Holiday-themed recordings haven’t made much noise in recording industry cash registers for a long time. Yet Mariah Carey’s 1994 song, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” is number one on the Billboard chart. And the Social Justice Police have declared Frank Loesser’s deliciously teasing lyric to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” off limits.
If you still have a taste for sounds of the season, here are some that came over the December transom. Stile Antico, the renowned twelve-voice early music ensemble, have a treasure in A Spanish Nativity ((Harmonia Mundi). They luxuriate in pieces by six Spanish composers, without musical accompaniment. The rich harmonies, purity of voices, counterpoint and polyphony are breathtaking. This is one to play all year ‘round.
In the jazz category, bassist and singer Kristin Korb’s That Time of Year (Storyville) makes a strong statement. She’s a modest but musical vocalist, but her Danish musicians are up for all kinds of musical romps. Korb can be too hip for her own good with the behind-the-beat phrasing, thus sacrificing a song’s lyrical import. But she brings the feeling home when it counts, and gives “That’s What I Want For Christmas” a sterling reading. Guitarist Dave Stryker lets his guitar do the singing on Eight Track Christmas (Strikezone). Using the organ trio format (augmented by vibraphonist Stefon Harris), Stryker and friends give it a light touch, but with plenty of soulful essence. This is what drinking alone in a bar on Christmas Eve feels like.
Of the self-releases, Gracie Terzian’s Bells & White Branches is a meringue-topped delicacy. Her warm harp ukulele accompanies the angelic vocals, which float with sincerity over six selections. Admirably, she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The same can’t be said for Canadian singer Marc Martell, who’s made Christmas albums something of an avocation. His full-throated vocals on his The Christmas Collection don’t shy away from the Christianity quotient. He hits most of the December evergreens, and production is very good. But the eclecticism (“Hallelujah Chorus” to his own “How Many Kings”) seems a bit like a checklist.
More self released discs: The simplicity and folksy harmonies of Christmas Morning (Fallen Tree) by the Ottawa duo Silent Winters evokes fireside warmth and singalongs. Finally, jazz guitarist John Basile’s Silent Night swings gently but firmly. And darned if he doesn’t essay “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—with his overdubbed guitar. Watch out for the Social Justice police, John. Baby, they’re relentless!
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.