A Gift From The Internet: Free Holiday Music

Mark Sabbatini BY

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Those dreading malls in December, perhaps so much so that shopping remains unfinished Christmas morning, the Internet offers the sweet sound of salvation.

Holiday music, both free and commercial, is one of the easiest to find from multitudes of online sources, offering a chance to relax rather than shop the day after Thanksgiving or obtain a quick gift at literally the last second. Offerings also go well beyond worn-out retail store concepts such as the latest "Very Special Christmas" collection and - perhaps not surprisingly for a season emphasizing charity - freebies tend to be more prevalent than other music genres.

Below are capsule reviews of a variety of jazz-oriented holiday albums available as free MP3s. Note that many paid sites offer one or more songs as free samples and some may even allow live streaming of entire albums. Nearly all of the reviews here are by lesser-known artists or albums with some kind of unique element, and represent only a small fraction of what a crafty surfer can find (a few search tips are part of the first review).

The listings begin with some favorite sites offering free downloads (detailed in other articles about music downloads elsewhere on this site), followed by some noteworthy individual music. Many of the latter also offer unusual features or bonuses such as printable scores or "music minus one" accompaniment versions for musicians.

Various Artists
(available at music.download.com , www.amazon.com , www.garageband.com , other preview sites)

These are ideal for anyone who treats the word Google as a verb.

Hundreds of jazz performances by lesser-known but talented artists are free at these sites, but require a bit of clever searching on the user's part. A search for "Christmas" under song titles returns a number of results, for example, but using phrases such as "Santa" and "Silent Night" turned up many more missed the first time. Also useful are mixing words such as countries, instruments and holiday terms. Avoid using "holiday," since results will be dominated by links to singer Billie Holiday

As with many collective sites, jazz makes up a small portion of the overall collections - instrumentals alone include everything from Baroque classics to over-the-top electronica. As for jazz offerings, most of it is on par with commercial discs and some ranks as solid upper echelon material.

There's literally something for everyone. Dean Krippaehne offers no-nonsense swing and slow blue treatments of several classics, with an even but somewhat less polished performance compared to megastars like Harry Connick Jr. Ryanhardt performs several smooth jazz pieces without being overly syrupy or inspired. Ed Shepp's "Dance Of The Sugarplum Beepner" is a zany bit of electronic madness (think everything from samples to touch-tone phone sounds), but a better-quality listen than a scattering other such ditties found on the Net. Two Harps - exactly that - is a bit sharp and mechanical, but they offer an album's worth of free listening with nearly 20 songs.

Many of the songs are found at more than one of the above sites, each of which has its unique offerings and features. Amazon, for example, offers dozens of uncredited "generic" solo piano renditions of classics, which can easily substitute for those bargain-bin "best-of" CDs in stores.

WashingtonPost.com Holiday Selections

Newspapers are increasingly offering free downloads by local artists and The Washington Post's remains one of the best. This year a dedicated holiday page listed 24 songs as of Thanksgiving Day by various performers, about half of which could be categorized as jazz. In addition, numerous songs from previous years are easily located with a few clicks on links to the artists and other site locations.

The songs are equal to or better than most compilation discs in stores, thanks largely to a diverse group of artists often unfettered by large-scale commercial success who are willing to go beyond normal boundaries.

Those who recoil when yet another Glen Miller Orchestra standard airs on the radio will find their thinking taking a definite turn for the better on the modernistic "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by saxophonist James Bazen's big band. Vocalist Meg Murray has a lilting touch and excellent interaction with her accompanists on "Mistletoe And Holly." Those looking for something soothing but different will appreciate Maggie Sanson's solo performance of the 14th-century German composition on hammered- dulcimer.

Straying farther from the envelope is the 180-person a cappella Washington Chorus, which puts a humorous spin on a certain well-known carol with "One Horse Open Sleigh." Jewish listeners can listen to a traditional blend of Klezmer, rock guitar, ska and hip-hop on The Velveteens' "Get Your Chanukah On." Those ready for a break from jazz can always unwind with some redneck country on "Christmas In Jail" and take pity on the jolly one's low-carb struggles on "Thin Santa Blues."

Norbert Kujus
Swinging Christmas

This collection of solo improvised guitar performances may not rank with the best, but they're a different and enjoyable introduction to a site offering several hundred - maybe even thousands - of free jazz recordings by European musicians.

Norbert Kujus offers six free songs on Swinging Christmas , with all but "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas" consisting of German compositions. He says he plays his electric nylon string guitar in the style of Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and John Scofield, and while it's a stretch to say he's on a level with any of those players one can hear approaches in his finger-picking and melodic style that give the claim credit.

There's little of the swing and Latin elements that make up his mainstream playing here. Instead he takes a mostly minimal lyrical approach at mellow tempos with little attempt at rhythm accompaniment. His phrasing is clean and never simplistic, more in tune with the traditions of Pass than the modernism of Metheny or Scofield. On a song like "Jingle Bells" where the listener has a familiar frame of reference he proves himself capable of going beyond melodic embellishments. Even so, he keeps such playing safe and harmonic which, when combined with his minimalist approach, keeps it from feeling like top- end musicsmanship.

Navigating the site is also a bit more annoying than many, especially since it's mostly in German. Even so, this is worth the time spent downloading it and those willing to do some patient browsing will find many of the other artists here offering a considerable amount of worthy fare. All in all, a fine Christmas gift from across the ocean.

Mildred and Buck Hicks
Floggin' The Yule Log (Vol. 1 and 2)

This is one's reward for doing a Google search of "Christmas," "MP3" and "kazoo."

Floggin' The Yule Log consists of two short collections of carols performed with everything ranging from earrings to a glass shower door. Some of it is humorous, some is awful and some is remarkably accomplished, but there's no denying all of it is unique and inspired.

A variety of jewelry and Corona bottles are used for "Jingul Bayuls." The "chorus" on "Carol Of The Bells" is a series of throat gulps. And it seems safe to say the nose flute rendition of "Up On The Housetop," accompanied by a body percussion and faux burping rhythm section, is a one-of-a-kind arrangement.

There's a mix of instrumental and vocal songs, with the latter usually so out-of-key they're truly annoying beyond novelty value. But it's not exactly like Mildred and Buck Hicks, plus those who joined them, are exactly looking for acclaim on these "off-the-cuff" pieces recorded hastily by singing at a computer. Since all the pieces are short, anything disturbing is over soon enough.

8bits People
The 8bits of Christmas

If there's any such thing as a "must-have" holiday album for old fogy videogamers, this is it.

The 8bits of Christmas features eight compositions by "dedicated chiptune maniacs" on machines such as the Atari 2600, Commodore 64 and Nintendo Entertainment System. Ingenious and often hilarious, it admittedly can get annoying in a hurry, but since the entire thing is only 18 minutes long it's over before true misery sets in.

Generally the quality of the songs match the sophistication of the machines. "Silent Night" for the NES and "Let It Snow" for the Nintendo Gameboy sound like the background for "Mario's Christmas World." Dedicated Atari 2600 fans may be the only ones to fully appreciate the (oh, so relative) quality of "Up On The Housetop" Analogue synthesizer fans will find joy, briefly at least, in the VIC-20 composition "When A Child Is Bored," but it's a rather muddy piece far too heavy on bass. Also slightly disappointing is "The First Blip Blip Noel" on the Atari ST, arguable the most musically sophisticated computer here, with a fairly muffled-sounding synth/dance track that a number of older machines could probably match.

Most of the songs are recognizable and, perhaps not surprisingly, usually rely on a techno beat as a backdrop. It's hardly likely to become an annual or family tree-decorating staple, but it's hard to imagine there aren't at least a few video game fans on most people's shopping lists who will appreciate it. Even nongamers are likely to find listening to one or two songs at a time an amusing diversion.

Sue Keller
My Reindeer Don't Like To Fly

Speaking of old technology, pianist Sue Keller makes great use of it offering listeners a free version - in a way - of her 2004 holiday ragtime album My Reindeer Don't Like To Fly.

Her CD is a solid piano and vocals collection of 17 songs, including some original and humorous selections. Her Web site, instead of offering audio samples, instead posts an instrumental version of the entire album in MIDI format, a longtime computer file format that relies on a sound card or other synthesizer for playback. The files are tiny - only a few kilobytes each - and load in seconds. Most modern soundcards are advanced enough to replicate the pianist's work convincingly, although those with advanced models or dedicated software synthesizers will reap a much better performance.

Lost, of course, are her vocals and the instrument quality simply can't match the real thing on even the best of machines. But it's an interesting novelty, and those familiar with MIDI can tinker with the songs - altering their tempo, for instance, or changing the instrumentation to a Fender Rhodes or barking dog.

The U.S. Air Force Bands Program
Winter Holidays Music

One of several government and military sites with free songs for download. Most of the approximately 40 songs at this site are conservative classical/choral performances, but easy to sample and download. Possibly a nice gift for someone with connections to various ongoing disputes overseas.

Various Artists
Songs Of Praise

Because Christmas is a Christian holiday, many religious sites offer huge numbers of free songs in a variety of styles as downloads. Songsofpriase.org is mentioned here as an example, even though it's thin on anything that could be called jazz, but because it also offers a number of bonuses, including printable scores, MIDI versions of the songs and accompaniment tracks minus the lead instrument or vocals.

The Last Christmas Album
Hazard Records (album at the Internet Archive )

Let's call this the avant-garde contribution, even though it's more techno/electronica than jazz. Truth is, this collection defies normal classification or description.

Marx Bar has recorded 12 previous Christmas albums for the open-source label Hazard Records, and this final album presents some of the best songs along with a handful of new ones. In addition to the 23 songs - all fairly short and most simply going by the title of "Deconstruction" - there are printable jewel box and CD labels.

It will be hard for casual listeners to identify much of what's happening here as Christmas music, although avant-garde types ought to get a kick out of trying to identify what classics the compositions might be based on. I couldn't pick out a single bar until the fourth song (the first "Deconstruction") where a few notes of "Silent Night" are twisted into an entirely different tune, sort of like a damaged CD being played over a synth-beat and sampled vocals background.

The number of people considering this suitable holiday fare will probably be close to zero; those wanting to analyze it and do some deconstruction of their own may be a bit higher. Otherwise, stash it for the next time someone brings up the topic of the strangest and/or worst holiday album ever. No disrespect to X.Marx, who's got loads of creative talent, but the mainstream is never, ever going to relate to it.

For additional holiday reviews and articles visit AAJ's Holiday Jazz page .

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