How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
The quality of a new holiday album depends on two factors: the presence of original or non-traditional songs, and atypical arrangements of traditional songs. Spirit of the Season , the new release by Japanese-American band Hiroshima, scores on both accounts.
Fueled by East-meets-West juxtaposition of modern synthesizer and traditional Japanese koto, flute and percussion that's frequently underscored by exotic world beat rhythms, Spirit of the Season puts a multicultural spin on seven of the most popular Christmas songs, plus three originals by Dan Kuramoto and a new arrangement of the Hiroshima classic "Thousand Cranes," which was penned by June Kuramoto and Derek Nakamoto. R&B/smooth jazz vocalist Terry Steele joins the group on four of the tracks, including the title song.
Dan Kuramoto's "Spirit of the Season" is a charming, almost romantic anthem that calls on the listener to remember that "it's that time of the year." "That song really talks about why we have Christmas in the first place," Kuramoto says. "It's not about the things you can buy; it's about the spirit you can share." Trombonist Ira Nepus contributes to a jazz-pop-big band rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," one of the liveliest tracks on the album. "Listen (To the Falling Snow)" is perhaps the best of the original songs. It features Dan Kuramoto on tenor sax, with haunting, ethereal background vocals that blend beautifully with Kimo Cornwell's piano and Dean Cortez's bass.
Cortez also provides a funky backdrop to Steele's voice on the traditional "I'll Be Home for Christmas." This particular offering, partly because of the vocal, doesn't really stand out from other renditions of the song. Generally, when a group specializes in instrumental music, it takes more than simply plugging in a vocalist to cover the lyrics for a song to work. While pleasant, this song isn't unique enough to stand apart from other versions.
That is the worst that can be said about this album. The rest is exceptional. The updated version of "Thousand Cranes" is as beautiful as the original. Steele sings lead, backed by the 54th Street Choir. "Peace on Earth" is vintage Hirsoshima, featuring a startling guitar solo by Michael Sasaki. However, the highlight of Spirit of the Season is the hybridization of smooth jazz and Latin music when the group presents "Winter Wonderland," possibly the best cut on the album. Drummer Danny Yamamoto, percussionist Richie "Gajate" Garcia and Cortez provide the rhythm, while June Kuramoto takes lead on piano and Cornwell delivers a sizzling piano solo.
But whether you want instrumentals or vocals, original songs or traditional fare, Spirit of the Season is a good choice for the holidays.
Track Listing: Spirit of the Season, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Little Drummer Boy, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Listen (To the Falling Snow), White Christmas, I'll Be Home for Christmas, Peace on Earth, Winter Wonderland, Thousand Cranes, Silent Night
Personnel: June Kuramoto, koto; Dan Kuramoto, synthesizers, saxophones, flute, shakuhachi; Kimo Cornwell, piano, synthesizers; Danny Yamamoto, drums, taiko, snares; Dean Cortez, bass; Terry Steele, vocals; Richie "Gajate" Garcia, percussion, taiko, snares, congas; Ira Nepus, trombone; Dr. D.H. Johnson, trumpet; Johnny Mori, taiko; Michael Sasaki, guitars; Brian Kessler, guitars on "White Christmas"; 54th Street Choir, vocals on "Thousand Cranes"