By Faith Frenz
Winter celebrations are upon us. And aren’t we all digging deeply into our saved treasures, surrounding ourselves with the holiday memories tucked away in our homes and our hearts, enriching and sharing the love and warmth we all need and crave?
As always, holiday time is arriving in the darkest of days and the wonder of the full moon. Time to think about who we are, our heritage, our spiritual beliefs, our loved ones here and gone. Time to rejoice in that spirit, and share in the wonder of the gift of life which is all too transient.
For me, Christmas is redolent with fragrant memories: The search to find the perfect fir tree on a snowy evening. The incomparable transcendence of singing the Messiah in a choir. The poignant remembrance of sitting at the piano next to my grandfather, Peter Frenz, while he taught me to sing “Silent Night” in his native language… “Stille Nacht.”
Music and fragrance hold those memories for us all, which is why I want to share a few of my favorite holiday CDs — accumulated over the past few years, but all still readily available at Amazon and elsewhere.
The Canadian Tenors
The Perfect Gift (Decca 2010)
Currently on tour before sold out audiences, the ravishing sound of the voices of the four Canadian Tenors — each uniquely different – is an intensely emotional experience to hear. On this year old holiday CD, they bring their exceptional blend of vocal talent to songs of worship and inspiration. One of the most moving songs is “Instrument of Peace”, a Christian prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi, and not often heard.
All the songs are supported by lush orchestrations with choral backgrounds, and it’s almost impossible to select any one of the selections as more outstanding than the others. But I do have my personal favorites: “O Holy Night”,” Silent Night”, “Ave Maria” , “Oviens Emmanuel.” And, especially, a really memorable melody, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” My advice is this — do not just buy one or two Mp3s of this CD. The album needs to be experienced in its entirety.
December (Columbia 2006)
First recorded in 2002, December was reissued in 2006. And now, almost a decade after its initial release, it has become a classic. Botti is that rarity — a trumpet player who plays his instrument as a vocal expression, as though he were singing through his horn. And it’s not surprising that he is the number one selling jazz instrumentalist, continually touring the world, his albums produced by veteran hit-maker Bobby Colomby, his trumpet featured on several widely seen PBS fund-raising specials.
The album is chockful of classic Christmas carols along with a few popular holiday tunes. Among the highlights: rich, emotional renderings of “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night,” recorded in London. And, here, as well as on the Canadian Tenors’ CD, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which — played without the original words, in Botti’s expressive style — perfectly suits the season
Christmas Songs (Verve 2005)
Diana Krall, aided by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, takes the opportunity to display her diverse talents with this collection of holiday golden oldies, done with a jazz twist. The result is a program of familiar items overflowing with playfulness, sentiment, and humor. From the stirring, Clayton-Hamilton big band textures (“Let It Snow”), to lush orchestral sounds (“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas”), to Krall’s familiar small, swinging group backing (“White Christmas”). Add to that her lovely interpretation of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” and “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas,” in touching versions arranged and produced by Johnny Mandel.
Christmas Songs concludes with a moving rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings, Instead Of Sheep.” It’s not a traditional holiday song, but how appropriate it is — not just for the holiday season, but for every season. A charming personal footnote to this very special album.
If On a Winter’s Night (Deutsche Grammophon 2009)
The album notes call this “a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries.”
It was introduced with this video in 2009 and utterly captivated me.
And with good reason. Take a look:
When I received the CD, I listened to it every day for at least a month. The journey is drawn from traditional music of the British Isles, and the music was performed and recorded on Sting’s estate in Tuscany. Although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure there are those, like me, who will love the gentle, traditional folk style medieval madrigals, played on authentic string instruments such as the lute and harp. For those individuals I say take the journey. It’s mesmerizing.
Apparently many others have had similar reactions. In 2010, If On A Winter’s Night won the award for best music at the “Time for Peace” humanitarian film and music awards in Paris.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Heads Up 2010)
An irresistibly happy and bouncy collection of holiday songs by this award-winning a capella group Take 6 is a collection of amazing singers who combine jazz, gospel, r&b and doo-wop into a truly unique sound. “Sugarplum Dance” from The Nutcracker, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from Dr Seuss, and “I Saw Three Ships” stand out for their unique interpretations of familiar holiday music.
But the simple truth is that virtually every piece, traditional or otherwise, becomes something new and special when Take 6 take the song – and you — for a musical ride.
Yo-Yo Ma & Friends
Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical 2008)
Any musical event featuring Yo -Yo Ma is a treasure, since his classical roots and joyful spirit shine through everything he touches. The intentions of this production, which was a TV show in 2008, are stated here: “Imagine a musical party inspired by the holiday season. A party that celebrates the universal hopes, dreams and joy animating seasonal festivals the world over That is what brought Yo-Yo Ma together with a remarkable group of friends – some new, some old – to create Songs of Joy & Peace. ”
The recording is star-studded with musical vignettes from the Brubecks, the Assad family, Chris Botti, Diana Krall, James Taylor, Joshua Redman, the Silk Road Ensemble, and many more. Despite the eclectic variety and lack of continuity between the numbers, the cello of Yo-Yo Ma is the glue that brings cohesion to this ambitious event packed with such diverse talent.
My personal favorites are a few gems: James Taylor’s sweet version of “Here Comes the Sun,” the gorgeous duets with Chris Botti on “My Favorite Things”,and “Old Land Syne,” and the Lennon/Ono song “Happy Xmas”, performed by Jake Shimabukuro on the ukulele There are many more, but you’ll need to hear the album at close contact to choose yours.