I don’t understand people who say they don’t like Christmas music. I think part of the problem is that for one month a year, everyone tries to cram it down your throat. Maybe another problem is that the only Christmas music most people hear comes pumped through tinny speakers in a mall packed with wild-eyed shoppers dragging their frothing, greedy little broods to meet a fake Santa. And, sure, most Christmas music is unbearable. But when it comes down to it, a lot of music is unbearable. The key, as in anything, is knowing where to look. There are, of course, the old standby classics that stand as works of art on their own by artists like Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Mathis, and there are some off-the-beaten path gems from Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson (produced by Booker T. Jones), and the like. But there are also others, ones you’ll almost never hear at the mall or anywhere else, for that matter. And, the fact is, they are often incredible albums in and of themselves besides being great Christmas albums.
Take the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s More Sounds of Christmas, which was a follow-up to their Sound of Christmas album. Honestly, either one of those albums could have made the list, but More Sounds has a slight edge to my ears. Released on Chess subsidiary, Cadet, in 1964, this album showcases Lewis as a master interpreter with his brand of jazz that has so much feel and is so deep in the pocket that it almost becomes funk. That’s what he gives to these songs, some standards and some new creations.
One of the album’s greatest accomplishments is that it takes “The Twelve Days of Christmas”—a song that has never once sounded good—and turns it into a jazz workout that swings harder than Christ in his cradle. Another standout track is the Trio’s take on “Jingle Bells,” which features bass player Eldee Young vamping the melody on a plucked cello and scatting along to his solo, note for note. It bursts with a raucous joy. On top of the traditional songs, “Snowbound,” one of the nontraditional pieces on the album, begins with a string figure that perfectly encapsulates what is known as the “Chicago Sound.” You could easily think you were listening to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions before Lewis’s piano comes and swings to high heaven.
Ultimately, More Sounds does what every great Christmas album does—it uses well-worn holiday songs as a starting point from which to explore. What you get is a great Ramsey Lewis Trio album that happens to be full of Christmas songs.