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The Chris McDonald Orchestra: Big Band Hymns / Big Band Christmas

Jack Bowers By

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Big band hymns? If you’re thinking there’s no way the two can be compatible, much less swing, there’s no doubt you’ve not yet heard these sacred anthems remodeled in contemporary big–band arrangements by the conspicuously talented Chris McDonald. If the mind is receptive, it won’t take much more than the first few bars of “I’ll Fly Away” to convince you otherwise. Regardless of the material on which he is working, McDonald is quite simply a marvelous big–band arranger whose every chart swings boldly and consistently. A key element lies in his refusal to compromise; even when adapting songs that are more commonly heard in churches than in concert halls or nightclubs, McDonald’s orchestrations have much more in common with Basie or Herman than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In fact, I daresay Basie or Herman would have been delighted to employ him as an arranger. He’s that good. In fact, the album could be subtitled “The Gospel According to Nestico” (or Hefti, Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Slide Hampton — you get the idea). Were he so inclined, McDonald could no doubt pursue the rewards of fame and fortune, but it seems he “Loves to Tell the Story” through his music, and must be confident in his belief that “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” he’ll receive due recompense from the only One Whose assessment really matters. McDonald’s mission, it appears, is to use his God–given talents to spread the uplifting message embodied in these hymns and songs of praise to a wider audience without discrediting his musical honesty. The first is a hope, the second a fact. McDonald makes no concessions, and aside from their familiar melodies, these venerable songs have been thoroughly renovated and revitalized in his capable hands. And speaking of capable, McDonald has assembled a top–notch 18–piece orchestra to play them. Although there are no “names” in the various sections, neither can there be any doubt that everyone in the band is a seasoned professional. McDonald’s charts aren’t entry–level by any means, but no one seems even to be breathing hard while carving them into tantalizing morsels. Solists are convincing, section work razor–sharp — but it is McDonald’s superior arrangements that earn one’s warmest applause. Hymns? Who cares. This is big–band Jazz at its most colorful and exciting.

Having worked his special brand of magic on Big Band Hymns, McDonald waves his amazing wand over a selection of traditional and contemporary Christmas music and — voila! — what to our wondering ears should appear but another spectacular album of big–band music designed to please even the most demanding partisans. There aren’t many versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that can make me forget about Judy Garland, but McDonald’s comes close. Even “The Little Drummer Boy,” by no means a particular favorite in these quarters, sparkles with a new lustre (there’s only one other arrangement of it I’ve admired as much, by the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra’s Peter Bouffard). Besides the “Drummer Boy,” there are four “traditional” holiday songs on the program (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Silent Night! Holy Night!,” a medley of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High”), and each one is as “soulful” in its own way as its author intended, thanks to McDonald’s phenomenal skills as an arranger. The ballad “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” on the other hand, sounds as though it would have been quite at home in the Dorsey or Miller books, while Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” Irving Berlin’s incomparable “White Christmas,” Sammy Cahn / Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow” and J. W. Johnson’s “Blue Christmas” are textbook models of seductive big–band swing. Again, the band is letter–perfect and soloists are never less than credible. In fact, both albums are so pleasing in every respect that one is inclined even to overlook their abbreviated running times (41:37, 41:16). At least none of those moments is wasted; McDonald makes absolutely sure of that.

Track listing: Big Band Hymns — I’ll Fly Away; What a Friend We Have in Jesus; Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Love to Tell the Story; Amazing Grace; Shall We Gather at the River; Were You There; The Old Rugged Cross; Blessed Assurance; When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder (41:37). Big Band Christmas — Sleigh Ride; White Christmas; Blue Christmas; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; The Little Drummer Boy; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; I’ll Be Home for Christmas; Let It Snow; Silent Night, Holy Night; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing / Angels We Have Heard on High (41:16).


Personnel:

Big Band Hymns

Title: Big Band Hymns / Big Band Christmas | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Green Hill

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