Ring in the Season with Esperanza Spalding, Joey Alexander, Wynton Marsalis and More

Dec 3, 2018

John Legend Featuring Esperanza Spalding, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

You’ve probably heard some joyful noise around A Legendary Christmas, the new album by John Legend. Produced by his fellow soul savant Raphael Saadiq, it’s a suave blend of holiday chestnuts old and new.

But perhaps you weren’t aware of Legend’s take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which makes the most of a featured guest appearance by Esperanza Spalding. Arranged in drifting waltz time with a comforting sheen of strings, it has an unmistakable jazz inflection — and not just because of a neatly swinging rhythm section. Spalding harmonizes with her usual flair, especially in the second half of the track.

There’s now a music video for this song, complete with Yuletide carolers, Santa hats and a warm holiday table. Just try to get past the moment when a spirited Dickensian lad starts to pantomime the trombone solo — a Delfeayo Marsalis solo, if I’m not mistaken — while holding a trumpet. ‘Tis the season to let such things, ah, slide.

A Legendary Christmas is out now on Columbia; purchase or stream here.

Joey Alexander, “O Come All Ye Faithful”

Pianist Joey Alexander made his first big splash in 2015 with an album called My Favorite Things. It wasn’t framed as a holiday offering, but his new release ­— A Joey Alexander Christmas — most assuredly is. A four-song EP available only in digital formats, it includes a newly remastered version of “My Favorite Things,” from that historic first album. But its centerpiece is a recent studio version of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” featuring Larry Grenadier on bass and Eric Harland on drums. 

Motéma has just released a video from the session, and it’s worth watching for the smile on Joey’s face as he interacts with his all-star rhythm team, over a laid-back second line groove.

A Joey Alexander Christmas is available in digital formats now.

Wynton Marsalis Quintet Featuring Oni Marsalis, “Winter Wonderland”

The holiday season is a time for family, and Wynton Marsalis has a long history of celebrating in style. As he did last year around this time, he has released a new single featuring his daughter Oni on vocals: a chipper version of “Winter Wonderland.” Marsalis is on trumpet, of course — and at the helm of a small group with Camille Thurman on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Dan Nimmer on piano, Philip Norris on bass and TJ Reddick on drums.

“Winter Wonderland,” by Wynton Marsalis Quintet Featuring Oni Marsalis, can be streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.

Mars Williams, “Love Cry / Christmas Wrapping”

Tenor saxophonist Mars Williams is best known for his trailblazing work with Liquid Soul and The Psychedelic Furs, but he has a serious reputation in the avant-garde, especially around Chicago. He recently landed on an inspired idea with An Ayler Christmas, which puts Yuletide in touch with the spirit-seeking free-jazz of saxophonist Albert Ayler. It was so well received that he just released Vol. 2.


Here is his mashup of Ayler’s “Love Cry” and a New wave classic called “Christmas Wrapping.” If the horn fanfare from the latter sounds familiar, it should — Williams played it himself on the original recording of the song, by The Waitresses.

Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas vol. 2 is available on ESP-Disk.

Alfredo Rodríguez & Pedrito Martinez, “Jingle Bells”

A pair of irrepressible Cuban virtuosos — pianist Alfredo Rodríguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez — have teamed up for this delectable take on “Jingle Bells.” Starting out in a delicate music-box patter, the song then shifts into rhythmic gear, with Rodríguez evoking the style of a Cuban timba, over Martinez’s conga pattern. (When the chorus kicks in, the meter briefly shifts to 14/8.) 

It’s an extension of the solo piano arrangement that Rodríguez posted last year, to much appreciative feedback. But it’s also a genuine exchange between two modern aces, and hopefully a portent of things to come.

“Jingle Bells” is available to stream or download from Mack Avenue Records.

Jeff Coffin and Chris Walters, “Santa Digs Me”

Around this time last year, we were talking about a rush-delivery holiday album from saxophonist Jeff Coffin. This season brings another stocking stuffer, more modest in scale and more leisurely in style. “Santa Digs Me” is a tune Coffin wrote with pianist and singer Chris Walters, a transplant from New Orleans to Nashville. 

The song has more than a little Big Easy feeling, as Walters recalls the point-of-view of a wide-eyed young boy, in awe at his good fortune on Christmas morning. “Of all the babes in Toyland, Kringle singles me out,” he sings, adding: “I’m his all-time favorite, no doubt.”

“Santa Digs Me” can be streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.