The seminal Christmas album was Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Five years ago, in an unimaginative marketing ploy, Cyrus Chestnut re-recorded that album; and in the process, he demonstrated exactly what's wrong with Christmas albums and why there are so few classics.
Christmas albums represent guaranteed sales for record companies. It's an angle that everyone loves, tied to a season when everyone loves to shop. Most successful artists are offered their own Christmas album eventually, and many grab the opportunity. Every November, record stores clear several racks to fill with Christmas albums from the hottest new artists. And every January, they send back boxes of unsold albums that no one will ever see again.
The problem with jazz Christmas albums is that they're treated like acceptance speeches at the Oscars -- everyone wants on board. Because the record company knows they can sell the album, they're willing to spend more money; and predictably, everyone wants to share the spoils. Just like Oscar speeches, this becomes networking: "Put me on your Christmas album, and I'll put you on mine."
The result is an impressive cast of names who have no dynamics together -- and more importantly, an erratic album. Classic albums are greater than the sum of their parts. They're not just collections of good tracks; they're carefully-chosen programs which combine to establish a mood. This is incredibly difficult to achieve with varying personnel on every track.
Diana Krall is about to release a Christmas album. If she had used the piano/bass/drums configuration from Love Scenes, it would become an instant classic. Ditto for Eric Reed, who released Merry Magic in 2003; if he had recorded a simple piano trio, his album would live for 50 years. But because they knew they would be guaranteed immediate sales, they felt free to take a field day; and in both cases, the results were music that will be forgotten in ten years.
This is symptomatic of the problem facing all major label jazz decisions today: a lack of foresight. No one thinks about Blue Train and Sketches of Spain and wonders, "Will my records still sell in 50 years?" They record to meet the projected demand of the immediate market; and if they can't see a positive return inside three months, they scrap the album. The tragedy is that we won't be able to look back on this time and say, "Thank God they took a chance on that."
Christmas albums do provide an enormous marketing opportunity. Recording artists should take advantage of that -- not just as an opportunity to make a profit, but as a chance to contribute a memorable statement to a distinguished tradition. The smartest thing Diana Krall could have done would have been to assemble Christian McBride and Russell Malone, and record straight-ahead versions of the classic carols. She blew her chance. Here's hoping someone picks up the slack next year.