There are Christmas albums of all sorts out there. From ones by the Jingle Cats to Justin Bieber, holiday albums are all the rage this time of year. As people put up their trees and decorations, it’s common for a little bit of musical cheer to float through the speakers and mingle with the eggnog.
Lucky for you, dear readers, the days of confining yourselves to the glittery wares of Kenny G’s Miracles or Christmas on Death Row are gladly over. And as much as the shopping malls try to shove the festive spirit in your ears with repeated carols and Mariah Carey tracks, you can soak in the sounds of these holiday records this season and put a hip spin on Christmas.
Now obviously there have been some cool Christmas jazz records before, including offerings by Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck. These new holiday records feature uniquely modern twists on familiar carols and standards, bringing Christmas around with a little bit of extra spice.
Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack – A Very Gypsy Christmas
Recorded live, this record features jazz guitar virtuoso Doug Munro and a band that many jazz cats will love. Ken Peplowski (clarinet), Cyrille-Aimee Daudel (vocals), Howie Bujese (violin), Michael Goetz (bass), and Ernie Pugliese (guitar) conspire to bring about gypsy jazz-inspired Christmas carols.
Fans of Django Reinhardt’s work will dig what Munro is up to, with 15 cuts of classic Christmas stuff getting some serious reworking. Munro doesn’t play with the melodies much, but he does jazz up traditionals like “Let It Snow” and “We Three Kings” with his distinctive style.
A Very Gypsy Christmas kicks off with “Sleigh Ride.” Peplowski adds clarinet inflections as the track trots off in the snow. Munro draws a vivacious solo over Pugliese’s sound time-keeping. “Green Sleeves,” the romanesca, gets a slower treatment that draws out the traditional folk song’s more haunting qualities. Bujese’s violin is a welcome touch.
Munro has released some 11 albums as a leader and has been in over 60 recordings as a sideman, arranger and producer. He also has over 75 original published compositions to his name. He’s no slouch in the guitar department, either, bringing a subtle but sturdy essence to every note he plucks and chord he strums. Munro is an incredibly balanced player, too, and knows when to step back in the arrangement to bring its full feeling to bear.
My favourite carol, “Silent Night,” is treated with the delicateness it deserves. Once more Bujese’s violin hits the perfect notes, singing over graceful guitar strumming. The arrangement is aptly calm and Munro’s solo is beautifully discreet.
For a touch of something different this Christmas, A Very Gypsy Christmas may well be the ticket. It has tender spirit but still swings, fuelling dreams as much as grooves.
David Ian – Vintage Christmas
Toronto’s David Ian is known to many for his work in Superchick. The band was nominated for a Grammy in 2009 for Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album for their fifth album, Rock What You Got.
So how does Ian go from shredding guitar for Superchick to an album of traditional Christmas tunes? Blame a lifelong love of jazz, for one thing. Ian studied jazz piano with Pat Pace and helped initiate jazz curriculum at high schools in Ohio. Having drawn inspiration for this record from the likes of Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi, the relaxed mood is right on par for fireside listening.
Vintage Christmas features Ian on piano, guitars and bells. Also along for the sleigh ride are Jon Estes (bass, cello) and Brian Fitch (drums). Andre Miguel Mayo and Acacia supply vocals.
If a laid-back Christmas record is your cup of spiced rum, this one is for you. This is music that doesn’t fight for attention, though, so you have to be prepared to sit down and tune in to really grasp the nuances of what Ian and Co. are up to. There’s not an overwhelming track in the batch.
That’s not to say that the small jazz trio doesn’t swing its stockings off, mind you. Tracks like “Christmas Time with You” pack delicate bounce, remaining simple arrangements of the classics. Ian doesn’t reinvent the wheel, opting to play for warmth rather than innovation.
Sophistication reigns on a song like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Ian dresses the classic down to its most basic elements, providing simple piano to go with Fitch’s barely-there brushes.
From a rock guitarist prone to leap off amps in concert to one of the most understated, soft Christmas albums in recent memory, David Ian has been on a hell of a trip. This record packs the festive spirit, sure, but it’s the slow, warm glow that really sinks in.
Elisabeth Lohninger Band Featuring Axel and Walter Fischbacher – Christmas in July
In collaborating with guitarist Axel Fischbacher and pianist Walter Fischbacher, vocalist Elisabeth Lohninger has stepped right smack dab in the middle of international Christmas magic.
Christmas in July is a beautiful mix of music from the far reaches of the globe, with Lohninger lending her talents in nine different languages.
“Christmas is a significant holiday in numerous parts of the world,” says Lohninger. “In countries as far-flung as Japan and Brazil, people celebrate Christmas with songs in their native language: folk songs, songs written for church and even pop songs…they are a harbinger of light, hope and life.”
Christmas in July combines the music of the world with the straightforward jazz tradition, best exemplifying the mood in “Giant Chestnutz/Christmas Song.” The piece makes use of John Coltrane’s chord progressions from “Giant Steps,” at least to start, and ropes it into a traditional Christmas tune that swings its proverbial chestnuts off.
Lohninger’s gift has really come to life when she blends vocal genres. I first stumbled on the Austrian-born vocalist with her Songs of Love and Destruction, a deeply emotional record that explored some broad subjects with startling intimacy.
Christmas in July is jazzy and full of life, vibrantly popping through music from Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Japan, and the United States.
“Potpourri De Navidad,” a Mexican piece, is a spicy number that works Walter’s piano over a number of tones. Lohninger sings beautifully, engaging through the song’s twists and turns. And then there’s the gauzy and haunting “Von Himmel Hoch O Englein Kommt,” a German traditional that is blessed by Axel Fischbacher’s lovely guitar playing and Ulf Stricker’s brushwork, and the rockin’ take on “Stille Nacht.”
For a more subtle, almost ethereal holiday record, Lohninger’s Christmas in July is wondrous. Led by a charming, intelligent vocalist with a cunning, tight band providing snow-kissed atmosphere, this is one Christmas album worth spinning again and again.