2012 Review of New Christmas CDs
by Gerry Grzyb (aka Dr. Christmas)
(In this review, artist names are in boldface, while the names of the recordings themselves generally have hyperlinks to the companies that produced the CDs. )
Have a problem picking just the right sweets from that pile of holiday goodies? I can’t help with that (I’d eat all of ‘em, just to be sure I didn’t miss the best, y’know) but I’m here for the 19th year to help you choose the best new Christmas CDs.
Big band Christmas recordings aren’t common, mostly falling into two groups: classics from the likes of Ellington, Miller, and a few others, or the kind of CD labeled “Big Band Christmas”, full of unimaginative carol runthroughs with “big band flavor” by unnamed musicians. Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s “Christmas Time Is Here” has fresh, interesting arrangements from conductor Vance Thompson, and fine solos (notably from Dan Trudell’s Hammond B3 organ), making for one of the best big band Yuletide CDs. The B3 is also featured in the more laidback jazz of The B3 Kings quartet from Vancouver. Their fine second Christmas disc is called “You Better Watch Out.”
Marcus Roberts “Celebrating Christmas” features the highly regarded jazz pianist Roberts plus Rodney Jordan (bass) and Jason Marsalis (drums) offering thoroughly original takes on 15 Christmas standards, with each so different that this CD has no chance of becoming background music. Just great piano trio jazz. It has been 20 years—WAY too long since Roberts’ first Christmas CD.
While Jillaine can and often does use the vocal control she has to produce powerful jazz and blues influenced histrionics on “Jazzy Christmas to You II”, I was particularly taken with the more subdued tracks on this CD, including “I Wonder As I Wander” and a “Last Christmas’ that puts Wham far out of mind. And Jillaine waited only one year after her previous Christmas CD to produce this one.
“2011 Christmas at Luther: Journey to the Light”, “Today, Heaven Sings - 2011 Concordia Christmas Concert”, and “Rejoice, Give Thanks and Sing – Christmas at St. Olaf 2011” present the latest recordings of three Upper Midwest Lutheran schools long known for their outstanding Christmas concerts. Little else so fully conveys the spirit of the holiday. Pressed to recommend just one, I would pick Luther’s—a choice that I seem to be making with increasing frequency. The recording comes amazing close to capturing the breathtaking beauty of what I heard last December in what has to be one of the best and most beautiful physical spaces for a choral concert that know of, Luther’s Center for Faith and Life
This year I heard much of the program on The Singers “Dulci Jubilo – Christmas with the Singers” in concert. It consisted of mostly unfamiliar but very effective arrangements of very familiar carols, with many of the best from director/founder Matthew Culloton himself. The singing is simply as good as it gets--the world around you vanishes when the perfectly blended voices of The Singers envelop you. No less than famed classical critic Jim Svejda has referred to this group as perhaps the finest in the country, and may be the world. I certainly agree, and am thankful that they are only a few hours away.
It wouldn’t be far off to conceive of the National Lutheran Choir as the “aged to perfection” version of the Lutheran collegiate choirs. Their latest Christmas disc “Noel” offers a generous 19 tracks recorded in 2008-2010, and the song selection is typical of a modern choir, coming from familiar composers and arrangers such as Tavener, Chilcott, Barnett, and Warland. There is nothing typical at all about Conspirare. On “Something Beautiful – Conspirare Christmas 2011” founder/director Craig Hella Johnson continues his string of unique programs that weave together an incredible diversity of musical sources—if you just looked at the track listing, you might wonder about all that other “stuff” that somehow got mixed up in a Christmas CD. This is, after all, the group that traditionally ends their Christmas concerts with a stunning “I Could Have Danced All Night” sung against strains from “Silent Night” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.” But on Conspirare’s website you’ll find the simple proclamation “We Sing Life” and those 10 letters perfectly sum up what they do. Their performance is all about being human in the season of hope.
There’s a French or Polish or even an African Christmas carol here and there in our celebrations, but Christmas music in America, like Christmas itself as we celebrate it here, is of predominantly German and English origin. Much of that music is associated with the great churches and cathedrals. The German CDs on my shelf come from Regensburg, Hannover, Dresden, Munich, and Stuttgart (among others), but this year’s shipment of CDs from Deutschland is still crossing the Atlantic. Thanks to the Regent label, however, there’s a lorry full of English cathedral CDs already on the shelf. “Christmas from Bath” comes from the men and boys plus a host of girl trebles in the Choir of Bath Abbey. A similar mix of singers is found on “Christmas from Hereford” from that cathedral’s choir and “Jingle Wells” from the Wells Cathedral Choir. But a smaller (and more traditional?) ensemble minus girls constitutes the cathedral choir on “Christmas from Rochester” as well as the Choristers of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on their “Celebrate Christmas.” Recommending one of these over the others is very difficult, but if pressed, I'd go with the Wells recording, on the basis of both program and performance. But all of these discs provide well over an hour of music, expertly recorded, and sung by people who have Christmas music in their blood. The programs generally mix the most familiar carols with modern choral works, but choral aficionados won’t find many pieces they haven’t heard before. I sense that the audience for these recordings and the live performances they represent demands a good bit of tradition, but as young Violet said in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, “what’s wrong with that?”
(Reviews of the German recordings will appear in an update edition of this review.)
While solo piano holiday CDs are common as Salvation Army ringers, the really great ones are those few that let us hear old tunes in new ways without allowing the arrangement to overshadow the song. My favorite this year is Brad Jacobsen’s “Deck the Halls”, a sure pick for Christmas Eve fireside dreaming. I was nearly as enchanted by Joey Curtin’s “God With Us” and Christine Brown’s “A Classic Christmas.”
If you prefer piano with other instruments, consider Lorie Line’s “Immanuel”, her umpteenth Christmas CD out of some 43 discs to date. The accompaniment is mostly subtle—no big orchestra here—and the divine Ms. Line’s playing is as beautiful as always. Beegie Adair, with nearly 100 CDs to her credit, nicely bridges the gap between the listenability of cocktail piano and the interest of jazz piano, and her many discs from the Great American Songbook are often in my players. She also has several Christmas CDs to her credit, but her latest, “Christmas Elegance”, is unusual in that she has just one other musician with her: violinist David Davidson. It conjured up those old images of a father playing the violin while mother accompanied on the piano. What Beegie and David are really giving us is an updated version of Christmas music in the 19th century parlor.
Stan Whitmire’s “A Piano Christmas” appeared 18 years ago, but he can finally cross “another Christmas CD” off his to-do list with the release of “Christmas Around the Piano”, a fine easy listening/new age solo effort . Also in the easy listening category you’ll find “Christmas Moods” from multi-Grammy-winning pianist and producer Michael Omartian. It’s a piano-and-orchestra effort that harkens back to the big orchestral Christmas CDs of the mid 20th century, although with fresh new arrangements.
Speaking of that century, consider two excellent recordings from Craig Duncan, a master fiddler who also plays mandolin and hammered dulcimer, and has worked on quite a number of fine Christmas albums (many on the Green Hill label, where Adair, Whitmire, and Omartian also reside). This year he has two: “Victorian Christmas” and “15 Handcrafted Christmas Carols” and if you love traditional acoustic instrument as much as I do, you’ll want both.
Ted Yoder’s “Christmas Songs of Comfort and Joy” is the most unusual hammered dulcimer CD I’ve heard, and one of my great finds this season. Instead of the usual accompaniment (guitar, fiddle, etc.), Ted’s sounds are mixed into in a new age ambience that is sometimes downright spacey and very effective. Ted joked (I think) to me that he wants to compete with Mannheim Steamroller, and while his disc isn’t quite as boisterous (probably a good thing), Chip Davis’s megamonster is indeed what comes to mind at times. (See also The Polyphonic Spree below.)
There are literally hundreds of holiday compilations released each decade, featuring well-known musicians singing familiar seasonal tunes. But much more interesting are the collections from musicians you mostly don’t know singing Christmas songs you mostly don’t know either. Two gems this year are “A Rock By The Sea Christmas Vol. 3” (with proceeds used to fight pediatric cancer) and “A Very Joma Christmas” from the Joma Music Group. A harder rock sound prevails on Smash Mouth’s “The Gift of Rock”, a 2005 CD re-released this year, and mostly consisting of distinctive takes on songs by The Kinks, The Pretenders, and Louis Armstrong among others.
Robbie Rhodes’ “Next Christmas” comes from an excellent Elvis impersonator—it’s so good you could pass it off as a long lost Elvis album, leaving the deceived to mumble “I never knew Elvis recorded that!” into their eggnog. Proceeds from sales benefit St. Jude’s and the Edie Hand Foundation. “Holiday Dream” from The Polyphonic Spree, a large symphonic pop/rock outfit, offers some of the most unusual, yet strangely enjoyable music of the season. The songs are largely familiar 20th century holiday tunes, but the treatments just have to be heard—there are no good ways to describe them, no other groups for comparisons. Perhaps just go to YouTube to check out their Silver Bells video (as well as others from this 23-member outfit.)
Ken Elkinson’s “Ambient Holidays Volume 1 – Christmas Ambient” is a different kind of unusual. Imagine washes of ambient waves playing the chords of familiar carols, but not always every note of the melody—the listener ends up “feeling” the carol. It isn’t for casual listening—perhaps it would even work best for drifting off to sleep.
“Zuzu’s Petals – A Lunch At Allen’s Christmas” is from a group of four Canadians who write great songs and play in a generally folksy way. If you like the kind of music typical of “A Prairie Home Companion”, you’ll want this CD.
(Check back—this is slightly less than half of the discs that will ultimately appear here. In particular, there are many classical and choral CDs yet to come.)