I'm not one of those people who believes that Christmas CDs are only for the holiday season. At any given point during the year I might pull out my Christmas CDs and enjoy them, though the experience is lacking something in, say, July or August, because the music is inextricably tied to Christmas. The tunes on Jimmy Smith's Christmas Cookin' are holiday standards, yes, but this CD stands out. To listen to this CD in the sweltering summer is as fresh and exciting an experience as to hear it for the first time at a friend's holiday gathering; it never fails to be absolutely entertaining because it's not meant to be a Christmas record--it's a damn good jazz record that happens to be comprised entirely of yuletide tunes.
One of the great things about this record (and there are many) is the variety; half the tracks are done with big band, the other half with a small combo, Smith on organ being the only constant. Billy Byers works wonders with the big band arrangements, trading the reed section for french horns and a tuba, giving a robust, muscular power that drives each track. This is most evident on the opening "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a pyrotechnic chart with a greasy Smith solo. Other highlights include "We Three Kings," which opens up into a sassy, brassy waltz; the churchy "Silent Night"; and a slow-burning cover of "The Christmas Song" that plays like a midnight blues in a smoky club. The trio settings are equally effective; what they lack in bold power they make up for with tight dynamics and great intimacy. "Jingle Bells" is taken at a light shuffle, and Quentin Warren's guitar provides tasty counterpoint (and a mighty fine solo) on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" gets a reprise for the trio setting, and the disc closes with an urgent "Greensleeves" in 3/4.
I consider myself a collector of holiday jazz, and I thought I'd already heard the best out there...I was clearly, wonderfully wrong.