Every year I receive far more CDs than will fit in the printed version of my Christmas recording review. Nearly all of them are covered here. Along with those that actually did get newsprint, there are quite a few that should have, and would have been were in not for space limitations.
The diversity of recordings reviewed here is reflected in my radio show. Virtually all of them will get some airplay during the hours my show is on (Dec. 19-23, 1-6 PM, and Dec. 24, 1-5 PM), so if you want to 10-15 minutes of each, just stay tuned!. Details of the show can be found on its new webpage, www.uwosh.edu/drchristmas.
In the review that follows, artist names are in bold, and the CD titles are usually linked to artist or label websites.
Classical music giant Naxos is now distributing recordings from the Altissimo label, which has long had numerous Christmas CDs in its catalog from the nation’s leading military music ensembles (even its URL is militarymusic.com). They’re all in the very-good-to-excellent category, and it’s time they got much wider exposure.
Let’s take off with Christmas in the Air (Force). On “Caroling”, the 21-voices of the USAF Band Singing Sergeants present a program not unlike what you would expect from a fine collegiate chamber choir—sacred and secular tunes, in some of the best available arrangements from the likes of Rutter, Parker and Shaw, and Luboff.
“Cool Yule” from The United States Air Force Band (“Airmen of Note”) is a first-rate big band CD featuring a full platter of interesting and fun arrangements, from the first “Jing, Jing, Jing” (think Gene Krupa) to a laid-back “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that owes it’s style to Neal Hefti’s classic “Li’l Darlin’.” “Faithful in Paris”, “Santanooga Choo Choo”, “We Three Chipmunks”—you get the idea. Special mention goes to TSgt Paige Martin, whose voice apparently rode the choo choo right back to the Forties. The big band swing continues on the group’s equally fine “A Holiday Note from Home.” I wonder if the fact that the Air Force outswings the other services still owes much to the fact that a certain Major Miller led the band’s direct ancestor about seven decades ago?
The USAF Symphony Orchestra is a different bird altogether. “This Is Christmas” showcases orchestral arrangements that were first heard back in the mid-20th century from civilian outfits like the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Pops. The majority of the disc is accounted for by three huge medleys: “A Festival of Carols” featuring ten great Alfred Burt carols, three secular tunes in Bruce Chase’s “Christmas Favorites” arrangement, and the most famous of all, Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival.” There are also three of the masterful Peter Knight arrangements, which every Readers Digest music collector will know. Oh, and the orchestra is really, really good! Along with the Singing Sergeants, the orchestra tackles the four Robert Russell Bennett/Robert Shaw medleys that made up one of the most famous Christmas recordings of its time nearly 50 years ago on “The Many Moods of Christmas” on the USAF’s CD of the same name. They are more than up to it.
Many of the most beloved popular songs of years gone by were from Hollywood or Broadway, and the US Air Force Band and Singing Sergeants prove that was no less true of Christmas music on “Christmas On Stage and Screen.” The performances are as good as you would expect from a Hollywood orchestra. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from the US Coast Guard Band Jazz Trio is simply a fine piano trio jazz album, with the only minus being the occasional vocals from Lisa Williamson, whose voice has a bit too much polish for jazz.
“Sound The Bells” from the US Army Field Band begins like a symphonic band recording through the first three tracks, complete with big brass flourishes, but then it leaps right from Randol Alan Bass’ “Gloria” to a jazz combo swinging “Jingle Bells.” Only when you look at the CD itself do you see that several different groups are parading under the field band name—the Concert Band, Soldiers’ Chorus, Jazz Ambassadors, and The Volunteers. The result is a disc full of different styles, reminding me of one of those numerous compilation CDs so common a half-century ago, where labels like Columbia, RCA, and Capitol featured a track apiece from many of their best-selling acts. While the transitions are a bit jarring at times, the performances are strong enough to make the whole thing an enjoyable listen. The Navy’s “Happy Holidays” is a similarly mixed bag, featuring not only the huge US Navy Band, but also the Sea Chanters chorus, the Commodores jazz ensemble, Cruisers rock group, and Country Current country and bluegrass group—the source of my favorite track , “Duelin’ Jingle Bells.”
“Christmas Celebration” from the US Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus is much more clearly a band recording. Except for a couple of a cappella chorus cuts, the band is front and center, with the big sound you’d expect from a military band.
COLLEGIATE BRASS AND BAND
Hooray for the various collegiate brass ensembles and bands! You can’t make a living with such groups, so if it weren’t for the universities, we wouldn’t have these sounds at all. “Christmas Trombones – Slidin’ Into The Holidays” comes from the Tennessee Tech Trombone Choir, originally established nearly 50 years ago. A dozen trombonists serve up a generous 23-track helping of everything from the Hallelujah Chorus and Schubert’s Ave Maria to Nutcracker selections, Charlie Brown, the Chipmunks, the Grinch, and much more. Although the collegians can whip through things like the Nutcracker’s Trepak, I like best those tunes that bring out the Big Mellow that only ‘bones produce.
Fox Valley residents don’t need to be told how much fun and festivity comes out of tubas—we’ve had Tuba Christmas here for about 25 years. But to hear playing at another level altogether, try “Christmas Tubas” with the Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble. Like their classmates with the slides, they also give us 23 tracks covering a wide range of songs and carols.
Some of the most fun I have had auditioning discs this season came from the University of Texas at El Paso Symphonic Winds on “Julie Giroux Presents: Concert Band Christmas Gone Crazy.” The reason is simple: Julie is a composer who loves to create often hilarious mashups of Christmas music, such as “Hark! Those Jingle Bells Are Smokin’”, “What Child Is That Playing Carol of the Bells,” and “The Little Drummer Boy’s Bolero.” At various points in the program the swan in the lake is dying, Mozart is marrying Figaro, Mussorgsky is gazing slack-jawed at the Great Gate of Kiev, and Benny Goodman is protesting “Don’t Be That Way.” This kind of thing is not easily done well, so Julie gets loads of credit, as does the band for playing it so well.
America’s two greatest small all-male choral ensembles, Cantus and Chanticleer, have each given us several excellent recordings in Yules past. This year the eight men of Cantus add “Christmas with Cantus” to their pile. It’s a generally solemn affair that reminded me of vocally talented monks singing music much more interesting than Gregorian chant (of which a very little goes a very long way). Highlights include two arrangements by group members, Timothy C. Takach’s haunting arrangement of “‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” (a carol with already-high haunt content) and Chris Foss’ take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and a rendering of Biebl’s “Ave Maria” that emphasizes the bass foundation more than most choirs. Slightly larger Chanticleer has a considerably different sound because of its preponderance of tenors and counter tenors (sopranos and altos), although at least one member sounds like one of those subterranean Russian basses. The difference is quite evident on “Our Favorite Carols-Live Radio Broadcasts”, with its brightest gems including arrangements of familiar carols by Sir David Willcocks, Music Director Emeritus Joseph Jennings, and a closing Silent Night by the master of modern a cappella settings, Milwaukee-born Gene Puerling. (Chanticleer will be singing at Lawrence University on April 13, 2012)
Seven women and a counter tenor (the artistic director) make up the Etherea Vocal Ensemble. Their new CD has two impressive bookends: Benjamin Britten’s oft-recorded “Ceremony of Carols” (one of my very favorite classical Christmas works, and source of the CD’s title) and John Rutter’s “Dancing Day” cycle, which that modern carolmaster wrote as a complement to Britten’s opus. The harp plays a crucial role in each work, but harpist Grace Cloutier also shines on Gliere’s “Impromptu for Harp.” About twice as many women constitute Polyphony: Voices of New Mexico, and their “Winter: An Evocation” also begins with the Britten opus. But it’s the rest of the CD that’s the real delight, with breathtaking beauty in works by John Tavener, Andrew Ager, Miklos Kocsar, Tarik O’Regan, and especially Cary Ratcliff’s “Were We Dreaming?” The recording also has a considerable contribution Lynn Gorman DeVelder’s harp
“Sleep, Holy Babe – A Collection of Christmas Lullabies” from the mixed UK chamber choir Blossom Street, takes the unique approach noted in the subtitle. Most of the lullabies are unfamiliar world premieres from the minds and pens of composers who haven’t yet reached their 60th Christmas. It works extremely well, creating a “not awake but not yet asleep” atmosphere. “Sleep, my dreaming one” from group founder/director Hilary Campbell, with text by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was the highlight for me.
Some of strongest, most confident choral singing of the season is heard on The Choral Project’s “Yuletide.” I immediately noticed how important the male voices were, which is so often not the case. A good part of the group’s sound is shaped by the fact that the 12 basses outnumber any other section. It reminded me of the classic Robert Shaw groups, where the men were much more than a background for the women.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s latest is “Glad Christmas Tidings”, and as in previous years, it contains a few outstanding Mack Wilberg arrangements, huge numbers that take advantage of the big sound so many singers and musicians can produce, and a guest artist--this year it’s American Idol runner-up David Archuleta. The only misfire is a silly “Holiday Hoedown for Organ” that wastes Richard Elliott’s considerable talents. On the plus side, there’s a lengthy bonus track entitled “Sing, Choirs of Angels” with a narration by Michael York that tells the story of the founding of the Choir.
While the Christmas celebrations presented by the enormous student ensembles at St. Olaf, Concordia (Moorhead), and Luther are as likely to be on TV as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, they seem purposefully not as flashy, and have never had something as “made for TV” as a guest star. Perhaps it is the Upper Midwestern Lutheran reticence that is so often the object of gentle humor from Garrison Keillor, but it makes for programs that always seem to have a deeper spirituality than any other Christmas program You’ll almost always find some interesting new pieces in them as well, and the performances are simply breathtaking. The 2010 recordings now available include the double CD “A Child, A Son, The Prince of Peace” from St. Olaf, “Out of Darkness, Let Your Light Shine” from Concordia, and “Christmas at Luther 2010.” This year I was privileged to attend the Luther celebration, courtesy of a longtime listener to my program, and I can only say that it was not only a highlight of Christmas, but of my life. When combined chorus and orchestra sang the closing piece from Honegger’s “King David”, I heard heaven on earth. It will be on the 2011 CD that I’ll be airing a year from now.
But great student singing can also be found here and there throughout the country. The Westminster Choir College of New Jersey’s Rider University is home to what is likely the finest student choral ensemble in the eastern U.S., and the Choir’s “Noel” is unusual in featuring largely French music from the 13th to 20th century, including pieces by Charpentier, Faure, Gounod, and Poulenc. The disc is also distinguished by the singing of internationally-known mezzo-soprano (and Westminster alumna) Jennifer Larmore, which makes this the opera-lover’s choice this year. A couple of years earlier the college released the very enjoyable “A Westminster Christmas II”, with an almost equal number of selections from the choir, the Westminster Concert Bell Choir (one of the most highly regarded in America, playing an astonishing 8 octaves of bells), and organist Ken Cowan. It adds up to one of the most enjoyable classical/choral releases of this or any Christmas season.
The Christmas Candlelight Concert at another private institution, Florida’s Stetson University, has much in common with the celebrations of the Upper Midwest schools, most importantly the high level of performance and the kind of music featured. If you like St. Olaf , I am positive you’ll like the Stetson University Concert Choir’s “A Candlelight Tradition.”
One of the most interesting choral programs I encountered this year was on “Christmas from St. Louis”, the third Christmas CD issued by the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, which has been around for 56 seasons. The music will be largely unfamiliar to most listeners—perhaps even to choral directors—yet it is very rewarding. A highlight for me was the three-section “Scenes from the Holy Infancy”, written in 1937 by American composer Virgil Thomson. If anything, “The Spirit of Christmas Present” from The Elysian Singers of London has an even more unusual program, composed entirely by folks who have yet to see 75. The selections that will grab you first if you just have it playing the background are the five from James Whitbourn’s “Missa Carolae”, in which very familiar carols provide the melody for the Latin mass (imagine “Kyrie eleison” sung to “Noel nouvelet” and “Agnus dei” sung to “Infant holy”). And the singing is among the finest you’ll hear from a chamber choir.
In contrast, the music on “Our Favorite Christmas…Live” from the Montana A Cappella Society is much more familiar. The twenty-plus singers lack the last swipe of polish that groups such as the Elysians or the St. Louisans have, but they are unbeatable when it comes to communicating the sheer joy of singing—at Christmastime or any other. As I’ve written before, this group from the Bitterroot region is the one I’d have at most any Christmas gathering I’d host.
Vox Musica’s “Christmas Colours” has one of the most interesting and ambitious programs if you love 20th century choral writing. Included are two pieces from John Tavener (neither of which is “The Lamb”), a recording premiere of a Franz Biebl piece (obviously not the already much-recorded “Ave Maria”), a Cesar Carillo “Ave Maria”, three lovely arrangements by director Daniel Paulson, and Nancy Telfer’s “Missa Brevis.” There are sometimes intonation problems among the seven female voices, but the program offers sufficient compensation to make the disc worthwhile. There’s also a bit of “pitchiness” among the 8 mixed voices of Pastyme on their second seasonal CD, “Descends the Snow”, but here too the program gives the disc value. The 20 selections are generally more familiar than those on the Vox Musica disc.
If you think of youth choirs at Christmas, you’re likely to think of two countries. Germany is home to many great choirs of that type. Unlike American youth choir concerts, the content of the CDs from German groups is typically all spiritual—no Santa, and definitely no chipmunks. The Aurelius Sangerknaben Calw amazed me with their accomplishment on “Festliches Weihnachtskonzert” wherein (with the Wurttembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen) they present a fine program of Rheinberger, Bach, Humperdinck, Homilius, Nicolai, and Bizet, as well as some traditional songs. Another boys’ choir, the Knabenchor Collegium Iuvenum Stuttgart offers a centuries-spanning program of Christmas music by Schutz, Praetorius, Cornelius, and Eccard, as well as less well-known composers, on their “Freut euch und jubiliert.” The group presents sacred music in both Catholic and Protestant churches in the Stuttgart area.
England is the other primary country for youth choirs. There are, of course, the many cathedral choirs, but the most famous now is Libera, a shifting group of boys from South London (they age out, after all). While they’ve released Christmas songs before, “The Christmas Album” is the first full disc of its kind. The accompanying orchestration is considerable, but the fine harmonies and pure voices of the lads are still central. While I don’t think of the sound as “angelic” (in my own boyhood, most of us played for the opposing team much of the time), it is still a wonderful listen. If you’ve yet to get a classic British boys and young men Christmas recording, it would be hard to find a better one that “On Christmas Night” from the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Their program is full and varied, and like the German recordings above, all sacred.
And then there is Conspirare, the astonishingly good assemblage of singers from around the country that come together in Austin and Central Texas to present concerts so deeply moving and so much unlike any other that their latest effort is always the star at the top of my tree. “Sudden Light – Christmas at the Carillon 2010” is very much like its predecessors. The first thing you notice is the juxtaposition of widely disparate pieces of music—Sade’s “Bring Me Home” and a Monteverdi “Kyrie”; Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock, Annie Lennox’s “Why”, and Morton Lauridsen’s “Contre Qui, Rose”; the African “Noel” followed by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”; and their now traditional “I Could’ve Danced All Night/Dance With Me” with strains of “Silent Night.” And then there are the lyrics--the selections are very much chosen for their words as well as their melodies. The common theme is our shared human condition, which is too often less than a delight. At the end of my radio show each year, I say to my listeners “May your Christmas be everything you want and everything you need.” Well, here’s the disc we all need.
And after Christmas? It’s even colder, even snowier around here, so who better to give us something fine to listen to than a group from Minnesota, where great choral singing seems to congeal right out of the frigid air? Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” is one of the most performed and recorded modern choral works, but other than perhaps “O Nata Lux”, his music is much less known. On “Mid-Winter Songs”, The Singers – Minnesota Choral Artists bless us with five sets: “Les Chansons des Roses”, “Three Psalms”, “Four Madrigals on Renaissance Texts”, “Nocturnes”, and one that gives the disc its title, based on the poems of 20th century poet Robert Graves. Lauridsen himself provides informative liner notes as well as playing the piano for “…Roses”, and you’ll hear the characteristic touches of his compositional style throughout—particularly in the most recent work, the 2005 Nocturnes.
Deana Martin’s “White Christmas” is an excellent re-creation of the mid-20th century sound of a fine female vocalist with equally fine orchestral arrangements (in this case, by Charles Calello). It’s a sound that many of us boomers grew up with, and while it’s largely absent from the radio most of the year (except for XM/Sirius’ Sinatra channel), at Christmas it simply pulls all the right strings for many of us. A particular treasure on this disc is a duet with Andy Williams on the title cut—only a duet with the actual Santa Claus or maybe Bing Crosby could have more holiday good feeling.
The vocals of Halie Loren and the piano of Matt Treder make “Many Times, Many Ways” an immediately likable disc. I notice on Halie’s website that all the good adjectives were already taken by others in describing her voice, so I had to think of a Christmasy comparison. You know those cashmere Christmas trees with the luxurious looking multitoned branches? That’s what immediately came to mind, but if that doesn’t do it for you, think Jane Monheit or Norah Jones. This young woman deserves to really break out some day.
Stephanie K.’s “In The Silence of the Snowfall” is a lightly jazzy affair featuring many of the most popular secular tunes in great arrangements by Jurgen Knautz, who frequently employs a string quartet in addition to more traditional jazz instruments. Special delights include Ray Charles’ “The Snow Is Falling” and Patricia Barber’s “The New Year’s Eve Song.”
Vanessa Peters is identified as a singer/songwriter, although only the title tune on “The Christmas We Hoped For” came from her pen. It’s mostly standards, but in slow, generally guitar-based arrangements that showcase Vanessa’s affecting performances. Her “Winter Wonderland” was particularly attractive—while her pitch isn’t always spot-on, there’s a human quality that is endearing in our Autotuned age.
One of only two new CDS I received from male pop vocalists was Benjamin Utecht’s “Christmas Hope.” Ben has an easy-on-the-ears tenor voice, and he gets support from new age pianist Jim Brickman as well as labelmates Jaimee Paul and Leif Shires. He’s scheduled to bring his Christmas Celebration tour with Brickman to Green Bay’s Weidner Center on December 30. Another labelmate, Kathy Troccoli, delivered “Christmas Songs.” Kathy has long been known as a contemporary Christian (CCM) vocalist, although her sometimes breathy alto was once labeled too sexy for Christian radio by some programmers (which to me counts as a strong recommendation!). Yet both hers and Utecht’s CDs are almost entirely composed of Christmas standards, with only a couple of tunes that might identify them as CCM artists.
You may know her as the uber-cute star of the TV series “New Girl”, but Zooey Deschanel’s day job is pop singer/songwriter. In a duo with M.Ward, she takes most of the lead vocals on “A Very She & Him Christmas”, and despite the fact that both write songs, the program here is a dozen secular Yuletide standards. It is a nice listen if you’re in the mood for some minimalist pop . I found a CD by another songwriting duo, Chris Standring on guitars and keyboards and Kathrin Shorr providing vocals, to be more appealing, perhaps because it was all originals. Their disc is called “Send Me Some Snow.”
FFH is a contemporary Christian vocal group centered on yet another duo, husband and wife Jeromy and Jennifer Deibler. The mixture of 10 secular and sacred songs is performed in what might be called a laidback acoustic country/pop style on “A Silent Night.” We’re still not done with duos. The one purely country Christmas recording arriving this year was Joey+Rory’s “A Farmhouse Christmas.” If the title alone wasn’t enough of a clue, there’s husband Rory Lee Feek in bib overalls on the cover, next to wife Joey Martin Feek in one of those western shirts with pearly buttons. There’s songs full of country humor and good feelin’, including Garth Brooks’ “I Know What Santa’s Getting for Christmas”, the overindulger’s “What the Hell (It’s the Holidays)”, and “Let It Snow (Somewhere Else).” And there’s Merle Haggard’s classic hard-times “If We Make It Through December” with Merle himself singing a verse. There’s also lots of pedal steel and not much Nashville gloss, and that’s just fine with me. The best parts of contemporary country singer/songwriter Phil Vassar’s “Noel” are provided by the big fun in his own tunes, particularly “I Saved Christmas” and “Santa’s Gone Hollywood.” Five of his originals mix with 5 sacred and secular standards to form the program of one of the most smile-inducing offerings this season.
I suppose “jazz and blues singer” is the pigeonhole you’d put Dubuque-born-and-raised-and-current-resident Jillaine Chaston in, but she’s really too much of an original, with all kinds of influences, to fit neatly in any container. Although still a college senior, her strong voice (entirely under her command) is much in evidence as she works her way through 15 mostly standard Christmas songs on “Jazzy Christmas To You.” Jillaine says she took voice lessons in Madison when she was younger, but perhaps more important, she also visited a real Wisconsin cheese factory! Ah, we Badgers spread our influence in mysterious wheys—I mean, ways.
An equally distinctive voice is to be found on Karling Abbeygate’s “Christmas with Karling.” She is most often described as a descendant of Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee--part rockabilly, part Western swing, but also part indie pop. She’s a pretty good songwriter too, as her “What’s In The Box?” and :Santa’s Got A Crush On Me” make clear along with four other originals that join five standards done Karling-style. So a-Karling we’ll go (sorry, can’t resist the easy ones).
Speaking of Western swing, it is probably the main influence heard on “The Christmas Album” from Knoxville’s Christabel (Christa De Cicco) and the Jons. Christa’s laidback vocals make for an easy listen to unjangle all of those last-minute Christmas prep nerves. A particular highlight was “I’d Like You For Christmas”, a song written for Julie London by her husband, actor Bobby Troup(who also wrote “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”—just sayin’).
Mindy Gledhill’s “Winter Moon” would be worth the price even if her own “Little Soldier” was the only thing on it. It’s about our longing for the innocence and joy of a childhood Christmas, and Mindy’s soft voice is perfect for it. That’s also true of her other song “Winter Moon”, but she does all the right things with eight Christmas standards as well, including wonderful renditions of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, “Toyland/White Christmas”, and “Silent Night.” Accompaniment is generally minimal, yet quite effective.
Here’s yet another unusual disc—Lisa B.’s (Lisa Bernstein) “Christmas Time Is Here (And Chanukah and the Solstice). The styles range from pop to jazz, although she really isn’t a jazz singer, and true to the title, several holidays are served (although there are no Christmas carols as such).. A poet is what she most certainly is, working spoken and rapped poetic verse into several of the selections.
Mike Conley mixes up very straightforward approaches to traditional tunes with much more unusual rock/r&b flavors (courtesy of Chris Richardson’s sax in particular) on “It’s A Conley Christmas”, and the latter work much better by far.
What a great time for singing together! The Sing-Off and Glee are doing well, competitive collegiate choral groups are popular again, and a few weeks ago Straight No Chaser filled the Fox Valley PAC, followed by Rockapella with the Boston Pops. There are new Christmas CDs from several well-established groups, all of which have had previous seasonal releases. The six-man Eclipse produced “It’s Christmas Time”, on which a great “O Holy Night” is a special treat). Tonic-Sol-Fa has a strongly rhythmic/percussive aspect in many of the songs on “March of the Kings”, and it’s the only Christmas CD I know with Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska” on it. I had mixed feelings about The Blenders “Christmas Light”, largely because it began with two songs I really don’t need to hear ever again— Donnie Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and George Michael’s “Last Christmas.” But it concludes with fine versions of “What Child Is This,” “Some Children See Him,” and “Joy to the World” (plus an out-of-place bonus “America”).
Yet the best new a cappella CD is without question “Coming Home for Christmas” from Lepizig, Germany’s Amarcord. I wasn’t expecting it; their earlier Christmas CD, “In Adventu Domini” was very much of a piece with what these five gentlemen are known for: old sacred music. But the new disc features more popular songs and carols from around the world. The singing is crisp, with spot-on harmonies. The arrangements glisten with originality. The sound of the group is a distinctive “high-low” because there are two tenors and two basses, with only a lone baritone between them. And the result will spend a lot of time on your CD player.
“Losing!” That’s what Charlie Sheen might’ve yelled at Charlie Brown. But I notice that the latter’s Christmas TV special with its Vince Guaraldi-penned score keep right on winning, with no threat of replacement by Ashton Kutcher. Even the replicas of his forlorn Christmas tree are selling well. Although Guaraldi was far from the most highly regarded jazz composer, it’s hard to think of any other music that so perfectly captures the spirit of the season. The latest group to serve it up is pianist Lori Mechem’s Quartet, and their “Christmas Is Coming” also includes tasty versions of a half-dozen other seasonal standards. It isn’t cutting-edge jazz, nor should it be. It is simply a very good listen.
Mike Pachelli studied with two of my favorite jazz guitarists, Joe Pass and Pat Martino, and his multifaceted prowess is all over “A Jazzy Guitar Christmas”—many moods, a mix of styles, and very fresh takes on 14 Christmas standards. There’s also a bit of gypsy guitar great Django Reinhardt’s influence in Mike’s playing, but for an all-out “Hot Club”-style gypsy jazz CD this year, the pick is “A Very Gypsy Christmas” by Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack (la pompe refers to the technique of rhythm guitar strumming strongly identified with this kind of jazz). Standards are the fare here too, but in swinging arrangements unlike those you’ve heard too many times.
I find a lot of smooth jazz to be too close to easy listening to merit attentive listening, but not so “We 3 Stringz” from guitarist Drew Davidsen & Friends. Drew has his interesting way with 11 selections, with able collaboration from Fourplay’s Chuck Loeb and Paul Jackson, Jr. also on guitars, and seasoned Christmas CD artist Pat Coil on keyboards. Saxophonist/vocalist Marcus Anderson’s “’TLC’ Tender Loving Christmas” is squarely in the smooth jazz camp, and Santa would surely put Marcus’s “Do You Hear What I Hear”, “Go Tell it on the Mt.”, “Away in the Manger”, and a groovin’ “Silent Night” in the “nice!” category. The concluding original “Christmas Without You” is both beautiful and wistful.
The Green Hill label has issued quite a string of light jazz vocal and instrumental Christmas CDs over the years, and “Christmas & Cocktails” (credited to Beegie Adair & Friends) compiles tracks from many of them. Included are tunes from singers Jaimee Paul and Matt Belsante, instrumentalists Denis Solee, Leif Shires, Lori Mechem, and Jack Jezzro, and the always-easy-on-the-ears pianist Beegie. The CD is subtitled “…jazz for holiday entertaining”, and it fulfills its mission very well. This may be easy listening jazz, but it is of very high quality.
Pianist Geri Allen’s “A Child Is Born” is far from easy listening, but it is not so “out there” that the tune is a distant memory. The result is what so much good jazz yields—a revelation of the inner beauty of music that has become too familiar. As such, it is Geri’s exploration of Christmas carols like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “We Three Kings” that give the disc its value to me. This is my pick for best new jazz CD of the season.
“The Greatest Gift: Songs of the Season” from vocalist Alexis Cole was an unexpected pleasure that her label slipped in with the Geri Allen CD. It’s actually one of the best seasonal jazz releases of the year, with particularly inventive takes on the Indian-ized “Rise Up Shepherds And Follow”, and “Silent Night.” Ike Sturm is heard on bass on 8 of the 14 tracks—his dad Fred is Mr. Jazz at Lawrence.
There are vocals from Andre Miguel Mayo and Acacia on David Ian’s “Vintage Christmas”, but the real highlight is the fine soft jazz of David’s piano trio. There’s lots of brushwork from drummer Brian Fitch, which clues you that this is music of the evening.
Vocals from Austrian-born Elisabeth Lohninger, plus exceptionally able support from guitarist Axel Fischbacher and others, mark her “Christmas In July.” Her approach is basically jazz, and she sings in almost as many different languages as tracks since the disc draws from 10 countries for its dozen selections. Only the two US selections and “Stille Nacht” will be familiar to most, so there’s lots to discover on this tour. Even “Stille Nacht rocks”, with a heavy backbeat.
Stephen Robinson’s “A Christmas Feeling” is one of the best guitar Christmas recordings ever. You won’t hear many familiar Christmas strains here, but what you will get is a full disc of expertly played music from some of the most important figures in guitar writing, past and present—Brouwer, Ponce, Verdery, York, Chapdelaine, and Dyens, among others. The whole thing starts with a stunning setting of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” by FranciscoTarrega. Put this on, imagine Stephen playing while seated next to your tree or hearth, and you’ll know exactly what that “feeling” in the title means.
Tommy Emmanuel may be the best fingerpicker in the world right now, so I knew we were in for a big treat when I heard he had a Christmas CD in the works. “All I Want For Christmas” is just that if all you want is some very fancy pickin’ and real creativity in the rendering of 12 mostly familiar tunes, often accompanied by guitarist John Knowles and sometimes others. Acoustic guitar Christmas CDs are very common, but those of this quality are nearly as rare as a 70-degree January day in Wisconsin.
Guitarist Lee Murdock is known for his songs of the Great Lakes, and his “Christmas Goes To Sea” was a welcome release some years ago. For an encore, he has given us “A Wordless Christmas”. On it he refreshes our love for familiar carols and songs through his sensitive explorations (sometimes accompanied by wind and wave sounds).
Bohola’s “bo-Ho-Ho-hola” is one of the best Celtic Christmas recordings of the dozens I’ve reviewed over the decades, and a big part of the reason is the spoken word included in it. Some of the very best Christmas stories associated with Celtic music are here, including Patrick Kavanagh’s“My Father Played the Melodian” and Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”—a remembrance in which my favorite line is “I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” I’m getting near the age of forgetting. But not to forget the music! The heart of Bohola is Jimmy Keane, arguably the best piano accordionist (as opposed to button accordionist) in Celtic music history. You will be dancing however you dance when Jimmy gets rolling—this is Celtic boogie.
Connie Dover, who sings with the Kansas City Celtic group Scartaglen, has one of those pure and beautiful voices that will simply catch you—you’ll drop whatever you were doing, and just listen In the 9 carols on “The Holly and the Ivy”, she is backed by the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra playing particularly effective arrangements by Greg Briggs, Steve Herold, Bruce Sorrell, and Greg Schultza (the last is responsible for an outstanding Satie-flavored “Silent Night”). Connie and the KCCO’s rendition of “The Coventry Carol” stands above hundreds of others, and will leave you in a shiver. An equally fine vocally-oriented CD from Mary McLaughlin takes a more traditional approach. As the title of “A Gaelic Christmas” hints, Mary sings every song in Gaelic, sometimes using texts she wrote for the purpose. The songs are old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, the backing musicians are stellar, but Mary’s singing (sometimes harmonizing with herself) verges on otherworldly. It is most strongly evident on the long a cappella section that begins “The Wexford Carol.”
World music label Putumayo has offered quite a few excellent compilations over the years, and 2011’s addition is “Celtic Christmas.” One advantage of such compilations is that they prevent the boredom that might arise from too much stylistic and sonic similarity when all cuts are from the same musicians. The offerings here begin with The Albion Christmas Band’s “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and end with Dougie MacLean’s “Auld Lang Syne.”
If my shelf count is accurate, “Irish Country Christmas” is the 2nd Irish Christmas CD from producer/multi-instrumentalist Craig Duncan, and his 9th Christmas recording overall. All of them are excellent, and if you’re looking for a fine purely instrumental Celtic disc, this new one is an obvious choice.
Kelli Trottier identifies herself as a fiddler/singer/stepdancer, but her “Memories of Christmas” struck me primarily as a country-flavored album, even though the 11 song choices weren’t particularly “country” (except Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains”). Her voice has a plain-but-pretty quality, and as expected, her fiddle plays a bigger role than usual on such CDs.
“Joy – An Irish Christmas” by Keith & Kristyn Getty is a contemporary Christian CD with some Irish flavoring, rather than the usual jigs-and-reels collection. That’s not surprising considering that the Gettys are established hymn writers. But they do get top-drawer support from the likes of the Celtic choir Anuna, super fiddler Eileen Ivers, and a host of other Irish musicians.
“It Barn Er Fod – Old Yuletide Songs from Scandinavia” by the trio Alba has a deep-in-the-winter-woods feeling. The music comes from Swedish, Danish and Finnish songbooks and hymnals of the 15th and 16th century, and nothing has been done to modernize it. Most selections feature one or both of Miriam Andersen’s and Agnethe Christensen’s voices, plus spare accompaniment from harp, bells, kantele (a Finnish form of zither), or the several instruments played by third member Poul Hoxbro. The one minus is a too-short set of liner notes—I’d like to read much more about each of the selections.
Are there other new Christmas CDs from way back then? Shirley, you joust—I mean, surely you jest! On “A Feast of Songs – Holiday Music from the Middle Ages”, multi-instrumentalists Barry and Beth Hall present old Christmas tunes that sound only slightly more modern than they are due to the use of modern instruments. But “Christmas at the Renaissance Fair” by Moat Jumper takes a different approach, applying medieval instrumentation and instruments from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to much more familiar Christmas fare, including “Jingle Bells” and the historically questionable “Lo How Arroz Con Pollo.” This is the disc to get if you often find yourself saying “I need more crumhorn!” Or sackbut (you can NEVER get enough sackbut).
The Christmas Revels celebrations have long been one of America’s greatest Christmas events, and there are now troops presenting it in at least 10 cities. Music director George Emlen describes it as a “unique, eclectic, multi-sensory, culturally rich, theatrical experience that mixes up choral music, solo song, folk dance, storytelling, poetry, folk drama, and audience participation.” In short, it is an experience unlike any other, and it is near the top of my Christmas bucket list. On this year’s recording “Sing Noel! A European Christmas Revels”—the 12th Christmas Revels disc—we are invited to “imagine a French coastal village in the Renaissance where pilgrims from all over Europe have converged to celebrate a winter feast.” Ant that is what this is—not a concert, but a celebration. You’ll wish you were there!
Corelli, Torelli, Locatelli, and Manfredini. No, that’s not Amanda Knox’s defense team. Not new pastas at Carmella’s either. If you’re of a certain age and a classical bent, you know these names as being the composers of four baroque Christmas concertos that received wide exposure on major labels in decades past. We’ve since gotten much more music from that era on disc, but it was nice to hear this quartet again on a disc simply titled “Christmas Concertos” from the Neues Berliner Kammerorchester.
From an only slightly more recent era, a diverse set of musical ensembles present “Weihnachten der Bach-Familie” (Christmas with the Bach Family). Six members of the most famed musical family are represented on this compilation, beginning with the joyful shout of “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” from daddy Johann Sebastian’s Christmas Oratorio. Ninth son Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach gets his own disc, with the featured work being the oratorio “Die Kindheit Jesu” (The Infancy of Jesus).” He wasn’t at the level of his dad, or even his older brother C.P.E., but the disc is still welcome after you’ve heard papa’s oratorio for the umpteenth time.
C.P.E. Bach is one of many composers on the 24 tracks of the fine compilation “Heiligste Nacht – Choral Music of Advent and Christmas” The selections move forward in time from Buxtehude, Vivaldi, Telemann, and Haydn to Schubert, Mendelssohn, Gounod, Saint-Saens, Rheinberger, and Reger. Richard Wetz wrote his “Ein Weihnachtsoratorium” in 1927-28, and this massive work based heavily on old German poems and songs rather than biblical texts gets its due from the combined forces led by George Alexander Albrecht. I was reminded of Vaughan Williams’ “Hodie”—also based on non-biblical sources—but I did not find quite as immediately attractive.
Another 20th century composer, Arthur Honegger, gave us “Une Cantate de Noel” (A Christmas Cantata). This relatively short work appears on a disc of Honegger that also includes his Symphony No. 4 and Summer Pastoral, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir and the New London Children’s Choir, with baritone Christopher Maltman, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The cantata begins in a very dark place of wandering and wailing, but the Christmas story gradually unfolds, and the piece ends in an exuberant chorus of praise. This work deserves to be more widely known and recorded.
No matter what’s in your Christmas music collection, you don’t have a disc like “Another Night Before Christmas and Scrooge” from the RTE Concert Orchestra and Royal Ballet Sinfonia. As you may have guessed by now, spoken pieces highlight this work—Bryan Kelly’s compression of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and Philip Lane’s “Another Night Before Christmas”, excellently narrated by actor Simon Callow. But there’s also John Fox’s “Carol Fantasia”, Lane’s “Old Christmas Music”, Gordon Jacobs’ orchestration of Liszt’s “Christmas Tree Suite”, and more.
There are basically three kinds of pipe organ Yuletide CDs. The most common includes music from classical composers, particularly J.S. Bach, Messiaen, and the French Noel gang. More common years ago were recordings of familiar carols played in a rather straightforward manner. But the rarest of the three, and most interesting, come from practitioners of the centuries-old art of organ improvisation. They do what all jazz musicians do—take a tune and its underlying chord structure and use them for flights of imagination and creativity. Kay Johannsen demonstrates his abilities on the 24 tracks of “Christmas: Improvisations on International Christmas Songs.” As the title implies, the music comes from everywhere—Germany and the UK as expected, but also Norway, Bolivia, Italy, Scotland, and the US, among others. I enjoy this for exactly the reason I love jazz so much—it gives me a fresh perspective on songs I’ve know for decades.
Carol Williams mixes pop (even Frosty, Rudolph, and the airwalking Snowman) with the classical (Handel, Bach, Carter, Man, and more) on the “Carol’s Christmas” (and there are no less than 27 tracks to accommodate all of that diversity). The organ is described as a 79 rank 4 manual Aeolian Skinner at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, and it sounds like the perfect organ for Christmas music. Carol is San Diego’s Civic Organist, and she is regularly heard playing one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs in Balboa Park’s Spreckels Pavilion (it just about kills me that those outdoor concerts occur in December too—couldn’t they SHARE some of that weather with us Frozen Tundrans?)
I haven’t even begun to tire of last year’s Christmas CD from England’s Manor House String Quartet, and already there is a new one! And as with the first, the distinguishing features of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” are the outstanding arrangements of violinist Vaughan Jones (check out “Carol of the Bells” and the following “To Drive The Cold Winter Away” for particularly nice examples). Jones simply does a superb job of combining sensitivity to the original spirit and melody of a carol with a strong sense of how the particular qualities of a string quartet could make the music sound new to our ears.
(See also the West Edge String Quartet and Angele Dubeau & La Pieta additions under Late Reviews on this site.)
HANDBELLS, FIDDLES, HARPS, AND ALL
Think handbells are only good for quietly sweet versions of Silent Night? Meet the Raleigh Ringers, whose first Christmas CD got a rave from me a few years ago. Their latest, “A Wintry Mix”, features 6 Hart Morris arrangements of Trans-Siberian Orchestra tunes, including the “Wizards in Winter” number used in so many sound-synchronized outdoor home lighting displays (such as that house everybody knows out in Darboy). You can WATCH them rip through it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYyeflyMAqI and see what one of the best bell choirs in existence can do. Nothing sweet about that! But there’s plenty of warm handbell feeling too on many of the other tracks, including three from the Charlie Brown special.
The entry at allmusic.com says fiddler Mark O’Connor has performed on over 450 albums, and the multigenrosity (my new word) of his abilities is evident in the list of guests on “An Appalachian Christmas”: Jane Monheit (jazz vocal), Rene Fleming (opera), James Taylor (pop/folk), Alison Krauss (bluegrass/country), Steve Wariner (country), Yo-Yo Ma (classical), and Sharon Isbin (classical guitar), among others. But the CD itself is not all that unusual—mostly it’s just a fine Christmas CD with brilliant fiddling evident on tracks such as “The Cherry Tree Carol”, “Amazing Grace”, a wild “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and a Western swing “Walkin’ In A Winter Wonderland.”
It should be to nobody’s surprise that Ricky Skaggs’ clan begins “A Skaggs Family Christmas Volume Two” CD with “Christmas Time’s A-Coming”—the song is practically mandatory on bluegrass Christmas CDs. There’s also a particularly nice a cappella “First Noel” among the 10 tracks. But much more music is found on the included bonus DVD.
Ronda Adams’ “Radiant Light – An Instrumental Christmas Collection” is centered on her electric violin and viola, with support from piano, guitar, and other instruments on interesting arrangements of Christmas standards. I can’t find an easy word to summarize the style here, although “in the Steamroller spirit” comes to mind.
Speaking of, want lots more violins and violas? It’s a good bet that most of the residents of this country—and many others—know the Chip Davis (Mannheim Steamroller) versions of such standards as “Deck the Halls” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” better than most any others. “Christmas Symphony” presents an orchestral version of those arrangements, using members of the Czech Philharmonic. You won’t forget the originals—they’re pretty much burned into our memories as much as Nat “King” Cole’s rendering of “The Christmas Song”—but it’s nice to hear the kinds of things a full orchestra can bring out.
Now let’s dial it down—a lot. According to his own discography, Bruce Kurnow’s first Christmas harp recording appeared about 15 years ago, and he’s had several since. His latest, featuring 13 carols plus a “Jingle Bells Meditation”, is entitled “A Winter Harp.” From the opening “All Through The Night” through the closing “Silent Night”, it is truly music for drifting off into sugarplum territory. When I reviewed multi-instrumentalist and arranger Bill Leslie’s “Christmas in Carolina” a few years back, I commented on its gentleness, and that’s the first word that came to mind when I heard his latest. “A Midnight Clear: Christmas in Mitford” was inspired by Jan Karon’s tales of Father Tim in that mythical mountain village. The instrumentation is what you’d expect in the Blue Ridge, the 16 tracks include 9 familiar carols and 7 Leslie originals, and the end result is as highly recommendable as Bill’s earlier Christmas CD.
I was not surprised to find that Windham Hill’s Will Ackerman was the production advisor on Fiona Joy Hawkins’ “Christmas Joy.” Fiona’s piano playing and the arrangements of standards and originals are in the very best new age music traditions. She also gets some unusual accompaniment from Paraguayan harp (which blends quite nicely with piano) and digeridoo (which, well, is strange). But hers is the gentle, late night CD you may be seeking. Another good choice for those waning hours and dying embers might be Chad Lawson’s “Solo Piano Christmas.” His playing is fine, and the level of originality in his interpretations is moderate—that is, midway between “right out of the carol book” and “jazz improvisations on carols.”
But, as they say in the infomercials. that’s not all. As I started to write this column I received Joseph Akins’ “A Piano Christmas”, which is a perfect example of combining sophisticated solo piano technique with an innovative approach that still respects the beloved melodies. It bears much repeated listening. Finally there’s one that arrived many months ago—Lore Constantine’s “Peace and Good Will.” Lore’s approach is more straightforward, and she adds her own fine flute playing on three of the cuts.
Near-perennial visitor Lorie Line says her “Christmas Bells Are Ringing” may be her 15th Christmas CD. It is mostly more uptempo and more orchestrated than Hawkins’, but you know what I mean if you’ve heard her CDs or caught one of her holiday concerts. While I’ve written that Lorie is the heir of Liberace, Luis Colaiannia’s “The Keys of Christmas” brought up memories of Roger Williams, another dominant easy listening pianist of mid-20th century who passed away just a couple of months ago. While the accompanying orchestrations are more modern, Louis plays piano in much the same grand style. Carolyn Southworth’s “Home for Christmas” is another pleasant easy-listening CD centered on her piano with supporting orchestrations. Her menu has 10 Christmas standards, plus two nice originals, and my spouse described it as “sitting by the fireside music.” It grew on me with repeated spins—it is undemanding listening, but very pretty.
One of the most interesting programs and some of the finest playing of the season marks “A Steinway Christmas Album” from pianist Jeffrey Biegel. There’s quite an assortment on this cookie platter—classical works by Tchaikovsky, Reger, Rebikov, Lyapunov, and Liszt; and fresh arrangements of familiar carols, in particular a pair of interesting mergers of classical works with carol (the joining of “In The Bleak Midwinter” with Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” is absolutely enchanting). Watch Jeffrey play “Sleigh Ride” by clicking the CD tite name.
I’M DONE…LET’S GO SURFIN’ NOW
Why do Christmas carols sound so good when done surf guitar style? Maybe it’s just me—I was in my teens when surf rock was at peak popularity. In any case, although “Have Yourself A ‘Vara’ Merry Christmas” from the Vara-tones is not the first Christmas recording of this type, it might be the best, surfin’ the Bethlehem Pipeline from “We Three Kings” through “O Little Town.” “The Nut Rocker” (remember B. Bumble & The Stingers?) was best of all.
OK, what about Buble’, Bieber, and the rest? Their labels didn’t send them to me, so I guess they figure they’re already getting enough publicity. That’s OK—it took nearly 200 hours to get through the discs reviewed above, and I’m aurally exhausted!
LATE ARRIVALS will be added to the copy of this column at www.uwosh.edu/drchristmas/reviews