A Gift From The Internet: Free Holiday Music
Holiday music, both free and commercial, is one of the easiest to find from multitudes of online sources, offering a chance to relax rather than shop the day after Thanksgiving or obtain a quick gift at literally the last second. Offerings also go well beyond worn-out retail store concepts such as the latest "Very Special Christmas" collection and - perhaps not surprisingly for a season emphasizing charity - freebies tend to be more prevalent than other music genres.
Below are capsule reviews of a variety of jazz-oriented holiday albums available as free MP3s. Note that many paid sites offer one or more songs as free samples and some may even allow live streaming of entire albums. Nearly all of the reviews here are by lesser-known artists or albums with some kind of unique element, and represent only a small fraction of what a crafty surfer can find (a few search tips are part of the first review).
The listings begin with some favorite sites offering free downloads (detailed in other articles about music downloads elsewhere on this site), followed by some noteworthy individual music. Many of the latter also offer unusual features or bonuses such as printable scores or "music minus one" accompaniment versions for musicians.
These are ideal for anyone who treats the word Google as a verb.
Hundreds of jazz performances by lesser-known but talented artists are free at these sites, but require a bit of clever searching on the user's part. A search for "Christmas" under song titles returns a number of results, for example, but using phrases such as "Santa" and "Silent Night" turned up many more missed the first time. Also useful are mixing words such as countries, instruments and holiday terms. Avoid using "holiday," since results will be dominated by links to singer Billie Holiday
As with many collective sites, jazz makes up a small portion of the overall collections - instrumentals alone include everything from Baroque classics to over-the-top electronica. As for jazz offerings, most of it is on par with commercial discs and some ranks as solid upper echelon material.
There's literally something for everyone. Dean Krippaehne offers no-nonsense swing and slow blue treatments of several classics, with an even but somewhat less polished performance compared to megastars like Harry Connick Jr. Ryanhardt performs several smooth jazz pieces without being overly syrupy or inspired. Ed Shepp's "Dance Of The Sugarplum Beepner" is a zany bit of electronic madness (think everything from samples to touch-tone phone sounds), but a better-quality listen than a scattering other such ditties found on the Net. Two Harps - exactly that - is a bit sharp and mechanical, but they offer an album's worth of free listening with nearly 20 songs.
Many of the songs are found at more than one of the above sites, each of which has its unique offerings and features. Amazon, for example, offers dozens of uncredited "generic" solo piano renditions of classics, which can easily substitute for those bargain-bin "best-of" CDs in stores.
Newspapers are increasingly offering free downloads by local artists and The Washington Post's remains one of the best. This year a dedicated holiday page listed 24 songs as of Thanksgiving Day by various performers, about half of which could be categorized as jazz. In addition, numerous songs from previous years are easily located with a few clicks on links to the artists and other site locations.
The songs are equal to or better than most compilation discs in stores, thanks largely to a diverse group of artists often unfettered by large-scale commercial success who are willing to go beyond normal boundaries.
Those who recoil when yet another Glen Miller Orchestra standard airs on the radio will find their thinking taking a definite turn for the better on the modernistic "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by saxophonist James Bazen's big band. Vocalist Meg Murray has a lilting touch and excellent interaction with her accompanists on "Mistletoe And Holly." Those looking for something soothing but different will appreciate Maggie Sanson's solo performance of the 14th-century German composition on hammered- dulcimer.
Straying farther from the envelope is the 180-person a cappella Washington Chorus, which puts a humorous spin on a certain well-known carol with "One Horse Open Sleigh." Jewish listeners can listen to a traditional blend of Klezmer, rock guitar, ska and hip-hop on The Velveteens' "Get Your Chanukah On." Those ready for a break from jazz can always unwind with some redneck country on "Christmas In Jail" and take pity on the jolly one's low-carb struggles on "Thin Santa Blues."