtic,” and when “endless” George Winston started sounding like “interminable” George Winston.
Story is another category entirely. It’s jazz, yes, but in a very classical context, which is not at all surprising, since she initially trained to become a classical musician. It’s our good fortune, and classical music’s loss, that she changed directions. I like all her albums, but this one tends to stand out for me, because it’s the only one that I play regularly. It’s on right now, in fact.
And if you want something a bit more up-tempo, from back in the days when there was no confusion what category a particular kind of music was, there’s the good old Ramsey Lewis Sound of Christmas, which is still available as well. And we’ve already covered Vince Guaraldi. Sadly, my favorite jazz pianist, Ahmad Jamal, has never done a Christmas album, but he does have a wonderful piece called Snowfall that shows up on something called Traditional Jazz Christmas, where Jamal is surrounded by better known jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme and Peggy Lee, but also by Lewis and Kenny Burrell, so it’s a real mix. Discontinued, of course, but you can still track it down. Sort of a historical artifact, except for the contributions of Jamal and Lewis. If you like this sort of thing, Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas is a similar kind of product, but with a better line-up, including Roland Kirk and Jimmy Smith, with some wonderful vocals from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. And this one is actually available. Both of these albums are a mix, of course–not just piano.