By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Stuff Your Stocking
EMI-Capitol Music Catalog Marketing Group
You know all these beloved Christmas favorites--Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," Billy Idol's "White Wedding," Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It"--but apparently EMI-Capitol wants you to hear them (and seven other equally worn hits) again. Though bearing the gift-tainting warning "Not For Sale, promotional CD," this stocking bullstuffer is--suspiciously--available for a penny each at the checkout counters of most area Blockbuster Music stores, so why not? Then again, why?
Unlike much of the lite-jazz flotsam out there--artists who happen to be playing an instrument found in jazz bands--pianist Cyrus Chestnut has the understanding of structure and rhythm and the improvisational chops of a real player; he's worked with artists as diverse as Betty Carter and Wynton Marsalis, and it shows. On Blessed Quietness he takes not only Christmas songs but the hymns and spirituals he grew up with in Baltimore and forges--with only his piano--a contemplative summation not only of the season but also of the entire Christian experience. Thus, we have not only the expected "Silent Night" and "The First Noël," but also "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Walk With Me Jesus," all delivered with great subtlety, feeling, and nuance and seeming more of whole than you might at first think. Quiet and introspective, the music doesn't shirk from innovation and personal interpretation--check out the swingingly triumphant "Amazing Grace," or the Hoagy Carmichael-esque detour in the middle of "Jesus Loves Me." Highly recommended.
Boney's Funky Christmas
Warner Brothers Records
On this album saxman Boney James--another bloodless, lightweight pretender in the mold of Kenny G and David Koz--does to Christmas music what he and his ilk have been doing to jazz and R&B for years: polishing away any semblance of character or spark and replacing that with an unchallenging, elevator-ready smoothness. This collection of standards like "The Christmas Song" and "Jingle Bells" will slide effortlessly out of your stereo--you probably won't notice that it's on--but words like "unobtrusive," "easy," and "routine" are welcome when describing, say, colonic irrigation, and much less so when applied to music.
A Dave Brubeck Christmas
A Dave Brubeck Christmas
The opening "Jingle Bells" packs some wallop, but overall A Dave Brubeck Christmas features 14 solo piano renditions of the mostly innocuous seasonal standards usually associated with shopping music. Too moody for Toys R Us, but just right for upscale stores like FAO Schwartz or Stanley Korshak, Brubeck--the maestro most responsible for melding jazz and classical music--doesn't take these old reliables too far out of orbit. When he does get provocative (dig "Greensleeves" or "O Tannenbaum")--changing to minor keys and such--he quickly brings them back within reach of, say, the old Lawrence Welk audience (and Welk's show did, truth be told, feature stellar musicianship). Brubeck's first-ever solo piano Christmas album may complement the tender moments around your family hearth; it's definitely better than Liberace.
--Josh Alan Friedman
Spirit of the Carols
Telarc Jazz Zone
Finally, amid a lot of pause and pretension, somebody finds the "sweet spot" of the season. An impromptu recording session staged with a friend--recording favorite songs of the holiday for his aunt--led plectrist Rotella to consider recording a bonafide Christmas album; Spirit is the result. Rotella plays guitars (steel and nylon string as well as electric) and mandolin on this expertly nuanced offering; unlike many more commercial efforts--usually recorded in the middle of the year--Rotella recorded this album last year, during the season, and it shows in the feeling he imparts to his renditions. His instrumentals--bolstered in spots by a guest vocalist--put "extra" in front of the most ordinary numbers. An unusually sensitive and evocative work, delicate in its accomplishment.
Thanks to the Special Olympics International organization, which gathered all these diverse musicians from all over the world, World Christmas can be enjoyed year round. It is hard to decide which one of these big world-music names gives the most joyous interpretation of these (mostly) traditional songs. The standouts are Bob Berg, Jim Beard and Arto Tuncboyacyan ("We Three Kings," given an afro-pop treatment); South American vocalist Cesaria Evora (the latin rhythms of "Natal"); Gilberto Gil and Gaetano Veloso with Eliane Elias (the bossa nova "Boas Festas"); Mino Cinelu and Diane Reeves (a twisted arrangement of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"); as well as more familar artists like John Scofield, the Wild Colonials, and the Gipsy Kings. The proceeds of this album will benefit the Special Olympics, and the fine music therein goes to your permanent beneficiary: you.
Blame It On Christmas!
Subtitled "17 Weird Yuletide Classics From Around the World," Blame It On Christmas purports to be for people whose reaction to Christmas music is "want(ing) to barf." While at first blush this idea could seem pretty hateful, by Blame It's end the album's made a convincing argument--against all expectation--for a sense of humor. The liner notes pretend to all sorts of revisionist abominations--the lounge-y "That Swingin' Manger," by somebody whom the album calls "Bob Francis" ("the poor man's Frank Sinatra, Jr," who sings "Now the cows go moo-moo/they woke up the kid/but that little trouper/never flipped his lid"), or "The Inexcelsis Polka," done by a putatively obscure band from the shipyard town of Gdansk, Poland--and each one of them seems just too perfect to be true. "Uh, no," said Fred Reif of Schoolkids' Records, a bit surprised at being asked if he really expected us to believe that "El Pocito Pueblo de Bethlehem" was recorded by Mexico's favorite mariachi, Felize Navidad. Reif went on to explain--in the same tone one would use with a particularly dull child--that the album was the idea of "two ad guys from L.A." who put the whole thing together using studio musicians. The album's tone and texture vary attractively ("Joy to the 3rd World," "12 Arabian Nights," "The Li'l Endless Summer Boy") once you're sure that Schoolkids' isn't trying to pull a fast one; the sensibility is really entertaining and actually connective, perfect for diluting all the sweetness and light found on most Christmas offerings.