By Brian Arsenault
Tis the season, as they say, and there’s music aplenty for those who celebrate Christmas. It’s just a matter of how you likes yours served.
Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship
Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey (Willis I Music)
Some of the greatest art of ages past and sometimes present has been faith based — much classical music, once nearly all painting and sculpture. That sometimes makes us uncomfortable to discuss or even mention in this secular age but it’s true enough. There have also been more than a few great jazz artists who were strong in their faith. That maybe also makes us just a little leery to say, but it’s true enough as well.
This wonderful jazz album seems strongly Christian in the best sense of love for humankind and gratefulness for life and salvation. But it is no less accomplished jazz for that. From Will Scruggs’ sax work to Brian Hogan’s fine piano to the rhythm section of Tommy Sauter and Marlon Patton, this recording is as complex and pleasing as it is deeply felt.
The musicianship is superb. The Angel Gabriel arrives with a fanfare to shake the knees of all us sinners on “The Annunciation,” and the “Song of Mary” shows why she is the favorite of so many of the faithful, including a recent Pope or two.
But all is not imposing here. The album’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is as joyous as the title shout out. “Go Down Moses” rings of its African American origins and Dixieland playing. (Interestingly, here and elsewhere we are presented in the album’s booklet with the lyrics to all songs, but the recording is all instrumental.)
If you never thought “We Three Kings” was a fine jazz composition, you will change your mind. And if you haven’t felt the elevated state of these musicians at their work before we get there, you can’t miss it on the closing “Joy to the World.” Particularly when the terrific horn ensemble kicks in to fortify the core quintet.
As the story goes, God promised Simeon he would see the Savior before he died. I can only promise you really, really good jazz.
Jason Paul Curtis (with Swinglab and Swing Machine)
Lovers Holiday (Jason Paul Curtis)
If you prefer your Christmas music a bit more mainstream, but think we need a few new Christmas songs, Lovers Holiday” may be for you.
In fact, the true Christmas songs are largely Curtis compositions: “Our Time of Year,“ “Lovers Holiday,” “Good This Year.”
Some of the standards on the album — “Let it Snow,” Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” are “winter” tunes but not truly Christmas songs. But they work.
Sometimes the sound is jazz quartet — Swinglab. Other times it is big band backing a singer – Swing Machine. Think Doc Severinson.
It is always upbeat. It may remind you of your parents’ Christmas parties if you are over 40. Definitely if you are over 50.
Wintertime Tunes of Drew Paralic (CDBY)
This little album came out a while ago but its winter theme and vaguely Christmas sensibility makes it worth citing. Just six songs but an extremely tight bit of work.
Paralic plays piano but not here. Instead, he wrote, arranged and produced the CD. He says he prefers that because he started playing piano too late to be as masterful as Bill Evans. To which I say, who is?
His arranging skills need no apology “(On the Occasion of) Wet Snow” is so melodic that I can see snow falling in the woods behind my house. And I know something of snow.
Throughout the album, Mike McGinnis’ fine tenor sax (“Down in Soho”) and clarinet intermingles flawlessly with the piano work of James Newman and David Pearl. There are no loose ends or weak moments here. Just wish it had been longer.
A Very Special Christmas – 25 Years (Big Machine Records for the Special Olympics)
Finally, for those who like their Christmas albums big and bold and country tinged there is a chance to help the Special Olympics with A Very Special Christmas — 25 Years.
Train kicks the album off with a “Joy to the World” that will awaken any Christmas morning sleepyhead.
Michael Buble provides a rendition of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” that might have been Binged or Franked.
The country lineup, largely in the middle of the album, includes Rascal Flatts, Vice Gill, Martina McBride and Amy Grant. Some of us are thankful that there’s also a Cheap Trick reworking of “I Want You to Want Me” (“I Want You for Christmas”). And Dave Matthews Band chips in a live version of its uniquely Christmasy “Christmas Song.”
I kind of dreaded the approach of the last song on the album, “Oh Holy Night” by Christina Aguilera. Would she just murder it and make tenors throughout the world cry? Instead, she almost pulls it off, but in the middle gratuitously interjects a narration of The Lord’s Prayer and then ends with a Madonna funk-out including a chorus.
Maybe she thought she couldn’t manage the range and drama of the closing notes, but she was almost there. Oh well.
Merry Christmas to all.
To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.