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Hacking the Holidays: Obscure and Unusual Albums from Online Stores

By Published: December 2, 2004
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

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