When I was in college back in the early 1970s, my friends and I used to entertain ourselves by making up Desert Island Lists. Here’s how it worked: If you were stranded on a desert island, what ONE book would you want to have with you? [Easy for me: the Bible.] What five photographs? What 10 records (OK, now it would be CDs, or downloads to an iPod? So a “DID” is a list of Desert Island Discs. You get the idea.
I’ve been listening to and playing Christmas music for decades and have put together a collection of music I turn to year after year as Christmas rolls around. So here is my DID of Christmas albums. Most are easily available. Some are difficult to find. All are, in my mind, well worth tracking down. I now that when it comes to this kind of thing, it’s different strokes for different folks. But I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in any of these albums. Links to the album on amazon.com or other vendors are provided with each title.
Christmas. The Singers Unlimited
This album was made in 1972 but was one of the first CDs I bought when that technology was new in the 1980s. This is a superb collection of sacred Christmas carols, sung by the absolute premiere acapella singing group – Gene Purling, Don Shelton, Len Dresslar and Bonnie Herman – the original Singers Unlimited. I enjoy this album over and over because of the group’s spectacular blend, intonation, vocal quality and balance.
Handel: Messiah. The Robert Shaw Chorale & Orchestra (Robert Shaw)
At last count I own eight recordings of Handel’s Messiah. It remains, to me one of the most important works of classical music ever composed. It tells the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, death and His resurrection in a work of stunning craft. It’s difficult for me to recommend one recording of Messiah; there are so many, ranging from performances that use modest forces to ones that utilize huge choirs. But the one I turn to for sheer listening pleasure is the one I purchased back in 1973 and which has stood the test of time. Recorded in 1966 – it won a Grammy at that time – Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra play with umparalleled blend and the soloists are uniformly superb. As is James Smith’s fine trumpet solo on “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”
Hipsters Holiday. Various Artists
Sometimes I just want an album that makes me smile. Through every track. This is it. This album contains some classic jazz and R&B Christmas performances by Louis Armstrong (if you don’t break out into a big grin when you hear him should, “‘Zat You, Santa Claus!” then you don’t have a pulse), Ertha Kitt (her “Santa Baby” is THEEperformance of this song; nothing else comes close), The Marquees, Leo Watson (whose “Jingle Bells” is a tour de force of skat singing that starts off with a trombone solo by Vic Dickinson), Pearl Bailey and many more. Pure fun, fun fun.
This Is Christmas: A Complete Collection of the Alfred S. Burt Carols. The Jimmy Joyce Singers
When I joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1985, John Williams was Conductor of the Boston Pops. It was with John that I got to know the extraordinary carols of Alfred S. Burt. The tradition of composing a new carol for each Christmas – and sent around to the Burt family’s friends – started with Alfred Burt’s father in 1922 and continued with his son until Alfred Burt’s death in 1954. These carols are beautiful, meaningful, and exquisitely sung by the Jimmy Joyce Singers. While this recording was made in 1963, the singing is first-rate and it is fresh today. I love these carols.
Joy to the World. John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra
During my 27 years as a member of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras, I recorded dozens of albums, including 2.5 Christmas albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra. The first of these Christmas albums was recorded in 1992 with John Williams conducting; the other two were conducted by Keith Lockhart. The .5 comes from the album “A Boston Pops Christmas: Live From Symphony Hall” that had half of its tracks recorded in my last season with the Boston Symphony, 2011, and half recorded with Jim Markey on bass trombone in 2012. But “Joy to the World” is my favorite of these three Christmas albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra. It contains many classic Boston Pops arrangements that, sadly, are not played as often today. It also includes a beautiful medley of Alfred Burt Carols, as well as those great, familiar arrangements of “White Christmas,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” and “Sleigh Ride.” This is a Christmas album classic.
A Charlie Brown Christmas. Vince Guaraldi Trio
Television has given us many memorable shows about Christmas and the Christmas season, but many people believe the most iconic is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I think so, too. This album contains the original sound track recording to the television show, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. As soon as you hear the first note you are transported back to the first time you saw this memorable Christmas program. The soundtrack also includes Linus’s classic reading of the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, where he tells the story of the birth of Jesus and closes with these simple but profound words: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Joyful, ebullient, and this will make you smile. And get a little wet around your eyes.
Christmas Cookin’. Jimmy Smith
Oh, boy, this is hot. My good friend, Douglas Wright (principal trombonist of the Minnesota Orchestra) gave this to me as a gift many years ago. It features the great jazz/R&B organ player Jimmy Smith with an all star big band conducted by Billy Byers that includes Jimmy Cleveland and Chauncey Welsh on trombone, Paul Faulise and Tommy Mitchell on bass trombone and Harvey Phillips on tuba. This is a WILD disc, joyful to the extreme, and you will have no choice but to get up and dance. Seriously.
December. George Winston
Solo piano. These are creative, uncomplicated arrangements that are tastefully performed. When I just want to sit quietly and think around the Christmas season, this is the album I go to. Winston combines some original compositions with classic Christmas melodies and plays them with grace and style. Mood music with a message.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. he Hollywood Trombones
This album is a little hard to find, having originally been released on HMA Records and then Summit Records. But it’s around (see the link, above) and worth tracking down. It features some of the great Los Angeles players including Dick Nash, Phil Teele, Tommy Pederson, Jeff Reynolds in a great collection of arrangements for trombones and rhythm section, mostly by Tommy Pederson. Pure trombone delight and performed at the highest level.
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. Arizona State University Desert Bones Trombone Choir and Tuba Euphonium Ensemble
During my four years as Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University, I worked to expose my students to a lot of diverse experiences. Recording was one of them. We made two CDs including a Christmas album that we shared with the ASU Tuba Euphonium Ensemble conducted by Deanna Swoboda. The album was a great success, a nice part of our recruiting efforts, and the students played superbly. Since I’m no longer at ASU, the CD isn’t used to promote the program as much as it was when I was there, but if you contact Deanna Swoboda through the link above, chances are she still has copies and you could arrange to get one by making a small donation to the program.
Carols for Christmas, Volumes I and II. Royal College of Music Chamber Choir and Brass Ensemble
When I just want to sit down with my Oxford Book of Carols and enjoy listening to superbly performed arrangements of traditional Christmas carols, I reach for this set of CDs. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print, but copies can still be found, as at the link above (don’t be thrown off by the outrageous price of some copies; used copies at affordable prices are there for for you). There is never a moment where you are aware that these are students playing and singing; this is a first rate compilation.
Christmas Cheer. The Canterbury Clerkes and London Serpent Trio.
I confess that this recording is one of the most unusual I have ever hear. But I love it. Every second of it. Here is a group of great singers along with the original London Serpent Trio: Christopher Monk, Alan Lumsden and Andrew van der Beek. Yes. A serpent trio. The combination is memorable, one of the most charming Christmas albums you would ever hear. Unfortunately, it was only released on cassette (this just goes to show that not everything made it to CD and digital format). I have one of these original cassettes but have not found others for sale. But who knows, you might do better and track one down. It’s worth searching high and low to get you hands on this most unique Christmas recordings.
This is Christmas: The New England Brass Band
During my ten year tenure as Music Director of the New England Brass Band (1998-2008), the band recorded five CDs in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Our second Christmas album, “This is Christmas,” was recorded in 2005 and shows the band to be in superb form. While we sold over 1000 copies after it was released, I believe the disc is now out of print and no longer available; you could contact the NEBB through the link above and ask, although I know they have a newer Christmas CD available under the direction of current music director Stephen Bulla. Here’s a bonus for readers of The Last Trombone: click HERE to listen to a track from the CD, an arrangement of “Once in Royal David’s City” arranged by Terry Everson (Professor of Trumpet at Boston University who was also principal cornet and assistant conductor of the NEBB when I was there); I am the bass trombone soloist. This track always brings back such wonderful memories of a special time of my life, working with the NEBB. Enjoy!