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Hacking the Holidays: Obscure and Unusual Albums from Online Stores

By Published: December 2, 2004
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.

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