Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Jingle Bell Jazz

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

We waited each Christmas until we were wrapping presents before we played Jingle Bell Jazz. It was strictly forbidden to play the record at any other time. The idea, my brother David explained, was to keep any associated memories fixed on the holiday. I kept this regimen up until I was well into my twenties. The charm worked well. In fact, when I hear these arrangements, I still feel the intense cold of Midwestern winters.

It helps that this is one hell of a Christmas disc. 

Our copy had a different cover than the edition pictured here, but aside from the producers switching out The Dukes of Dixieland for a Herbie Hancock piece, this is the same record. The list of performers is like a "Who's Who" of jazz: Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Chico Hamilton, and Paul Horn, just to name the band leaders. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross give voice to the Pogo classic, "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie." The relatively unknown Pony Poindexter (with a blue-ribbon band) giddily illuminates Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And the original producer of most of these sessions, Teo Macero (famous for his work with Miles), collaborates with jazz greats Dave McKenna, Teddy Charles, and Jimmy Raney to render If I Were a Bell in a spirit of childlike fun. Whenever I hear it I envision an electric train chugging amid pealing bells of all sizes.

But the over-arching triumph on this embarrassment of riches has to be Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern) by Miles Davis with the singular--and beloved--vocalist, Bob Dorough. Known to many as the genius behind Schoolhouse Rock, Dorough wrote the cleverly arch lyrics. Miles Davis can be counted on to cut through pretense and prettiness and Blue Xmas is no exception. It takes on seasonal hypocrisy ("It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy.") My political science professor/pastor father praised it as being a contemporary Christmas song he could support. Gil Evans' arrangement provides a taut, dynamic, experience. Wayne Shorter wails on his tenor sax, sounding a lot like John Coltrane, who had been Miles' tenor player until just recently.

Another fine performance is Mel Torme's The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), intimately intoned by the very talented, if nearly forgotten, Carmen McRae. As a youngster I found her delivery too slow, but I realize that the song's pace--and McRae's clean enunciation--helped me see its wonderful word-pictures and feel its sentiment. Even with memories of Christmas past intact, Jingle Bell Jazz gives new gifts with each year's listen. May you experience joy this season, whatever your traditions!