15 CHRISTMAS CDs & Blu-rays for 2013
Published on November 19, 2013
We’ll start off this compendium of Christmas discs with the classical titles and then move into the jazz and pop:
BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 – Katherine Watson, soprano/ Iestyn Davies, countertenor/ James Gilchrist, tenor (Evangelist)/ Matthew Brook, bass/ Choir of Trinity College Cambridge/ Orch. of the Age of Enlightenment/ Stephen Layton– Hyperion CDA 68031 (2 CDs), 151:49 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The Bach is a given—one of the most joyous works he ever wrote, it is a bit unusual in that it was not given at a single church setting, but spread over six different days in true cantata-style. However, what is unusual is the presence of a narrator in the guise of the Evangelist, not as involved as in the Passions perhaps, but significant nonetheless, and James Gilchrist does an excellent job as our Nativity Guide. This unifying factor certainly lends itself to the notion that these six pieces were envisioned by the composer as being performed Oratorio-style all at once (though there is no evidence that this actually happened) even though the designations for the work—the first, second, and third days of Christmas, followed by New Year’s Day and the Circumcision of Christ, first Sunday of the New Year, and Epiphany—indicated a five-week spread in performance.
Stephen Layton has been turning out some gorgeous recordings in the last 10 years or so, and this one adds to the estimable lineage. The playing is joyous, spirited, and alive, while the whole solo crew is intensely engaged and the chorus nothing short of outstanding. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays as well as any period band on record, and I found this whole recording to be an uplifting and at times riveting experience. Top of the list? Probably not, as I cannot say it dislodges recordings like the Gardiner (Archiv) and especially the sumptuous and soothing Rilling on Hänssler. But it’s certainly right up there with them, a honey of a reading that will bring lots of Christmas joy to anyone who so desires.
“In Silent Night” – Musica Sacra Chamber Chorale/ Bob Ingalls – [www.musicasacrachamberchorale.com], 63:26 ****:
The Musica Sacra Chamber Chorale—not to be confused with Musica Sacra, founded by Richard Westenburg at Central Presbyterian Church in 1964, the longest performing professional choral group in New York City, and the creator of many wonderful recordings—is based in Seattle and lacks little when compared with the more famous New York group. This album, featuring mainly new Christmas works and arrangements of older ones, is a delightful transition to the idea of modern choral music of the season being every bit as affecting as some of the old standards. The sensitivity and grace with which these folks caress the many wonderful compositions on this album make for an hour of real delight and spiritual invigoration. The Chorale’s stated goal, as found in the booklet notes, is to “perform music from a variety of sacred traditions and, in doing so, to honor God, inspire audiences, serve our community and enrich each other”. I can say categorically they succeed on each of these fronts, and the recorded sound, taken down at Holy Rosary Catholic Church and Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Seattle, is first rate. You really don’t want to miss this one if you are a Christmas music fan.
In Silent Night – Mitchell Southall
Unborn – Alec Roth
Come Emmanuel – Schlenker
Isaiah’s Voice – John Ferguson
Serenity(O Magnum Mysterium) – Ola Gjeilo
Ave Maria – Guy Forbes
Mary Had A Baby – Sam Batt Owens
Ave Maria – Jacobus Gallus
Gabriel’s Message – Joshua Shank
Then Christmas Comes – Kentaro Sato
Lux Aurumque – Eric Whitacre
Silent Night – Stephen Paulus
Dona Nobis Pacem – Cacinni/Moore
In a similar vein, though a different repertory is the disc by the RIAS Chamber Choir of Berlin. The focus here is on the tried and true of the season, yet emphasizes the high churchly classical tradition, “painted” as it were in a successive series of choral illuminations that gradually reveal the full meaning of the season. Hence we are treated to Mendelssohn’s Rejoice ye peoples of the earth as an opener that frames all the subsequent selections, ending with Eusebius Mandycsewski’s subtle and calming arrangement of Franz Gruber’s immortal Silent Night. Between these wonderful sandwich slices are themes relating to “Night and Light”, “Departure”, “Mary”, “Rejoicing and consummation”, and Reflection”. It’s a nice concept that works well, especially when bolstered with such professional and highly inflected singing by the RIAS folks as captured by the Harmonia mundi engineers at the Jesus-Christus Church in Berlin. Not everyone will be attracted to a whole album of classical compositions during the Christmas season, and this one doesn’t exactly rock around the Christmas tree. But if you would rather settle back and reflect instead, this album will prove an indispensable addition to your seasonal collection.
Mendelssohn: Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden
Gronostay: Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen
Eccard: Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht; Nun liebe Seel, nun ist es Zeit; Über’s Gebirg Maria geht
Bruch: In der Christnacht
Brahms: O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf
Bruckner: Ave Maria, Virga Jesse
Poulenc: Salve Regina
Grieg: Ave maris stella
Sweelinck: Hodie Christus natus est
Praetorius: In dulci jubilo; Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Poulenc: Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel
Mandyczewski: Stille Nacht! heilige Nacht!
“Surrounded by Angels” – Ensemble Galilei – Sono Luminus Pure Audio Blu-ray (7.1 DTS HD MA 24/192 kHz, 5.1 DTS HD MA 26/96 kHz, or 2.0 LPCM 24/192 kHz) + standard CD DSL-92173, 57:33 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
The seven members of Ensemble Galilei—Isaac Alderson (flute and uilleann pipes), Hanneke Cassel (fiddle), Ryan McKasson (fiddle), Kathryn Montoya (pennywhistles, shawm, and recorders), Jackie Moran (bodhran, banjo), Sue Richards (harp), and 1990 founder Carolyn Surrick (viola da gamba) are an eclectic group that completely transcend any stereotypes in terms of musical when’s, where’s, or how’s. The only important thing in this newly fashioned Christmas season album is the why, and that is answered by Carolyn Surrick when she speaks of the idea of this album coalescing among several of the members when in Jacksonville, Florida followed by a Winter Solstice concert in December of 2012: “the music that we have known and loved for our whole lives took on a different meaning, imbued with grace and soulfulness.”
Any recording with a banjo, viola da gamba, and harp has got to be well-considered and carefully planned, right? But I don’t sense the wonderful congruousness of this combination, among others, as being something that is planned from an orchestration viewpoint. Rather, it’s the performances themselves, so beautifully crafted and miraculously presented, coupled with a spirituality and uplifting sensibility that allows these disparate lions and lambs to lie down with one another and create such uplifting timbres. If love of music can come across in performances—and I surely think it can—this album would be a demonstration disc of that quality.
Along with tried and true favorites there are also some original compositions as well, and they fit just like a glove. This is quite simply a stunning album, and I can’t imagine a better seasonal offering coming along this year. With spectacular Blu-ray audio surround sound (though be warned it is recorded at a high level and you will want to turn it down from your regular settings) and an accompanying CD, the only thing I wish there was more of that is missing is more music! But I can’t complain—this is a spectacular album.
TrackList:Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent; Konvulsionslaten; The Celt Divinum Mysterium; Christ Child Lullabye Away in the Manger; Polonessa Spoof Es ist ein Ros entsprugen I Wonder as I Wander Greensleeves Whence is that Goodly Fragrance; Jesu Kreuz, Leiden und Pein The Surround; Snowy Path; Half C Une Vierge Pucelle; Joseph est bien Marie God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Good King Wenceslas At Midnight Hour; Joy be with You Carol of the Birds Winter’s Failing Light The Wexford Carol; Shetland Reel Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning; Farewell to Goirtin Silent Night
Christmas would not be Christmas without at least one offering from across the pond, and this one from Clare College is the first I have seen this year, a brand-new recording from the intrepid Cambridgers that curiously avoids too much of the tried and true, and tries to take a new approach in several instances, with varying degrees of success.
Christmas is not a free-for-all, liturgically, spiritually, or probably most importantly, musically. One cannot take a famous carol and set it in the style of late-sixties Penderecki and expect it to be taken seriously—a certain traditionalism is expected, and rightly so; people want to understand and believe that at least once a year they can count on the things that have deep and intrinsic meaning to them without having to bow to the contrary gods of experimentation and exploration. So while certain pieces can stray from the established canonical preferences in terms of style and substance, and sometimes even expanding the canon, the essential spirit of the season must be maintained. Over the years I have heard, especially in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast every year from our ancestral shores, certain music that seems to intentionally set out to provoke instead of edify, but rarely are these works repeated year to year. It’s almost as if shock value is heaved into the congregations (or to your speakers) just to surprise and/or irritate, but at least in church you can know that next year this year’s travesty won’t be repeated, but a recording goes on forever.
In this spirit I have to comment on the present disc, full of fabulous singing and glorious acoustics, but not as enthralling as I had hoped. We get a lot of goodies, like the “O Antiphons” sung before the Magnificat at vespers, each commenting on a facet of Christ, and a number of standards or semi-standards that are certainly not out of place (though the inclusion of the Bogoroditsu Dyevo, “Rejoice O Virgin” is not specifically advental, that particular season of Eastern Orthodoxy known as St. Philip’s Fast or the Nativity Fast and not corresponding to the four Sundays of Advent in the Western Church , and which is sung at almost every Vespers throughout the year), like Bach, Byrd, Sheppard, and Mendelssohn. But why poison the Praetorious Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen with an arrangement that makes it sound like space music and adds nothing to the hymn? (Shame on you Jan Sandstrom, the arranger.) The Howells works fit, and nicely, though I think a lot of listeners will be taken back by how modern this guy could sound when he put his mind to it—A Spotless Rose these aren’t. And while I realize it’s an extremely subjective opinion, the Ross and Williams works seem to me grating and wholly out-of-character with the Nativity season.
I understand the need to be different when making an album of this type, and I commend the Clare folks for giving it that old college try—they certainly sing their hearts out magnificently, and I will listen to this again I am sure. But it’s far from my favorite release of recent years even though the inclusion of the Antiphons make for a very pleasant and even ingratiating experience. Beautifully sung, but approach with caution, and try to listen before you buy. Maybe I am just being a Scrooge.TrackList:
Bach, J S: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV436
Byrd: Vigilate (from Cantiones sacrae 1589)
Howells: The fear of the Lord; Magnificat (Gloucester, 1946) Mendelssohn: Say, where is he born, the King of Judaea Praetorius, M: Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen Rachmaninov: Bogorodice Devo Ross, Graham: I sing of a maiden Ross, Guy: O Come, O come, Emmanuel Rutter: Hymn to the Creator of Light Sheppard, J: Audivi vocem de caelo Tavener: God is With Us (A Christmas Proclamation) Warlock: Bethlehem Down Williams, Roderick: O Adonai “O” Antiphons: Antiphon I: O Sapientia Antiphon II: O Adonaï Antiphon III: O Radix Jesse Antiphon IV: O Clavis David Antiphon V: O Oriens Antiphon VI: O Rex Gentium Antiphon VII: O Emmanuel Antiphon VIII: O Virgo virginum
—above reviews by Steven Ritter
(Caleb Hudson – trumpet; Chris Coletti – trumpet; Eric Reed – horn; Achilles Liarmakopoulos; Chuck Daellenbach – tuba; Bill Cahn – percussion)
Growing up in the early fifties in a small community in Northwestern Quebec hundreds of miles from Montreal, Christmas was always a very special time of year. When the big day came around, snow had been on the ground for weeks and was already piling up on the roads and streets. The temperature rarely rose above minus 10 during the day, and when walking, the snow squeaked underfoot it was so cold. Christmas carols were continuously played on the radio (TV had yet to arrive in our town) and so by the time the festive season was over, the words and tunes of the seasonal music had become very familiar. The Canadian Brass has brought back the richness and remembrances of the season with their release Christmas Time Is Here.
For the un-initiated, the Canadian Brass is, as might be expected, a Canadian quintet of internationally acclaimed musicians whose eclectic repertoire includes many musical genres from Renaissance to Baroque to classical to popular to jazz with the intention of making all their music easily accessible. So it is no surprise that their current Christmas offering provides to framework to deliver these well-known compositions with the group’s usual charm and panache. The construct took advantage of the most popular compositions written for the animated specials created for the holidays such as A Charlie Brown Christmas and starts off with a couple of Vince Guaraldi’s tunes “Christmas Is Coming” and then segues into “Skating”. As is the case with most Canadian Brass recordings they have developed such a chemistry and harmonic styling that the five brass instruments get the most of their range and voicings.
With a nod to their classical underpinnings, the group offers Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and Mendelssohn’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that showcases their intricacy and command of the music. No album of seasonal music would be complete without a performance of Mel Tormé’s standard “The Christmas Song” and it is lovingly rendered here with an arrangement by Luther Henderson. Novelty tunes always seem to crop up around the holiday time and the group takes three of them, “Rudolf The Red- Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty The Snowman”, and ”You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and offers them in a manner fitting for the season. A little sentimentality is never out of place during the Christmas season and the Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane tune “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” fits the mold. Written for the 1944 musical motion picture Meet Me In St. Louis, it was introduced by Judy Garland and adopted by the troops overseas as a reminder of what was happening on the home front. The version offered by the Canadian Brass avoids the pathos but remains faithful to the composers’ intentions.
This album is a delightful little present to put under the Christmas tree.
Track List: Christmas Is Coming; Skating; O Tannenbaum; What Child Is This; My Little Drum; Christmas Time Is Here; Bach’s Bells; Skating; Für Elise; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; The Angel Choir And The Trumpeter; The Christmas Song; I Saw Three Ships; Rudolph The Red- Nosed Reindeer; Frosty The Snowman; You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Christmas Is Coming
(Joshua Bell – violin; Mick Rossi – harmonium; Michael Aarons, Oren Fader, Romero Lubambo, Anthony Michael Peterson – guitar; Grace Paradise – harp; Larisa Martinez, Xavier Mili – backing vocals; Francisco Nuñez – chorus master; Ted Ackerman, Jeremy Turner – cello; Thomas Bartlett, Billy Childs, Tedd Firth, Sam Haywood – piano; William Holhouser – accordion; Frank McComb – Hammond B3 organ, piano; Jorge Gomez – keys; Leandro Gonzalez – congas; Francis Grier – organ; Scott Colley, Kate Davis, Chris Lightcap, Wilvi Rodriguez, Christian Sharp – bass; Israel Morales Figueroa, Shawn Pelton, Orlandus Perry – drums; Alison Krauss – vocals (track 1); Julian Lage – guitar (track 2); Rob Moose – nylon string guitar, tenor guitar (track 2); Frankie Moreno – piano, vocals (track 3); Chick Corea – piano (track 4); Straight No Chaser – vocals (track 5); Branford Marsalis – tenor saxophone (track 6); Kristin Chenowith – vocals (track 7); Steven Isserlis – cello (tracks 8, 12); Renée Fleming – soprano vocals (track 9); Chris Botti – trumpet (track 10); Plácido Domingo – vocals (track 11); Michael Feinstein – vocals (track 13); Gloria Estefan – vocals (track 14); Aleksey Igudesman – violin (track 15); Hyung-Ki Joo – piano (track 15); The Young People’s Chorus of New York City – vocals (track 16))
Famed violinist Joshua Bell follows up his star-studded 2009 CD, At Home with Friends, with Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends, a holiday album which supports the same concept: a bevy of colleagues and artists gathered together, this time to lend talents to end-of-year musical festivities. The 16-track, 67-minute outing showcases jazz (Chick Corea, Julian Lage, Branford Marsalis), classical (Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo), crossover (Chris Botti), country (Alison Krauss), stage (Michael Feinstein, Kristin Chenowith), plus much more. Bell’s varied repertoire runs from perennial favorites (“Let It Snow” and “White Christmas”) to Jewish music (“Baal Shem: Simchat Torah”), and from traditional (“Greensleeves” and “Ave Maria”) to parody (the enticing and fun “Christmas Confusion”). Thus, the program offers plenty of diversity, which helps maintain interest and provides both continuity and a wider scope than similar wintertime records.
Krauss and Bell open with an exquisite “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which highlights Krauss’ stunning intonation and platinum-tinged voice, pitch-perfect and full of clarity: her voice is accentuated by Bell’s crystal-clear violin. Another female vocalist who also brings superb vocals is versatile soprano Renée Fleming. Her voice could melt stocking stuffer chocolates during her rendition of “I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas.” Chenowith (who was also on At Home with Friends) shines on a harp and violin-tinted translation of “O Holy Night,” which melds church and classical structures: she takes the middle range while Bell soars higher on violin. The final female singer is Gloria Estefan. She generates a Latin timbre on “A Christmas Auld Lang Syne,” aided by Bell and Cuban-American band Tiempo Libre. There’s a dash of cha-cha-cha mixed with the seasonal seasoning, and Estefan affords a fine vocal accord to this amity-rendered song.
The merger of jazz and holiday music goes back a long way, so it is no surprise to find Corea on a relatively straightforward version of “Greensleeves,” which has a bit of swing but mostly does not stray far from the tune’s traditional roots: the acoustic piano and violin duet is wonderful. Tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis has the honors on a slightly soulful turn through “Amazing Grace,” where violin and sax solo separately and then come together at the conclusion. Guitars and violin are at the forefront of a fresh arrangement of “Let It Snow,” which begins with a gypsy music stance (emphasized by accordion and Rob Moose’s nylon string guitar), then swerves into 1930s-styled swing when guitarist Lage and Bell take the center spot: this twin-guitar/violin piece is a highpoint.
Bell’s humor comes to the foreground on the comically-conflicted cut, “Christmas Confusion,” which includes fellow violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-Ki Joo. The trio blends both Jewish and Christmas music, cleverly juxtaposing “Silent Night” with “Jingle Bells,” “Hava Naglia” and even “The Driedel Song.” This kind of auditory parody bestows mirth and merriment in delicious dollops. Bell goes deeper into Jewish inspiration with Ernest Bloch’s “Baal Shem: Simchat Torah (Rejoicing),” which has a convincing classical crossover contour due to doubled strings (Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis) and pianist Sam Heywood. The cello adds prominent textures to the arrangement. A mood of merrymaking similar to “Christmas Confusion” encompasses “Nutcracker Medley,” with notable vocal acrobatics from a cappela group Straight No Chaser, who craft a virtual orchestra with voices.
There’s more to discover and delight in. Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends is one of the few December-inclined releases which can be listened to more than once, with sonic touches and musical nuances which are noticed on subsequent spins. The engineering and mix are also great, with weight furnished equally and eloquently to strings, voices, piano, and other frontline instruments, with gentler characteristics given to the supporting cast of accordion, harp, organ, percussion and so on.
TrackList: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Let It Snow; I’ll Be Home for Christmas; Greensleeves; Nutcracker Medley; Amazing Grace; O Holy Night; Fauré: Ave Maria; I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas; White Christmas; O Tannenbaum; Baal Shem: Simchat Torah (Rejoicing); The Secret of Christmas; Christmas Auld Lang Syne; Christmas Confusion; Silent Night.
This one is a bit confusing, because there is a second CD on the Arabesque label also from Funaro with the same title but a different cover. The 26 tracks seem to be the same, but they are in a different order. This a rather straightforward keyboard presentation of these carols, without the special arrangements and added instruments of so many of the more pop-oriented Christmas discs. The music for Christmas comes from three 18th century French composers and from three contemporary composers. Funaro did some of her own arrangements at the harpsichord but most of the carols are delivered in a rather unadorned style.
The program of many selections opens with two carols by Jean-Francois Dandrieu and one by Claude Balbastre. Then there are 11 carols arranged by Edwin McLean and titled “A Baroque Christmas.” After this comes a three-movement sonata by Stephen Yates which interweaves classical harpsichord pieces with Christmas carols. Then after another Dandrieu carol which evokes the chiming of bells, and two by Louis-Claude Dequin, comes the closing six “Keyboard Carols” arranged by keyboardist Jackson Berkey of Mannheim Steamroller fame. They are bit more modern-sounding and less Baroque in their makeup.
There is a photo included in the cardstock CD-alternate folder of the beautifully-painted harpsichord (wish mine looked like that) and the sonics are rich and warm-sounding, not a bit clangy.
Strangely, there appears not to be a listing of the members of this trio anywhere on the CD. They are John Eaken, violin; Andrew Rammon, cello; and Gloria Whitney, piano. (I had to get that off one of their earlier CDs.) This is their 27th year together and they have performed all over the world and have recorded a dozen commercial CDs. Pianist Mike Garson—who has worked with David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails among others—did nearly all of the arrangements here. They are specifically designed for the trio and not just unusual arrangements of Christmas favorites. There are 16 tracks and each one sort of leads into the next. The technical particular of the CD are listed on the jewelbox, though it doesn’t say what the recording medium was. Anyway, both performances and sonics are exemplary.
- Away in a Manger
- It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year
- Jingle Bells
- What Child is This
- Joy to the World
- Silent Night
- The Snow
- I Have a Little Dreidel
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas
- L’adorazione dei Magi
- O Holy Night
- Home for Christmas
- Avi Hidlik
- Avinu Malkeinu
- Good King Wenceslas
- Auld Lang Syne
(Darmon Meader – tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, vocal/orchestral arrangements; Kim Nazarian – vocals; Lauren Kinham – vocals; Peter Eldridge – vocals; Bob Mann – guitar; Ben Wittman – drums, percussion; Roger Rosenberg – baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Frank Greene – trumpet; Matt Holman – trumpet; Andy Ezrin – piano; Paul Nowinski – bass; Marcello Pellitteri – drums; David Finck – bass; Tyler Kuebler – alto saxophone; Tedd Baker – tenor saxophone; Doug Morgan – baritone saxophone; Brian McDonald – trumpet; Kevin Burns – trumpet; Rich Sigler – trumpet; Tim Leahey – trumpet; Joe Jackson – trombone; Jim McFalls – trombone; Dave Perkel – trombone; Lee Gause – trombone Jorge Calandrelli – orchestration; Pat Hollenbeck – orchestration; Michele Weir – arrangement, orchestration; and featuring a studio orchestra)
New York Voices has incorporated traditional holiday compositions into the stylized jazz vocals that have made the group a critical success around the world. Opening the festivities is a swing version of “Let It Snow”. The blended four voices sing, scat and respond to chord and tempo changes fluently. Meador contributes a solo on tenor changing the vibe, a lush arrangement of two beloved classics (“Christmas Song”/”Christmas Time”) is mellow and full of rich tones. The transition between songs is flawless and captures the tender resonance. Vocal arrangements represent the strength of New York Voices. This is evident on the exquisite a capella version of “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas”.
The group is intrepid in stretching their boundaries. “Sleepers Wake!” combines stringed classical orchestral flourishes in counterpoint to their harmonies. Additionally the folk rhythms of “We Three Kings” are uplifting and merge convention with jazz singing. But at the heart of the music is the association with jazz structure. “I Wonder As I Wonder” is inspired big band jazz with an enhanced horn and reed accompaniment. Andy Ezrin executes a deft piano solo. Swinging in waltz time, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” is joyful with finger-snapping cool. The four singers interact as well as any instrumentalists. Despite the polished sound, there is a reverence for Christmas. The finale is a dulcet, meditative cover of “Silent Night”. Utilizing only voices (including a verse in German), the graceful spirit of the holiday is preserved in a shimmering musical tribute.
Let It Snow is a welcome addition to any Christmas collection.
TrackList: Let It Snow; Christmas Song/Christmas Time; O, Little Town Of Bethlehem; O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; We Three Kings; Holiday For Strings; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Sleepers, Wake!; O Come, All Ye Faithful; The Merry Medley; I Wonder As I Wander; We Wish You a Merry Christmas
The latest CD from the brass sextet features arrangements of Christmas music from two of the brightest people in music today: Carla Bley and Jack Walrath. That makes this a holiday offering with a difference. Some music greats are given a bow in the arrangements, namely Dave Brubeck, Handel, Respighi, Mel Torme and Monk. One of the group’s past albums was a jazz/world/classical mix (Daniel Schnyder’s Euphoria), so the mixing of various sorts of genres in this new CD is nothing new to them. The makeup of the group is two trumpets, both a standard trombone and a bass trombone, and two French horns. The album cover art is also very nice.
TrackList: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, A Merrier Christmas, Stuffy Turkey, Siciliana (Respighi), The Christmas Song, O Tannenbaum, Jingle Bells, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, ‘Lil Drummer Dude, Joy to the World.
(Ted Rosenthal, piano; Noriko Ueda, doublebass; Tim Horner, drums)
While it’s a rather typical jazz piano trio disc, this one stands out as a very enjoyable holiday offering. The first track, “Winter Wonderland,” is loose and swings, giving one a good idea of what the rest of the 11 tracks will be like. This go-round is strictly instrumental, and pianist Rosenthal has some clever ideas on some of these very familiar tunes, some of which have been done in jazz style before by such people as Bill Evans and Mel Tormé. In fact Tormé’s “Christmas Song” leads right into the “Dance of the Reed Flutes” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The trio has a terrific interaction; this doesn’t sound like musicians just thrown together to turn out another Christmas CD. Even “Silent Night” gets a respectful yet somewhat swinging treatment.
TrackList: Winter Wonderland; Silent Night; Angels We Have Heard On High; The Christmas Song; Dance of the Reed Flutes; Greensleeves; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Sleigh Ride; Let It Snow; Snowscape.
(Tim Warfield, tenor & soprano sax; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Stefon Harris, vibes; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Rodney Witaker, bass; Clarence Penn, drums; Daniel Sadownick percussion; guests: Neil Podgurski, piano; Joanna Pascale & Jamie Davis, vocals)
Look at that list of performers. Obviously, this is not your usual hastily-assembled holiday CD. Tim Warfield has been part of George Wein’s Jazz Futures, made many stage and TV appearances, and in the ‘90s was part of Christian McBride’s group. He currently teaches at two schools in Pennsylvania and the New York Times selected his 2010 album A Sentimental Journey as a “Critic’s Choice.”
All but two of the arrangements of the ten tunes are by Warfield himself. Although he started with very familiar holiday numbers, he was called on more to perform at holiday events and broadened out into things such as Claude Thornhill’s wonderful “Snowfall,” and even ends the album with his arrangement of a Hanukkah song. One of his reviews of a stage appearance said “he puts on one heck of a Christmas Show.” And that’s pretty much what this CD is. Four of the tracks feature vocalists, and on “God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen” Warfield really cuts loose on his tenor solo. But that doesn’t mean some of the other tracks are not hard-driving jazz, which they are.
TrackList: Santa Clause is Coming to Town; Let it Snow; Joy to the World; Little Drummer Boy; Caroling Caroling; Oh Christmas Tree; Silent Night; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Snowfall; The Dreidel Song.
I expected this CD to be just the usual jazz vocalist turning out an expected holiday album, but it’s much more than that. Nnenna Freelon says she got a strong feeling for Christmas from her mother, and the holidays have always be a time of church and family for her. She made her career on looking at the standard tunes from a non-traditional point of view, and she does the same with this ten-track Christmas CD.
Freelon worked closely with bassist and bandleader John Brown to present new takes on these traditional holiday songs. He even joins her in a duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The very first track, “Swingle Jingle Bells,” shows you that this is going to be a rather different jazzy holiday album. The dashing arrangement was by the late Frank Foster, who passed away during the album’s production. The second track is a spiritual medley, mixing “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Joy to the World,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The fourth track is totally unexpected: Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise,” which Freelon makes into a lovely tribute to the dawn of Christmas Day. She also puts a new spin on “Silent Night.” She is also proud that the CD was a North Carolina-born and bred experience. (It was recorded in a studio there.)
TrackList: Swingle Jingle Bells; Spiritual Medley, Let It Snow, I Like the Sunrise; Christmas Time is Here, Silent Night, Little Drummer Boy, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I’ll Be Home for Christmas
(Tianna Hall, vocals; Chris Cortez, guitar & vocals; Anthony Sapp, bass; Paul English, piano; Tom Cummings, vibes & drums; Dennis Dotson, trumpet; Woody Witt, teno sax & clarinet; Warren Sneed, alto sax & flute; Thomas Hultén, trombone & bass trombone; guests: Joel Fulgham and Memo Reza, drums)
Chris Cortez is the CEO of this small record label based in Houston and he saw a Christmas cD as a good way to feature several of his label’s stars in one album. Most of the charts were done by Mark Piszczek, who has collaborated with the label before. But three of the arrangements are by Cortez. The nine tracks are a mixture of sacred and secular holiday music.
Very professionally done, but I felt Tianna Hall didn’t quite reign in enough of her sexy approach used in her standard repertory for this Christmas album. Nnenna Freelon knows how to do this very well, but I’m afraid Hall doesn’t quite have the hang of it.
TrackList:1.The Angels 2.Medley: A Child Is Born – Christmastime Is Here 3.Santa Claus Is Coming To Town 4.The Christmas Song 5.We Three Kings 6.God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen 7.Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel 8.Santa Baby 9.What Are You Doing New Years Eve?
—above reviews by John Henry