Heartwarming Christmas classics: Videos

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Jimmy Smith, “Greensleeves”

Jimmy Smith’s rendition of “Greensleeves,” from Christmas Cookin’, is one of the hippest holiday songs that I can hear all year long. He’s joined by Kenny Burrell (guitar) and Grady Tate (drums), and no matter my mood, they swing me into a festive frame of mind.

Duke Pearson, “Sleigh Ride”

Pianist Duke Pearson was a major part of Blue Note recordings by Stanley Turrentine, Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan, in addition to his own small-group and big band sessions for the label. Blue Note chose to open their Ultimate Jazz Christmas collection with a swingin’ version of “Sleigh Ride,” with Pearson on celeste and piano, alongside bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Mickey Roker and percussionist Airto Moreira.

Willie Colón, “Esta Navidad”

In Puerto Rico, an “Asalto Navideño” is literally a musical Christmas assault on someone’s home. This landmark 1971 album by trombonist Willie Colón, vocalist Héctor Lavoe and virtuoso cuatro player Yomo Toro got young Nuyoricans like me back into our culture in full force with its modern approach to our Xmas music. “Esta Navidadad” (“This Christmas”) is an aguinaldo (a Christmas gift) that opens to the cadence of Puerto Rican mapaye rhythm. But watch out, pilgrims: it suddenly goes into high gear as it morphs into Cuban son montuno rhythm. If you see Santa dancing the mambo, now you know why.

Natalie Cole, “Merry Christmas Baby”

Holly & Ivy, Natalie Cole’s Christmas album, is wonderful in its breadth, ranging from big band jazz to gospel-influenced arrangements and sentimental songs with strings. There are the classic Christmas songs, like “Merry Christmas Baby,” and songs I’ve never heard before but dig, like “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.”

Charles Brown, “Merry Christmas Baby”

Growing up it wasn’t Christmas in my house until my dad played this song. The moment Charles Brown’s soulful lilting vocals sing “Merry Christmas Baby, sure do treat me nice,” I am instantly transported back to being a little kid in Brooklyn. With that opening line, you instantly understand why they called Charles the Honey Dripper. I can almost hear my dad singing along.

Irma Thomas, “O Holy Night”

“O Holy Night” has always been my one of my favorite Christmas hymns. New Orleans singer Irma Thomas’ version with a gospel choir always lifts the spirits of everyone in the room when I play it at home.

Hank Crawford, “O Holy Night”

I had a scheduled recording session with Hank Crawford when Milestone called requesting a tune for inclusion on a Christmas anthology. Hank came up with a wonderful arrangement of “O Holy Night” which incorporated a portion of “We Will Overcome.” It is my all-time favorite.

Nat King Cole, “The Christmas Song”

The nostalgia that Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” brings is instant. The innocence of a kid who believes in Santa Claus overcomes me, and I remember why this holiday is so special to so many.

Miles Davis Featuring Bob Dorough, “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)”

Best as I remember, Bob Dorough said he’d been playing some gigs, opening for Bird. He got to know Miles, and he gets a call, and that voice rasps “Write me a Christmas song!” (They also recorded “Nothing Like You,” which ended up on Sorcerer.)

Donny Hathaway, “This Christmas”

The intro to this song — dadada da-da, da da-da-dadada — along with those jingling bells, signals it’s time to decorate the tree, the house, “turn on” the fireplace, eat fruitcake and drink eggnog with family and friends!

Chuck Brown, “Merry Christmas, Baby”

For any Washington, D.C. native, the holidays aren’t complete without hearing the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, sing “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Growing up, I appointed myself the family DJ during the holidays, regularly compiling playlists that I would gift to family and friends as stocking stuffers. The holiday playlist wouldn’t be complete without a touch of D.C.’s official music!

Wynton Marsalis, “Silent Night” (Featuring Kathleen Battle)

There are quite a few jazz versions of seasonal songs that move me, but none quite so much as this version of “Silent Night.” Wynton Marsalis took a favorite Austrian carol and turned it into an authentic New Orleans blues, with the bonus of Kathleen Battle’s gorgeous soprano — marvelous!

Dexter Gordon, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Beginning with a simple piano and cymbal introduction, Dexter then enters with a sound so confident, so comforting, so… welcoming, as though he has invited us into his home to decorate his tree, to enjoy some eggnog, to mingle and engage with friends and loved ones.

Nat King Cole with his daughter, Natalie, in 1970

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