Christian McBride's Christmas Jazz Playlist These days, the host of Jazz Night In America looks for old and forgotten gems during the holiday season. He weighs in with surprisingly different and joyous tunes — plus, of course, James Brown.

Christian McBride's Christmas Jazz Playlist

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And maybe you are one of those people who could listen to the umpteenth version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." But our friend, jazz bassist Christian McBride, has a soft spot for the holiday music time forgot. And on his list is this oldie but goodie from Louis Armstrong.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Your cares will disappear when you hear, hallelujah, Saint Nicholas is here when it's Christmas time in New Orleans.

CORNISH: And here to talk more about that list and about the song we're hearing right now, "Christmas In New Orleans," is Christian McBride. Christian, welcome back

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: How are you doing, Audie?

CORNISH: Pretty good. So this arrangement is by Benny Carter, right?

MCBRIDE: Yes, yes.

CORNISH: So tell us about this album.

MCBRIDE: Benny Carter's one of the greatest titans ever in the history of jazz, not only as a saxophonist and a trumpeter but also as a big band leader and arranger. And his collaboration with Louis Armstrong is one of the greatest examples of joyous feeling. I mean, who in the world makes you feel better than Louis Armstrong?

CORNISH: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: You know? I mean, no matter what he does, you always come away with a smile.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) It's Christmas time in New Orleans.

CORNISH: You describe this one as one that kind of fell under the radar. I assume that's actually pretty easy to happen, right? I mean, there are so many, like, holiday music albums.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I mean, every record label makes a Christmas album, you know, because that's the one time of year where albums sell a lot. I mean, even now when albums in general don't sell as much as they used to, the Christmas holidays is always a time of the year where you're guaranteed a significant amount of sales because people like hearing music during Christmas.

CORNISH: So what do you look for in a good one, right? 'Cause let's face it. There's a lot of stuff that's not good (laughter) basically.


CORNISH: So what are you looking for, especially if you're trying to find something that, like, isn't so obvious, right?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I'm at a point where I like to find the most obscure Christmas music I can find. I like finding - I mean, I was hoping Sun Ra had done a Christmas album 'cause I would play that in the house. I probably would get...

CORNISH: (Laughter) I would play that as well.

MCBRIDE: I probably would get kicked out of the house, but I would like to play that, you know? I like hearing radical re-harmonizations and new interpretations of Christmas music.


CORNISH: All right. To that end, you've actually brought us a song from Wynton Marsalis, "We Three Kings." It's from the Crescent City Christmas Card album. What about this arrangement for you feels radical?

MCBRIDE: Well, the way we first learned this song, you know, when we were kids, surely Wynton plays it nothing like that (laughter). And it was just such a significant turn in his musical career. I believe this recording was made in 1989 when he had just stopped working with a small group and he was now starting to go down more of an Ellingtonian (ph) sort of road. You know, he expanded his group and Wynton was now focusing not so much on playing as he was arranging. I still think that Wynton's one of the greatest composers and arrangers in the world. And he always has some fresh ideas. And what he did with "We Three Kings" is one of my favorite renditions.


CORNISH: You know, this is also a time when there are lots of collaborations. And you've brought us some that are unexpected or people - maybe it flew under the radar. And one is the "Christmas Song" from a collection called "Jazz For Joy: A Verve Christmas." And it features Shirley Horn but not just Shirley Horn, right? What's going on here?

MCBRIDE: Yes. This was a Christmas record that I was very honored to play on. So at the studio that day was Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln and Benny Carter.


MCBRIDE: And I can't imagine that there have been too many instances where the three of them were in a recording studio at the same time. And they didn't sing together, but they were there just listening to each other record their tracks. And it was just such an amazing memory to see those three amazing ladies in the studio that day. And Shirley Horn is such a mesmerizing storyteller.


SHIRLEY HORN: (Singing) Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up like Eskimos.

CORNISH: One thing about her voice is it's very sensual.


CORNISH: And this kind of takes me into Christmas romance territory, winter romance.

MCBRIDE: Yes (laughter) absolutely.

CORNISH: Am I allowed to say that?

MCBRIDE: Hey, if that's what you're feeling, say it.


HORN: (Singing) Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow.

MCBRIDE: You know, Shirley was also well-known for singing her ballads a very slow. She really is masterful at being able to master a slow tempo without it dragging and sort of getting that sinking feeling 'cause, you know, sometimes when music is too slow it's just - there's no life to it. But Shirley like no one before or certainly after her has been able to master the art of the extra slow tempo.


HORN: (Singing) Merry Christmas to you.

CORNISH: All right, Christian, well, before I let you go, were there any songs that - I don't know - maybe they didn't quite fit on this list but you'd like to go out on?

MCBRIDE: Well, Audi, you know, any time I wake up in the morning, James Brown's music is never too far away.

CORNISH: Oh, here we go. Are there James Brown Christmas tunes? Enlighten me.

MCBRIDE: Oh, are you kidding me?

CORNISH: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: He actually made a couple of Christmas albums. But my favorite one is one that he made in 1968 called "A Soulful Christmas." And James Brown's on the cover with a Santa suit and one of the (laughter) one of the hit singles from that album was a classic Christmas song called "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto."

CORNISH: A classic (laughter).

MCBRIDE: I think it's a classic. It surely is a classic in the neighborhood I grew up in (laughter).


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Santa Claus go straight to the ghetto.

CORNISH: Christian, thank you so much for, like, being my guide this year when it comes to jazz and fielding of my sometimes very basic questions.

MCBRIDE: Oh, Audie, it's always a joy to speak with you.

CORNISH: Bassist Christian McBride - he's host of NPR's Jazz Night In America.


BROWN: (Singing) The kids are going to love you so.

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