XMAS I: Bela Fleck, Spyro Gyra, The Gospel Christmas Project, Holly Cole, Nova Contemporary Jazz Orchestra
Not all holiday releases are for the pedestrian listener. Some albums require a commitment to stick it out long enough to find out if the music is inaccessible or simply an acquired taste on its way to becoming a holiday classic.
Here are five holiday recordings that are well off the beaten path...or not.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Jingle All The Way
If "Jingle Bells" does not scare the life out of you, then none of selections on Jingle All The Way will. "Jingle Bells" and "What Child is This/Dyngyldai" may be looked at two ways: they are either bold art rendered in an uncompromising fashion or entirely misguided approaches to holiday music. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between. That said, banjoist/pianist Bela Fleck and his merry Flectones are creative wizards making havoc over the holiday landscape.
"Silent Night" begins anything but. Electric bassist Victor Wooten establishes a throbbing groove through which Fleck weaves some intricate banjo filigree. Reed player Jeff Coffin provides the melody in wonderfully quirky fashion. "Sleigh Ride" is a driving hybrid of Golden Earring, Earl Scruggs, and Sidney Bechet. Jed Clapett would play this by the cement pond. "The Christmas Song" and "Twelve Days of Christmas" get as close to a "standard" reading as anything on the recording. "Twelve Days" sounds like pianist Uri Caine at his mad scientist best, Fleck proving he is a similar musical polyglot.
Fleck's Bach is fresh as moonshine and comfortable as rum eggnog. His interpretation of "Ich Will Nur Zu Ehren Leben" from Christmas Oratorio is a continuation of the creative vein he started with Perpetual Motion (Sony, 2001). Flip-side to Bach is Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy," which is propelled single-handedly by Victor Wooten's modulating bass line. "Danse of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" has never sounded so clever and bright, Coffin's bass clarinet perfect in its reedy role. The surprise of the disc is Joni Mitchell's "The River." Fleck and company end the disc on an almost serious note with Mitchell's American hymn.
Visit Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on the Web.
A Night Before Christmas
Heads Up Records
Think Spyro Gyra and one thinks of an intelligent and edgy eutectoid of jazz with every other genre, successfully arranged and performed. Think Spyro Gyra and holiday music and one might tremble at the thought of one more anemically rendered adult contemporary Christmas disc to further encourage neural tangles in the pleasure centers of our brains. A Night Before Christmas proves that nothing could be farther from the truth. The band endeavored to produce a mainstream offering, and succeeded splendidly.
The collection opens with an "O Tannenbaum," resting on Scott Ambush's bubbling bass. Jay Beckstein's alto saxophone purloins the melody in a winter warm dryness. "Winter Wonderland" pairs Beckstein's tenor saxophone with Julio Fernadez's precise guitar playing in a swinging arrangement of the Bernard/Smith classic. Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" is given lengthy introduction by pianist Tom Schuman before being picked up by Beckstien's alto. Bonny B's drums quietly thunder in support.
The disc has several vocals. The original "It Won't Feel Like Christmas" is capably sung by Christine Ebersol. The Manhattan Transfer's own Janis Siegel duets with Bonny B on a sexy "Baby Its Cold Outside." Bonny B goes on to croon "The Christmas Song," bringing it off with the best of them. Guest Dave Samuels adds the silver bells of his vibraphone to an excellent "Carol of the Bells," sharing a duet with Schuman's piano. Beckstein provides the reedy, high saxophone as a finishing touch. A Night Before Christmas will satisfy both the traditionalists and progressives in the jazz world and proves a strong holiday offering.
Visit Spyro Gyra on the Web.
The Gospel Christmas Project
The Gospel Christmas Project
The Gospel Christmas Project is a loud and proud collection of religiously-based carols spun out in 21st century gospel style. Greatly influenced by Mahalia Jackson, The Gospel Christmas Project updates that Queen's gospel approach and vision. The Gospel Christmas Project is far more Gospel Mass Choir than A Capella Quartet. The sound is immense and joyful.
Brainchild of musical polymath Andrew Craig, The Gospel Christmas Project was conceived as a vehicle for a host of young vocalists, including Alana Bridgewater, Andrew Craig, Kellylee Evans, Chris Lowe, Jackie Richardson, and Sharon Riley. Their presence studs this disc with fine, sometimes exceptional performances. The English carol "In The Bleak Midwinter" is transformed into a gospel-tinged ballad by Craig's deep and expansive piano playing and is ably sung by Chris Lowe. "What Child is This," another English carol, is given an almost new age treatment with Alana Bridgewater singing with great commitment and grace, making this a very listenable contemporary treatment.