Christmas albums for curling up by the fire with cocoa
A JAZZY WONDERLAND
By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON
WHEN YOU'VE WORKED AS many Christmases in record stores as I have, you get to hear a lot of Christmas music. Some of it is pretty good, like the A Very Special Christmas compilation that appeared a couple of years ago. Some of it, like George Winston's omnipresent white pillow, December, just makes you want to strangle the customers.
So I guess I bring a different perspective to Christmas music. Since this is the kind of sentimental fluff we hear non-stop for a month of hectic shopping days, I have a very simple criterion for Christmas music: Will it annoy me?
Acoustic Christmas is definitely not annoying music. It features acoustic offerings by artists operating on the fringes of electric and acoustic music: Shawn Colvin, Poi Dog Pondering, Shelleyan Orphan. Of course, like all compilation albums, it's a little hit-or-miss; but those that hit are fine indeed.
It opens with a melancholy, country-tinged version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett's raspy, nasal voice is an unlikely vehicle for such a peaceful song, and while I enjoyed it, this is definitely not a song to play to pep up a Christmas gathering.
To really get the party going, you have to skip to side two for "Mele Kalikimaka," by Poi Dog Pondering and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. This one chugs along merrily, sousaphone pumping away for a real New Orleans feel. Lap steel guitar and saxophones trade joyful ragtime solos. It's Honolulu-in-Louisiana, full of cheerful irreverence: "Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright/ Sunshine by day with all the stars by night."
The album also includes songs by artists who operate almost exclusively on the acoustic front. Judy Collins turns in a gentle, subdued "The Little Road to Bethlehem," and Art Garfunkel sings "O Come All Ye Faithful." (Garfunkel's is the second version of "Faithful" to appear on the album; Columbia revives a version by Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts from Marsalis' release, Crescent City Christmas Card.)
Garfunkel's "O Come All Ye Faithful" is truly beautiful, a simple hymn framed by acoustic guitar and accordion. The slavish overdubbing of Garfunkel's voice is a real flaw, but the song withstands this uncharitable treatment admirably. This is no Simon and Garfunkel "Silent Night" -- no political statements here -- it's just peaceful and comforting, a neat addition from a man who hasn't made any significant recordings in quite a few years.
A Jazzy Christmas is my favorite kind of Christmas album: pleasant background music without overly religious lyrics. (The irony of a Jew reviewing Christmas albums has not escaped the editors here at The Tech.) Harry Connick Jr. delivers a suave, urbane "This Christmas," complete with a wry, winning soprano sax solo from Branford Marsalis. Connick has become a sort of Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett for the 1990s: "Hang all the mistletoe/ I'm going to get to know you better," he croons slyly.
Bennett himself shows up for a pretty standard rendition of "White Christmas." For those of you who have worn out your Bing Crosby Christmas albums, this is
an adequate substitute, and Dexter Gordon provides a tender saxophone accompaniment that never edges into sentimentality.
Still, it's nice to hear Wynton Marsalis grooving along on "Winter Wonderland," and his father, Ellis Marsalis, delivers
an understated but tingling "This is Christmas."
Neither of these albums is over-the-top, exuberant Christmas spirit. If you want that sort of music, buy A Very Special Christmas. If you want curling-up-by-the-fire-with-hot-chocolate kind of music, then I recommend Acoustic Christmas and A Jazzy Christmas.