21 contemporary jazz takes on Christmas music

There are so many jazz greats who have recorded the holiday classics that we love to hear at the end of every year.

Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Vince Guaraldi, Jimmy Smith, Julie London, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Frank Sinatra, Kenny Burrell, Chet Baker, Bing Crosby and so many more have made their mark with seasonal favourites that remain must-haves on every Christmas playlist.

But there are also countless jazz artists in the here and now who are making their own amazing contributions to the musical repertoire of the holiday season. In this playlist, we take you through some of our favourite tunes from just this past decade — featuring many of the exciting artists who represent the present and future of jazz.

Listen to the full playlist on YouTube

Laila Biali – Silent Night

Juno-nominated singer-songwriter Laila Biali brings her smooth, sensitive touch to this popular carol. It’s a jazzy yet faithful take on Silent Night that would be just as fitting at a Christmas Eve service as it would be at a dusky jazz club.

Molly Johnson – This Holiday Season

Molly Johnson’s newly released This Holiday Season EP features four original tunes — each of them “as unique as a snowflake.” The title track is a swinging, upbeat song that’s bound to lift your spirits during a Christmas time like no other.

Stacey Kent – Christmas Time is Here

American vocalist Stacey Kent’s brand-new holiday EP features four fresh recordings of Christmas classics. Among them is this slow-burning performance of Christmas Time is Here that’s perfect for sitting by the fireplace and watching the snow fall.

Joey Alexander – O Come All Ye Faithful

Young prodigy Joey Alexander proved he’s the real deal with his latest album Warna — not that there was ever any doubt. The Indonesian pianist emerged on the jazz scene as a preteen a few years ago, and has since wowed the world on a variety of occasions. That includes his holiday EP released in 2018, which begins with this fresh, groovy and swinging take on the Christmas carol O Come All Ye Faithful.

Bria Skonberg – All I Want for Christmas Is You

Mariah Carey’s uptempo holiday hit from 1994 is a sure-fire way to kick a Christmas party into high gear. Here, Canadian vocalist and trumpeter Bria Skonberg reworks the dance-pop tune with stylish swing, tuneful trumpet solos and playful scatting for a cover version that’s more befitting of a classy cocktail hour.

Warren Wolf – O Christmas Tree

Christmas Vibes is the cleverly titled holiday album by jazz vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who takes on 12 well-known tunes with swing, grooves and a good amount of pep. Among the highlights is this Guaraldi-esque take on O Christmas Tree.

Jamie Cullum – It’s Christmas

In what you might call a year of turmoil and division, Jamie Cullum says, “It’s Christmas / Why can’t we all just get along?” This single from the U.K. singer’s new album The Pianoman at Christmas channels the big-band sound of Frank Sinatra for an original holiday song that speaks to its time with a message that ought to last for years to come.

Heather Bambrick & Diane Leah – (Maybe We’ll Have) Christmas This Year

This tender, affecting original song captures the feeling of the unprecedented struggle and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, but in a way that primarily reminds us of hope, joy and togetherness. JAZZ.FM91’s own Heather Bambrick and her frequent musical partner Diane Leah are joined by a fantastic group of Toronto jazz musicians including Colleen Allen, Ted Quinlan, Ross MacIntyre, Ben Wittman and Drew Jurecka.

OKAN – Amarga Navidad

Here, Toronto-based collective OKAN takes on a holiday tune by one of Mexico’s most beloved songwriters. Thematically, Amarga Navidad is not your typical seasonal fare — you can tell just by the title, which translates to Bitter Christmas — but the passion and sentimentality of the song disguise its sombre story, and Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne sing it wonderfully with soaring, heartfelt harmonies.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (feat. Cécile McLorin Salvant)

Led by Wynton Marsalis, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has released two full-length albums of holiday music over the past decade. This tender performance pulls at the heartstrings and reaffirms Cécile McLorin Salvant as one of the greatest and most moving vocalists in jazz since Ella Fitzgerald.

Jeff Goldblum & The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra – Winter Wonderland

A couple of years ago, Jeff Goldblum decided that being a famous Hollywood actor wasn’t quite enough for him. He hit the ground running with his new music career, releasing two albums within a year and then tacking on this Christmas single for good measure. This take on Winter Wonderland effuses much of the same energy, charisma and swagger we’ve come to associate with Jeff Goldblum over the years.

Selena Evangeline – The Christmas Song (feat. Bill King)

Toronto-based vocalist Selena Evangeline is joined by pianist and JAZZ.FM91 broadcaster Bill King for this warm, airy performance of one of the most well-known Christmas classics.

Leslie Odom Jr. – I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Tony-winning Hamilton actor Leslie Odom Jr. put together a collection of jazz interpretations of seasonal standards for his second album, Simply Christmas. The simple, delicate arrangements set a warm, loving mood, and Odom’s beautiful tenor is likely to lull you into a state of Yuletide euphoria.

Kurt Elling – Little Drummer Boy

The “Yule log” is a must-have for anyone who’s lacking in the “having a fireplace” department. Here, Kurt Elling shows off his inventive and especially jazzy take on The Little Drummer Boy, taking liberties that pay off greatly. Oh, and he’s even gotten you started with a Yule log while you’re listening.

Gavin Hope – Christmas Time is Here

Three-time Juno nominee Gavin Hope lends his silky smooth voice to Christmas Time is Here in this gentle, placid recording, with Bill King again accompanying on the piano.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Silver Bells (feat. Catherine Russell)

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has released so much holiday music over the last few years that they might as well show up twice on this list. Here, they’re gifted with the dynamic and robust voice of Catherine Russell for Silver Bells.

Toronto Mass Choir – The Little Drummer Boy

Released this year, the Toronto Mass Choir’s enchanting performance of The Little Drummer Boy finds the choral group injecting the tune with subtly intriguing harmonies with a backing band that flavours it with tinges of Latin jazz.

Oliver Jones – Bless This House

Part of the sixth edition of Justin Time Records’ annual Christmas compilation, this cut finds the great Oliver Jones performing a sweeping, sprawling rendition of the gospel tune Bless This House. Jones’s passion is palpable as he plays with both thundering power and exquisite grace, squeezing every last drop of beauty out of his instrument.

Dizzy & Fay – I Wish That You Were Here

The duo of Mark Lalama and Amanda Walther bring the dusky mood of film noir to the usual bright lights of the holiday season with their debut single, I Wish That You Were Here. If you’re spending Christmas on your own this year, just know that you’re not alone.

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette – Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Live)

Featured on the two-disc live album with three of the jazz world’s most respected veterans, this tune finds a simple Christmas classic coming face-to-face with the boldness of bebop. Pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette give each other a chance to shine in this exciting performance recorded in 1998 but only released a decade later.

Jon Batiste – What a Wonderful World

Technically not a holiday song, but it fits the spirit of the season. Appearing on Jon Batiste’s album Hollywood Africans, the classic Louis Armstrong tune gets reworked into a solitary affair that feels lonely yet supremely hopeful — a sublimely moving experience that extends a sense of optimism to us all.