Some artists see the Christmas album as a career obligation to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Others see it as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, a chance to shrug off all career calculations and old habits and just have some fun with the music. Audiences and critics don’t see a holiday record as a “real album” in an artist’s catalogue, so why not treat it like a vacation from your job?
That’s what jazz artists Jamie Cullum and Warren Wolf have done with their new Christmas albums, and the result is a delightful playfulness. Cullum, a London singer and pianist, has released The Pianoman at Christmas, while Wolf, a Baltimore vibraphonist and pianist, has released Christmas Vibes. Both take advantage of the genre’s low expectations to revel in melody and to take some chances.
“Absolutely,” agrees Cullum. “It’s freedom within the limitations of the subject matter, but once you’re in the subject you can write about all the same things you do in other songs, as long as you throw in some snow and mistletoe. It allows you to think wide-screen. If it were a regular album, maybe I would be shy about doing four choruses at the end of this song or having a huge orchestra come in only at the end of a song. But because it’s a Christmas album, why not? It’s like writing a musical; as long as you stay within the storyline, you can do anything you want.”
“A lot of Christmas music is like the blues,” adds Wolf. “You don’t have to always be thinking about this chord and that chord; you can just swing along and have fun. Christmas songs are very friendly, very easy to listen to. As a kid, I watched the Charlie Brown Christmas Special on TV, and I liked it even though I didn’t know it was jazz. I said, ‘This stuff is really cool, really swinging.’”
When Cullum was planning the album, his British label, Island Records, said, “Why don’t you do half covers? You have a big audience, and they love the way you interpret songs.” Cullum responded, “No, that’s too easy. At the end of the day, I’m a songwriter. If I had to stay home and write songs all day, that’d be fine with me. When you think of all the people who have recorded ‘The Christmas Song’ and songs like that, and they’ve all done such a good job, why should I do the same thing?”
He was stuck at home in London, however, due to the pandemic, so he didn’t have access to all the studio technology he usually relies on. So instead he started with a notebook, jotting down phrases from his favorite Christmas artworks, from Bing Crosby to David Sedaris, from Charles Dickens to Frank Capra, and from scraps of conversation about the holiday.
“When I started to actually write the songs,” Cullum recalls, “I would literally start with a line, like ‘So Many Santas,’ I liked the idea of a kid walking around the city not understanding why there are 10 Santas in a four-block area. Once I had a subject idea and a lyric line, I just started improvising at the piano for 20 minutes, which is all the time I had between my kids’ home-schooling sessions.
“Out of that 20 minutes, I’d have maybe 10-20 seconds that were strong, but I would go back to it and build around it. Eventually, I’d have enough to say, ‘This needs a chorus; that verse is kind of wishy-washy.’ That’s when I brought my craft to it.”
The result is a finger-snapping, brassy, big-band arrangement that recalls Frank Sinatra’s work with Billy May. Cullum begins with the comic observations, “There’s the one whose hat is falling off his head; there’s the one who doesn’t look like he could drive a sled.” But he ends up crowing, “I love everyone of these old clowns,” right before a trumpet solo.
Several more tunes take the same hard-swinging approach, but the stand-out track on the album is “Hang Your Lights,” where the swing has that New Orleans syncopation from the period when Louis Prima’s orchestra was being supplanted by Dave Bartholomew’s arrangements for Fats Domino. There’s even a baritone sax riff and a female-vocal passage. The title line adds the mild sexual innuendo of that era, as in Lee Dorsey’s “Ride Your Pony.”
The album’s title comes from a song originally called, “There’s Always a Job for a Piano Man at Christmas.” But it was terrible title; the word “job” is hard to sing and isn’t very Christmasy. But Cullum wanted to write a song about that time in his 20s and early 30s when he’d spend every December going from bar to bar playing Christmas songs.
“I used to think of myself as Jack Baker from The Fabulous Baker Boys, the Jeff Bridges character in love with Michelle Pfeiffer,” he confesses. “That led to the phrase, ‘I thought I could be your man, but I’m just the piano man at Christmas,’ And that scanned a lot better. I said, ‘I’m not going to escape the Billy Joel reference, so why not just go with it?’”
“Turn on the Lights,” which begins with rock’n’roll triplets on the piano beneath an aggressive vocal over a punchy beat, also betrays the Billy Joel influence. “I’m a huge fan,” Cullum admits. “I’ve opened up for him a few times at Madison Square Garden. He’s never shied away from musical ambition and ingenuity even as he’s made all these hit albums. And I’ve tried to do the same thing on this album.”
Cullum says his favorite Christmas recording of all time is Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song,” written by jazz crooner Mel Torme and TV/film scriptwriter Robert Wells. “That’s the gold standard,” Cullum insists, “just the way he sings it, the way he times it, the way the band plays. Harmonically, it’s no walk in the park, but Nat delivers it as it’s coming off a juke box. And it was a #1 single. He has that voice as warm as slippers. Even though I’ve never seen chestnuts roasting over an open fire, but I know just how that feels.
“Opening with such a killer line announces what just what the song’s going to do. It opens with the money shot. And it’s not just the lyric; it’s that leap in the melody.” Here Cullum sings the octave leap from “chest” to “nuts” to demonstrate. “I try to do something similar on my song ‘Beautiful Altogether,’ which also invites you in with a shot at the goal in the first line.” Here he sings, “We are beautiful, when we’re altogether ‘round a table that could burst at the seams.” “A lot of the time with melodies, it’s instinctual, it’s only after I’ve written it that I feel I’ve found something.”
Wolf does something similar on “Wake Up, Little Kids, It’s Christmas,” his one original song on Christmas Vibes. The melody takes a big leap upward as it goes from “The night be-” to “fore” to describe a Christmas Eve in Wolf’s Maryland home. The vocal is handled by Allison Bordlemay, but the harmony is established by Wolf’s piano and the melody by his chiming vibraphone. After this introduction, the action shifts to Christmas morning, as little kids, rubbing their eyes, stumble from their beds to the gifts under the tree.
“Arranging the standards for the album was fun,” Wolf admits, “but writing an original song was hard. I started by writing about the crazy scene here on Christmas, from my and my wife’s point of view. When we were recording it, my vocalist said, ‘Warren, how do you want this song?’ The picture that came into my mind was one of those old Disney films were the old woman is serving dinner to the children and singing to them in a happy, homey feel. Then the second part goes into a gospel feel.”
That gospel-soul flavor is even more obvious on Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” sung by Micah Smith. But the record’s repertoire ranges all over the map, from “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” written by Pyotr Tchaikovsky for the 1892 ballet, The Nutcracker, to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 single, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” recorded with the Harlem Community Choir.
In between are three songs from the holiday TV specials of Wolf’s childhood: How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. The two songs from the latter show, “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Skating,” were written by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi and lyricist Lee Mendelson.
“Guaraldi’s music sounds like Jazz 101,” Wolf acknowledges, “the basic harmony we should all know as jazz musicians. But he found a way to make it sound happier than anyone else. I had a specific vision for this album, that it would be something people could play while they’re eating dinner on Christmas Day. When we do solo, it’s just enough for people to say, ‘This is cool; let’s get back to the melody.’”