Christmas Discs (incl. Hi-Res!)  
November 2003

Well, it’s getting to be that time of the year again, and next month will be a bit late to alert you to worthwhile new holiday music on disc to pick up, so let’s plunge into the snowbank of Christmas records out there make some musical angel wings. It’s a task to separate the wheat from the chaff of holiday releases, but we think all of these will bring you some cheer without making the more musical sensitive of you cringe. Note that for the first time some of the entries are hi-res, so we pulled them out of that section to include herewith. There’s even a video DVD but the music proves its primary focus so we’ll cover it here too.:

The AIX All Stars - Surrounded by Christmas (Laurence Juber, guitar; Jim Cox, piano; Leland Sklar, bass; steve Forman, percussion; John Ferraro, drums) - AIX Records DVD-A 80028:

AIX, as is their wont, gives you lots of unexpected presents this holiday season with their Christmas DVD-A effort. They assembled some of the leading musicians playing in the LA area, set up their multiple mikes and video cameras, and asked them to come up with some unique but jazzy arrangements of a dozen familiar Christmas carols. This they did with aplomb, including some 5/4-time jazz, some Celtic-influenced, and even a “surf version” of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. It’s recorded at 96K/24 bits, provided in DVD-video audio (both DD 5.1 & DTS) on one side of the disc and 96K MLP 5.1 as well as a stereo 2.0 option on the other. The video audio allows choosing between a close-up “stage” perspective or a further back in the “audience” acoustic. The video side also includes a live video taping of the recording session, rehearsal photos, bios, general photo gallery, and a How To Use section complete with surround system setup tones and checking information. The videos are now more sophisticated than the first AIX offerings, but once you’ve seen them there may be be little interest in viewing them again. The arrangements are fairly laid back and at lower volume setting this would provide wonderful background surround sounds for any holiday gathering. But why not put the video up on the screen too? - it would be like having your own hired band at hand! Purchase here

- John Sunier

Stephanie Osborne, harp - Victorian Christmas - Silverline DVD-A 288212-9:

A very lovely offering of solo harp music for the holidays gorgeously recorded in 5.1 surround. Fifteen tracks of mostly familiar carols, some medleys and some obscure songs such as See Amid the Winter’s Snow. The concert harp is a difficult instrument to properly record, and Silverline has met the challenge. Ms. Osborne does her own tasteful arrangements which add a great deal of interest to the music and never make the listener feel there were other instruments involved in the music-making. Some of the less-well-known tunes and medleys that added variety to the program included Christmas Pastorale, Christmas Chimes Waltz, Sleep Baby Sleep/Silent Night, and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Purchase here

- John Sunier

WOLCUM YULE: Celtic and British Songs and Carols - Anonymous 4 with Andrew Lawrence-King - Harmonia Mundi 907325 (66 mins.):

With the help of virtuoso harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, Anonymous 4 celebrates Christmas with a wealth of Yuletide music from the British Isles. Juxtaposing pagan and Christian traditions, and including favorites such as "The holly and the ivy" and "I saw three ships," the program interweaves English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ballads and carols with music by John Tavener, Benjamin Britten and a newly-commissioned work by Peter Maxwell Davies.

The Davies song, A Calendar of Kings, sets a George Mackay Brown poem concerning the journey of the three Magi from the East to the scene of Christ's nativity; it is spare in affect, yet vividly devotional, and will be remembered long after its six minutes are up. Britten's A New Year Carol, which concludes the recital, is so consolingly beautiful that you will be willing (just) to let the CD finish. Whether you prefer your joy in abstract or rollicking settings, there is much for you to enjoy.

Unaccompanied, and with Lawrence-King providing backing on an array of instruments including psaltery, Baroque harp or a remarkable Irish "Queen Mary" harp that sounds as if it contains its own peal of heavenly bells, the four women of Anonymous 4 have never sounded as lovely. Working at Skywalker Sound, producer Robina Young and engineer Brad Michel have created an uncannily natural space in which the overtones float magically away as if they were sounding in response to the season. A gracious introduction by Anonymous 4's Johanna Maria Rose, and comprehensive notes on each selection, complete a very attractive package. Purchase here

- Laurence Vittes

The Gents, dir. By Peter Dijkstra - Follow That Star - Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 20403:

The Gents is a male a capella vocal ensemble of 15 members based in the Netherlands. They have four each of the usual four voices except for being short one in the baritone department - probably due to stronger voices in that range. Although none are credited as counter-tenors that’s exactly what some sound like and what reviews of their previous discs have referred to. All the vocalists have extremely flexible voices, but the altos really soar to stratospheric heights. The reason may be that most of the members first developed their voices as members of the Roder Boys’ Choir. It’s as if some of them never went thru their voice change.

The selection of holiday songs is superb, mixing pop tunes and carols with items more specific to The Gents previous recordings such as the 16th century Gaudete Christus est natus. Most of the arrangements were written especially for the ensemble, which retains an a capella feeling even in concert with a marimba quartet or a string quartet. A single string bass accompanies them in some songs. The ensemble reminded me of both Chanticleer and The King’s Singers but The Gents’ intonation and phrasing is even more polished than those ensembles, if that can be believed. I’m not a fan of the English “white voices” tradition but the Gents’ masterful choir singing absolutely captivated and surrounded me in multichannel wonder.

The 16 tracks are: Follow That Star, Gaudete Chistus est natus, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, White Christmas, Walking in the air, Wonderful Christmastime, Hijo de la luna, Snta Claus is coming to town, Just another star, Jingle bell rock, Let it snow, The Christmas Song, Sleighride (instrumental), Winter Wonderland, Silent Night. [NOTE: This disc has a Nov. 11th release date] Purchase Here

- John Sunier

Rosemary Clooney – White Christmas (with the Peter Matz Orchestra; the Earl Brown Singers; Nick Clooney and Michael Feinstein, guest vocals) – Concord 1018-6 – Multichannel SACD:

I’ve always been pretty much a sentimental sucker for holiday music (especially jazzy renditions) and movies – who can resist Bing, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, right? So with that frame of mind in place, I was really looking forward to hearing this disc from Concord that’s been remixed into multichannel surround from a 1996 original recording.

This disc works on most levels, and I emphasize most; the Peter Matz Orchestra and instrumental soloists are effectively placed in a surround mix that immerses you in the music and the same is true for the short vocal interludes between some songs featuring the Earl Brown Singers. Unfortunately, Rosemary Clooney, god bless her, is really beyond her prime here vocally. Her voice here is really dry with not nearly the sweetness as in years past, and to make matters worse, there’s just not enough of Rosemary’s vocals in the mix – she’s too far back, and seems shrunken in relation to the orchestra and singers, almost becoming two-dimensional in quality. The folks at Concord should listen to some of the Diana Krall SACDs for a primer in how the voice should be placed in the mix. Diana’s voice is anything but sweet, but it’s prominently and effectively mixed in comparison with the orchestra and instruments without being overpowering. Switching to the stereo SACD layer here somewhat adjusts for the disparity, but sadly, nothing can erase the ravages of time on Miss Clooney’s voice.

Unless you’re a huge fan, I’d pass on this one. Tracks: The Christmas Song; Let It Snow; Joy to the World; I’ll Be Home for Christmas; It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Christmas Love Song; The First Noel; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time is Here; Christmas Mem’ries; Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer; The Spirit of Christmas; Santa Claus is Coming to Town/Hey Kris Kringle; Count Your Blessings; O Little Town of Bethlehem; The Christmas Waltz; White Christmas; Silent Night; Sleep Well, Little Children; Don’t Wait Till the Night Before Christmas. Purchase Here

-- Tom Gibbs

Johnny Mathis - The Christmas Album - Columbia multichannel SACD-Only CS 86814:

This hi-res disc arrived just a bit too late for inclusion last Christmas, so better late than never. There are new recordings, evidently many of them made at a studio in Ireland with accompaniment by the Irish Film Orchestra. Or perhaps they just did the instrumental tracks and Johnny added his vocals in the U.S. The song Heavenly Peace was composed especially for the album. Top arrangers such as Alan Broadbest and Ray Ellis were involved in preparing the ten tracks. I especially liked the medley of Claude Thornhill’s Snowfall with Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here. Mathis still has that distinctive mellow voice and the surround mix is tasteful yet involving. Have yourself a snowy Christmas with the voice of the Misty man.

Tracks: Joy to the World, Heavenly Peace, Away in a Manger, A Christmas Love Song, Frosty the Snowman, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, O Little Town of Bethlehem, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Snowfall/Christmas Time Is Here, Merry Christmas. Purchase Here

- John Henry

Jazzscapes - Music With a View - Visions of Christmas + 14 tracks of Christmas jazz in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround - Concord Records DVD-7013-9:

The growing acceptance of music videos on DVD is eliciting some interesting combinations of music and images on the versatile digital discs. This new effort from Concord makes use of their growing catalog of great jazz recordings mixed for multichannel reproduction on their continuing series of multichannel SACDs. Selections from that library have been encoded as Dolby Digital 5.1 so that a larger number of home theater owners could play them on their DVD-video players, and three different one-hour visual programs have been coordinated with the music. The user has a choice of a slide show with zooms on the images, slow motion or time-lapse video, or animated or “paint effect” visuals. On this DVD the images are of course tied in with Christmas, from snowflakes to Christmas trees and roaring fireplaces. Or you can turn off the video and just enjoy the music. The other entries in the Jazzscapes series are Into the Evening, Rhythms & Waves, and A Time for Love - all with Concord jazz selections on the soundtrack in 5.1. The discs are also about half the price of most movie DVDs.

Performers on Vision of Christmas: Gerry Wiggins Trio, Caribbean Jazz Project, Mary Stallings, The Gene Harris Quartet, Marlena Shaw, Marian McPartland, Jesse Davis, Jeff Linsky, Scott Hamilton, Ali Ryerson, Karrin Allyson, Charlie Byrd, Randy Sandke, Rosemary Clooney.

Eric Reed - Merry Magic (Eric Reed, piano/organ/vocals; Rodney Green, drums; Barak Mori, bass; Steve Nelson, vibes; Erin Bode & Paul West, vocals) - MaxJazz MXJ 302:

This new CD reminded me of a couple of the jazz Christmas CDs of many years past - those which really were jazz and not just adding a corny jazz flavor to some lackluster versions of familiar carols. Hadn’t heard of Reed before, but he swings on both keyboards as well as some vocals, and his arrangements for the album are top flight. There’s a nice variety of instrumentation from all of the players down to just Reed at his solo piano - or in the case of Oh Come All Ye Faithful - solo organ. Audiophile-level sonics too. I’m sure this one will be getting lots of play on the jazz radio stations next month. (The only thing I question is ending the program with a very poignant and affecting vocal in which the woman is begging her lover to wait until after Christmas to dump her.)

Tracks: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Winter Wonderland, Angels in the Snow, Santa Baby, Lo How a Rose E’Er Blooming, The Christmas Song, Little Drummer Boy, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, I Wonder as I Wander, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?, Christmas Blues, After the Holidays. Purchase here

- John Henry

Quintessence Saxophone Quintet - Quintessence Goes Christmas - CPO 999 916 2:

It’s not clear from the stilted English translation if Quintessence is a German or Danish sax ensemble - the CPO label being the latter. However, the players - on soprano, alto, two tenors and one baritone sax - have German names. Suffice it to say they are one of the Europe’s prominent sax ensembles and one of many such around the world today. They share with many of the others a habit of dividing their time between jazz and classical worlds, but this collection falls mostly in the latter area. They express in their introductory notes some misgivings about doing a special Christmas album in view of the increasing commercialization of the holiday, but they understand there is no other occasion for which so much wonderful music has been written and they enjoy performing it. (I enjoy looking at the recording dates for Christmas albums - this one was recorded in July...) I did a bit miss the bass or contra-bass sax found in some of the American sax quintets and sextets, but their arrangements are well managed for the five players. I don’t know how the Albinoni Adagio fits into a Christmas program, but their arrangement of it makes it sound the composer had a sax quintet at hand when he wrote it in the 18th century. The Quintessences do get into a bit of a jazz bag on Groove All ye Faithful and in the clever Christmas in Hollywood medley.

Tracks: Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Overture, Handel: Hallelujah Chorus, Trad: Groove All Ye Faithful, Bach: Wachet auf, Albinoni: Adagio, Vaughan Williams: Christmas Dance, Bach: Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Bach: Von Himmel Hoch, Mendelssohn: Hark the Herald Angels, Trad.: Christmas in Hollywood, Trad.: We Wish You a Merry Christmas Purchase here.

Barbara Cook - Count Your Blessings - Arranged & conducted by Wally Harper - DRG 91479:

Hard to believe this is brand new and very first Christmas album the superb Broadway songstress had ever done. She bends her versatile voice around 15 Christmas standards in interesting arrangements. Arranger Wally Harper says this is also the first Christmas album he has been involved in. Perhaps the freshness of the effort is due to this being a first for both of them! As the note booklet writer says, what could they do that hasn’t been done before in a Christmas record? Well, having the terrific voice of Barbara Cook was certainly a good start. She may remind one of Rosemary Clooney in some of the tunes. One of the nice touches in the arrangements was to have the Broadway Inspirational Voices ensemble (which we reviewed on a DMP SACD last issue) join Cook on four of the songs, including the opening title song by Irving Berlin. On another spiritual - He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands - harmonica and banjo are featured. Purchase here

Peter Nero and the Philly Pops - Holiday Pops! (Peter Nero, music director/conductor/pianist) - DRG 91478:

Pianist Peter Nero has been leading the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra for 25 years but this is the first recording they have made. It’s a typical pops sort of concert program for Christmas, with arrangements of the typical carols and medleys by both Allyn Ferguson (once of the wonderful Chamber Jazz Sextet) and Nero himself. Vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway joins the orchestra for five of the songs. It’s a good program and well-performed and recorded; if you don’t have anything like this in your holiday music section of the shelf by all means get it. But it doesn’t break any molds. Purchase here

- John Sunier

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