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New Holiday Favors in Take Five: Jamie Cullum, Terrace Martin, Cory Henry, and... Dolly Parton?

The holidays are upon us, and as we noted on a recent episode of Jazz United, that leads us to a bundle of music, old and new. Watch this space for the Jazz Night in America 2021 holiday special, featuring a few of the noteworthy artists toting Christmas albums this season. In the meantime, we wanted to remember some of the new holiday releases of yesterday — er, make that "last year." Like a box full of handmade ornaments, these are worth pulling out and considering again.

Jamie Cullum, “Hang Your Lights”

So many holiday albums today stick to a tried-and-true formula: dust off some old classics, put a new spin on that Mariah Carey tune, and toss in one or two seasonal originals, hoping they stick. This isn’t at all the mindset that Jamie Cullum brought to The Pianoman at Christmas — his first entry in the category, a batch of 10 new songs with attitude to spare, recorded at Abbey Road with an orchestra conducted by Tom Richards.

Cullum is a singer-songwriter of cheery panache and puckish irreverence; see the song here called “The Jolly Fat Man,” or its companion, “So Many Santas.” But he’s also a sentimentalist, as the title track reminds us. What he delivers in “Hang Your Lights” is an invitation: “Sing, sing, sing of the mistletoe,” he begins, and you can guess what comes next. But in the song’s kinetic video, Cullum broadens the aim of his charm offensive: if there’s an overture here, it’s between him and us, his audience. Batteries not included!

Terrace Martin, “The Christmas Song” (Feat. Alex Isley and Kenneth Crouch)

Producer and saxophonist Terrace Martin didn’t slouch this year — consult the album he released with Dinner Party, and a steady flow of standalone tracks like “Pig Feet” — but he still saw fit to deliver an intoxicating holiday EP. Titled Village Days, it features tracks by an array of his active projects, Dinner Party included.

The EP, which now out on Sounds of Crenshaw/EMPIRE, doesn’t take a straightforward approach to holiday music — until the closing track, a cozy take on Robert Wells and Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song.” Martin sets the tone on soprano before Kenneth Crouch, an R&B and gospel veteran, adds some chiming electric piano. On vocals is Alex Isley (daughter of Ernie, from The Isley Brothers), who infuses her whisper-soft delivery with a bittersweet air.

Cory Henry, “Christmas With You”

If you tuned in to NPR Music’s A Jazz Piano Christmas last year, you surely took notice of Cory Henry, who appeared alongside NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron and on-the-rise talent Redwood (f/k/a Sequoia Snyder) to deliver a fresh take on holiday favorites. Henry performed two songs from his brand-new Christmas album.

A Motown-style shuffle featuring frequent collaborator Jay White, “Christmas With You” is a blast of good cheer, complete with a mouthwatering holiday menu recitation in the bridge. (“Chicken, macaroni and collard greens / Mmm, it all sounds good to me.”) Look elsewhere for moody, brooding holiday songs; this right here the gospel-soul equivalent of a peppermint gingersnap.

Ray Blue, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

A tenor saxophonist with an unabashedly oldfangled tone and approach, Ray Blue has just what many of us want in a melodist — which makes him a prime candidate for an album of classic holiday fare. Put that wish on next year’s Santa list; for the time being, we’ll have to make do with a deeply satisfying new single.

Blue recorded this version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as a duo with pianist Lafayette Harris. The breath and texture in his playing, and the ambling, unhurried tempo, might call to mind a master like Houston Person — and one gets the sense that Blue wouldn’t balk at that comparison, though he isn’t out to sound like anyone but himself.

Dolly Parton, “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas” (with Michael Bublé)

At some point over the last decade, it became a little complicated to embrace Frank Loesser’s coy holiday duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” That hasn’t stopped dozens of versions from cropping up — but there’s no denying the awkward gender politics around the song. So what’s an enlightened singer-songwriter to do? If your name is Dolly Parton, the answer is: write your own flirtatious duet, ask Michael Bublé to be your partner, and put it on your album A Holly Dolly Christmas.

Parton’s tune keeps the original premise (we’re snowed in; let’s get naughty) without the unfortunate hint of coercion. Not that she skimps on the sensual — at one point she has Bublé croon the couplet “Nestle up against your skin / Do anything that we want to,” while she coos and murmurs approvingly. And while it’s doubtful that “Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas” will ever take the place of Loesser’s chestnut, you have to hand it to Dolly for turning the tables. No one who hears this could have any doubt about who’s in charge.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.