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Hacking the Holidays: Obscure and Unusual Albums from Online Stores

By Published: December 2, 2004
After a while, even Bob Rivers' Twisted Christmas series doesn't seem novel any longer.

Holiday recordings are usually either safe albums designed to maximize annual sales to mainstream audiences or outlandish experiments designed to generate quick (if not lasting) sales through shock and/or wit. Finding quality artistry, or even stuff that's lousy because it misses an adventurous mark, is tough to do at Wal-Mart.

Which is why nearly all of my purchases this year are online. Especially since it's a lot cheaper.

I have nothing against classics. Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas and John Denver's A Christmas Together with the Muppets probably get the most playing time each December. But finding new and worthwhile albums seems like a worthwhile annual habit, and Jessica Simpson's hyperactive vocal calisthenics on Rejoyce isn't what I have in mind.

The Internet has been a huge blessing in recent years because nearly any song can be sampled in 30 seconds snippets, usually more than enough to determine the overall quality of a holiday album. Selection is also vastly superior. A collection of Croatian holiday carols by a guitarist there can be purchased for $10 and downloaded immediately with a few mouse clicks at his site. Sadly, the previews revealed it to be a rather tame set of smooth jazz interpretations (lest anyone accuse me of an anti- smooth jazz bias, I'll note I downloaded Russ Freeman's Holiday last year and consider it an above-average effort for the genre which gets an occasional play).

The following are some of the most interesting, if not always great, albums I've encountered surfing this year. Christmas albums are first, followed by some for other holidays like Chanukah and Kwanzaa. All but a couple can be downloaded immediately from online music stores like iTunes and eMusic (the others are mentioned because buying discs online directly from the source may be the only option). I've heartily recommended eMusic before and will do so again here, since newcomers can pay $20 and get 140 songs ( without copy protection) during their first month. That's enough to grab classics like Guaraldi and indulge in plenty of lesser-known material that may still prove entertaining decades from now.

Judith Kay
Not Your Usual Christmas Album

This is one of those rare gems that combines innovation and stellar performances in a collection suitable for background music or the undivided attention of listeners.

Vocalist Judith Kay's Not Your Usual Christmas Album features a combination of well- and lesser-known songs, backed by a piano/bass/bassoon/vibes quartet. Unlike numerous albums where jazz performers essentially lend their accent to traditional holiday fare, this is true jazz with the instrumentalists digging in with spice and flair.

Kay's vocals are low-key and somewhat less than virtuosic on what are mostly somber pieces, yet she warms listeners better than most with her clarity and passion - sort of like a Joni Mitchell-type singing political fare for a heartfelt cause.

"I Wonder As I Wander" is a slow, dark tale punctuated by Chuck Holdeman's almost weepy bassoon and pianist's Ron Thomas' simple yet chamber-like melodies on his lower keys. "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is a 1587 composition that progresses with hymn-like precision and minimalistic performances, which proves advantageous since the quality of the near-solo passages likely top any group harmonic effort. "Fum Fum Fum" and "Mary Had A Baby" are both bouncy tunes that inject a bit of life, with Kay's low-key singing keeping things in character even as her cohorts take advantage to liven up their contributions.

This ranks with Dianne Reeves' Christmas Time is Here as one of the best female vocalist Christmas albums I've encountered this year. That doesn't necessarily means it's the best holiday album - some other big-time contenders are near the end of this list.

Brent Lewis
Jungle Bells
Brent Lewis Productions

As the guys on SportsCenter say, this is just ridiculous.

Ethnic percussionist Brent Lewis' career features up and down work, but Jungle Bells is so strong in concept alone it's a near must-possess for any African drum fan, plus anyone who can fit serious grooving into their concept of holiday music. Lewis scores by sticking to a vital concept: All drums all the time by a talented trio of players, with none of the synths or other background textures that cloy lesser works of his selling in places like New Age bookstores. He claims this is the first drums-only holiday album, which I can't verify or refute here.

Lewis often emphasizes melodic phrases in his playing, so capturing the relatively easy and straightforward lyrics of Christmas songs comes across seamlessly. Most of the eight familiar songs are well-defined, but a few like "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" seem ill-at-ease in this format and are more difficult to follow.

He makes "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" sound like they were born to be played during harvest time, and of course he indulges in every percussionist's dream by playing around with embellishments on "The Little Drummer Boy." Embellishing is, in fact, mostly what he does throughout, but saying the Australian plays it close to vest in this setting is like claiming an Outback explorer is merely playing in his back yard.

The nonstop beats may tire some listeners, especially since most songs are similar in their pounding pace and interpretation. Lewis also could have left out most of the cymbals and all of the wind chimes, which detract from the African authenticity of his playing. The jury is still out on whether the non-stop sleigh bells on "Jingle Bells" is worth including as a seasonal touch - reaction from listeners will probably be mixed.

Alas, this is one of the few albums that can't be downloaded directly. Those interested can hear samples and purchase it directly from him at .

BSK Jazz Trio
Good Time Christmas

Here's an album for a younger generation of jazz listeners with enough staying power that they might actually be listening to it when they're not so young anymore.

Good Time Christmas by the BSK Jazz Trio is a relatively rare modernistic jazz holiday album that doesn't take refuge in the simplicity of its 10 well-known tunes, nor get so indulgent with interpretations they feel exploitive. Instead they keep to a recognizable framework in a variety of tasteful ways, with a fair amount of legitimate old- and new-school jazz chops offering meat for those looking for more than melodies.

The "trio" bit is misleading, since there's actually eight credited performers, including vocalists and sampling DJ Geoff Abramczyk. Straight-ahead, free jazz, hip-hop and contemporary elements are all present, often blended within the same songs. The opening "Carol Of The Bells" is a funk tune here, but pianist Craig Stevens' understated narration provides an ideal countervoice. Bassist Mirek Kocandrie stands out as a soloist on "Good King Wenceslas" and "Greensleeves/Silent Night."

A few songs run a bit too far into the contemporary fusion arena, such as a rather bouncy and lightweight "I Saw Three Ships" which feels out of character with the best selections, but even those generally top what shoppers get pummeled with at the mall. Some songs will definitely split listeners' opinions: "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" mixes some admittedly cute kids' hip-hop lyrics, a DJ- style funk track and some '60s sax freebasing into something that has shadows of either "A Love Supreme" (if you like it) or something really bad from Hip-Hop Holiday Hits Vol. 6 (if you don't).

Karen Stachel
And Of The Son
Purple Room Productions

This collection of mostly unaccompanied performances on jazz flute is holiday music at it's most minimalist, but proof mellow and simple doesn't have to mean lousy.

Karen Stache, a relatively unknown smooth jazz artist, chooses the wise path in And Of The Son by playing solo simply because there's fewer such albums and it therefore sounds fresher than a more mainstream approach. She isn't performing anything beyond the scope of any reasonably talented player, but listeners interested in such an album will find it meets their expectations.

Her approach involves embellishment rather than improvisation, again a wise choice to keep those listening with only half an ear while decorating the tree from getting too far astray. Sometimes a bit of complexity is introduced such as her overdubbing herself on "Carol Of The Bells," something of a necessity given that's composition's structure, but for the most part it's little different than if she was performing a recital from an acoustically convenient part of the living room.

Three songs from the album are available as a free download .

Tim Thompson
The Orchard

This solo acoustic guitar collection of 10 well-known pieces comforts like a fire on a cold day, although more in the sense of watching a glass-enclosed hearth from an easy chair instead of getting close and personal with the flames and smoke.

That suits many ideally, of course, making Tim Thompson's Christmas a fine choice as a soothing mood setter. The Nashville session player does a nice job of combining rhythm and embellished melodies, offering a consistent sense of accomplished playing without emphasizing it with extras.

He cites guitarists such as Joe Pass and Chet Atkins as influences, a reasonable comparison at least in terms of defining his style. Those wanting a preview of his album can download " We Three Kings ".

Christoph Spendel
Silent Night
Blue Flame

Christoph Spendel's Silent Night is a solid straight-ahead collection of traditional and German carols, but an online gift transforms the experience into the exceptional.

The longtime German pianist offers one free MP3 track from each of his 48 albums at his Web site (, featuring everything from solo to ensemble performances in traditional to fusion styles. One doesn't have to buy his holiday album to enjoy them, but it certainly ought to provide incentive for doing so.

The album features Spendel leading a trio through 13 selections with a Bud Powell-like thoughtfulness, demanding more from listeners than Guaraldi without overwhelming them. At times he'll also break out of the mold, such as switching to a rock/boogie-woogie cadence on "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

Bassist André Nendza and Kurt Billker shine with energetic performances that fuel even more life into the feel of Spendel's playing, throughout even though they spend relatively little time at center stage themselves. The mix of arrangements is well-chosen, blending familiar carols with those from his native country, keeping listeners tuned in without allowing them to get complacent.

There are better jazz holiday albums out there, but one has to work to find them - and in this case you can still listen to him after that dying tree has been dragged out of the house.

Freeway Philharmonic
Road To Joy
Sheffield Lab

Ever been to one of those "Everything's A Dollar" stores and wonder just how good those dusty obscure CDs can be?

If Road To Joy is any indication, maybe not as awful as one might expect. It's available as a download from eMusic and through some out-of-circulation music dealers, but also turns up as a $1 closeout at (but apparently must be ordered by phone). It's a lighthearted folk/fusion collection by a "not-so-traditional string based quartet (of) guitar, viola, Chapman Stick and 'drumcussion.'"

The playing is more accomplished than virtuosic - think home cooking verses four-star gourmet - and arrangements are fairly straightforward despite some renamed songs like "Little Drummer Girl." But while it might be more suitable for background mood-setting than attention-grabbing listening, it's good background music that ought to satisfy anyone into the likes of Bela Fleck.

Ida Zecco
Song For Christmas

This is a typical collection by a reasonably talented regional performer, elevated by a section of atypical songs.

New Englander Ida Zecco gets listeners aquatinted with lesser-known Christmas songs such as "All Those Christmas Clichés" and "My Christmas Song For You" on Song For Christmas. Acclaimed by local critics and classified in the "hard-to-find" section of most stores, this is one of those times when online download services are a welcome source of obscure material.

Zecco deep alto vocals and straightforward approach make her a pick more for traditionalists than modernists. She comes across as old school, especially with backing straight out of a 1940s soundtrack on "A Child Is Born," one of the few familiar carols. But it's not a sleepy set; she gets perky and into soprano territory on "Santa Baby" as the octet of fellow musicians drape her in backgrounds from the Wes Montgomery school of sound. A children's chorus joins her on the flat-out playful "Merry Christmas." "The Holiday Song" swings nicely in a style that will get fans of the classics comparing her to past favorites.

Lynette Washington
Long, Long Ago (A Jazz Celebration of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa)

To put it simply, this is as good as online holiday music gets.

Lynette Washington's Long, Long Ago (A Jazz Celebration of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa) is an obscure 1999 release that ought to be in the collection of any jazz fan celebrating any of the season's holidays. Not only is it one of the finest modern mainstream performances in recent years, it's also available as a $6 bargain download from

Washington's singing is deep, husky, adventurous and so full of soul I hit the "purchase" option on my Web browser before the first 30-second preview was complete. Considering I've been listening to several dozen holiday albums nonstop during the past few weeks, that speaks volumes about its impact. Her acoustic quartet is first-rate all the way, with saxophonist Gerry Niewood in particular competing for the listener's ear with a lyricism that compliments Washington in Velcro-like fashion.

Nothing about this album is familiar, yet every one of the six songs provides more immediate gratification to someone who's really listening than comfort food fare ever can. "Always Christmas" is a post-bop barn-burner, "Long, Long Ago" a ballad in need of an extinguisher and "Kwanzaa" an African- jazz hybrid that'll get people to observe the holiday just so they can play this song.

Need more convincing? "Always Christmas," is available as a free download from - just consider yourself warned if your wallet is getting a bit thin from shopping.

Women Of The Calabashi
The Kwanzaa Album
Bermuda Reefs

More world music than jazz, this nevertheless makes this list through the sheer quality of various a capella, instrumental and percussion selections.

The Kwanzaa Album features Women Of The Calabashi, a trio who have performed African and Latin music for more than 20 years using a wide range of traditional instruments ranging from thumb pianos to steel drums. The album features 16 selections, often accompanied by a brief introduction explaining its significance.

Their diverse range of instrumentation takes center stage on songs like "Ituri Forest" and "Chemutengure," where various repetitive phrases get the mix-match-and-evolve treatment. Their standalone vocals on songs like "MYA Si Grei" are graceful and elegant rather than raw intensity, but for that tune into the African drumming history lessons of songs like "Saraka."

This isn't easy listening music by any means, but is consistent and restrained enough for general listening in settings where syrupy carols aren't an absolute must. A great history lesson for those who wanting a different sort of holiday story.

A Kwanzaa album I was hoping to find, but no luck: Archie Shepp's Kwanzaa. The saxophonist and pianist leads an ensemble of serious jazz heavyweights in this 1969 album that's gotten some critical acclaim, including a finalist as one reviewer's top albums from the decade. But efforts to find a copy from sites ranging from eMusic to eBay came up empty. Those wanting a sample, however, can purchase the reissued The Way Ahead (available at iTunes). This is a landmark fusion album for him featuring two bonus tracks, "New Africa" and "Bakai," from Kwanzaa totaling 23 minutes. Based solely on those, it appears to be an impressive combination of free jazz, early fusion and world music, but a very busy one - this definitely isn't for tree trimming unless your idea of relaxing music is Ornette Coleman pairing up with John Coltrane.

Shirim Klezmer Orchestra
Klezmer Nutcracker
Newport Classic

Klezmer Nutcracker is a one-trick pony extended to album length, offering exactly what the title promises. Almost everyone will find it entertaining for one or two songs, but its staying power rests largely on how much listeners will be attracted to, as a promo puts it, "the zany wit of Spike Jones with the class and craft of Duke Ellington."

That's not to say there's a lack of artistry here - the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra liberally tweeks Tchaikovsky's ballet with all sorts of Hebrew touches, right down to the renamed "Dance Of the Latkes Queens" (instead of Sugar Plum Fairies). Klezmer fans will more likely than not be captivated, as will a good number of Tchaikovsky listeners who don't need to take him seriously.

The seven musicians are all tight and there's never a question about the quality of their playing. The only letdown comes on compositions that aren't frenetic by nature, such as "Waltz Of The Ruggelah," where the incessant pace and whimsical instrumentation makes it a bit hard to swallow musically.

Holiday music makes up only the first half of the album. Classic klezmer and interpretations of Mahler, Brahms and Enesco are featured on the latter part.

Potential buyers are advised to go to a site like where you can sample a minute of each track. That may be enough to satisfy the merely curious, but it also will likely draw in a few who might otherwise pass it by.

Some other Jewish music of note: Steve Levin's Aleinu Leshabeyach - A Jazz Service features the vocalist in a straightforward but quality live performance of 14 Jewish prayers in Hebrew and English, backed by a choir and traditional jazz instrumentation. The Adler Trio is an innovative harmonica trio whose Israeli Music is both authentic and a quality collaboration in harmonizing, although some tacky backing rhythms are a distraction. Ensemble Techelet's And I Will Hope For Him and The World To Come are closer to New Age than jazz, but the small nontraditional ensembles perform some improvisational stretches rare in this genre (one song on the latter album is nearly 50 minutes long). Finally, it'd be neglectful not to mention vibraphonist Terry Gibbs' Plays Jewish Melodies In Jazztime , previously reviewed at AAJ by Elliott Simon, who calls it "a significant historical nexus that extends the past into the future."

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