Ellis Marsalis – A New Orleans Christmas Carol

Ellis Marsalis

A New Orleans Christmas Carol

ELM Records CD

On his latest CD release, the Marsalis’s pater familias, pianist Ellis Marsalis, shares a selection of holiday favorites. Those looking for New Orleans jazz in the ‘early jazz,’ rather than geographical, sense of the term may be surprised by the idiom here, which is certainly neotraditional and straight ahead, but by no means a retrospective of historical styles. At seventy-seven years of age, Marsalis’s  pianism remains compelling, with eminently tasteful voicings and economical soloing that embellishes this program of holiday songs while keeping their memorable melodies front and center.  His ballad playing is particularly affecting on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which is filled with lovely chordal shadings.

His youngest son, percussionist Jason Marsalis, is certainly an asset at the drum kit, lending latin-tinged syncopation to “We Three Kings” and buoyancy to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman;”  He and Roman Skakun share vibraphone duties. Both bassists, Bill Huntington and Peter Harris, provide staunch support as well. Only the two vocal cuts, “A Child is Born,” sung by Cynthia Liggins Thomas, and “Christmas Joy” Johnaye Kendrick, underwhelm; the fault lies in the leaden singing, not the perfectly fine accompaniments. Program these two out of the playlist, and you have a rewarding collection of familiar and genteelly rendered holiday classics.

Jeffrey Biegel’s Christmas album (CD Review)

A Steinway Christmas Album: Music for the Season

Jeffrey Biegel, piano

Steinway & Sons

I’ll admit that this holiday season snuck up on me a bit. And while it’s taken me longer to get into the spirit than usual, I’m grateful to have had this CD at hand. It’s been an excellent aid to snapping out of the winter blues.

Pianist Jeffrey Biegel presents a classical crossover album of holiday chestnuts that is a cheering antidote to its all too ubiquitous nemeses: holiday schlock music. The latter’s execrations include forced gaiety and dubious associations with conspicuous consumption. Via prominent commercial placement, this mortal sin of Christmastime has even befallen many good holiday albums past. Instead, on A Steinway Christmas Album, the tunes are presented adorned only with a tasteful amount of music tinsel, in sparkling arrangements that are eminently adroit, showing off Biegel’s nimble dexterity without ever obscuring the underlying original pieces.

Even if you think you’re so sick of “Sleigh Ride” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” to never want to hear them again, the classy music-making here may yet charm you into changing your mind. Besides, things always sound better on a 9′ Steinway Concert Grand, don’t they?

Todd Reynolds: “Icy Sleeves of Green” (Video)

For those in need of a respite from the constant barrage of overexposed holiday ‘favorites,’ Todd Reynolds has provided just the thing. His recasting of Greensleeves into a deconstructed looping meditation manages to remain in the “festive wintry” pocket while avoiding all the tinsel-laden cloying of so much seasonal dreck. (Note: the video art behind Todd is by R. Luke Dubois).

The track can be heard on his latest Innova release, Outerborough, a double CD that is, in my opinion, one of 2011′s finest alt-classical recordings.

Or, if you prefer to grab this track a la carte, download it here for 99 cents.

RCRDLBL shares playlists for Thanksgiving

If you’re looking forward to Thanksgiving today, the folks at RCRDLBL have put together a suitable accompaniment to the festivities: a “Good Thanksgiving” listening list.

If, for whatever reason, your holiday seems more filled with dysfunction than normal, don’t worry – they’ve got your back there too.

Here’s an embed of the “Bad Thanksgiving” playlist.

What would we do without the folks at RCRDLBL, who seemingly anticipate our every musical mood? (sniff) It makes me thankful they’re around!

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate. Everyone else, have a grand Thursday.

By the way, for those of you braving the stores tomorrow, independent record sellers are holding Black Friday Record Store Day events, with special releases and other fun, to commemorate conspicuous consumption, record hound style.

Happy Independence Day from Charles and Greta

My parents-in-law have a long tradition of enthusiastic photography. Greta the golden retriever is less than a year old, but she’s already an accomplished model.

To those readers in the United States, I’d like to wish you a safe and happy Independence Day. While there’s a lot of music played on this holiday that is arranged to be “broadly appealing,” Charles Ives was never one to compromise. “Fourth of July” (1904), from the Holidays Symphony, complexly layers a number of patriotic tunes, which move a different speeds and simultaneously appear in different keys.

No one will mistake this piece for John Philip Sousa anytime soon, but it’s Ives’ way of paying tribute to the complex and multifaceted portrait that he saw both as America in the modern age and as the epitome of the American dream. Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Chicago Symphony in the embedded video below.

Stile Antico helps me wrap presents…

Well, not literally… although I bet that a tree-trimming party with this young ensemble would be be a lot of fun. But this disc has been a frequent companion in the lead up to the holidays. It’s an excellent antidote to the treacly fare with which one often is assaulted when doing their Christmas shopping!

Stile Antico

Puer Natus Est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas

Harmonia Mundi SACD/CD

Stile Antico’s latest recording presents Christmas music by some of the great English choral composers from the Renaissance, during the reigns of the Tudors. Working without a conductor, this is a chamber choir in the true sense of the word. Yet whether they are performing plain chant or polyphony, it’s a group that is marvelously in sync. This sense of collaborative musicianship pays dividends, showing itself most clearly in their fluid sense of delivery and enviably creamy blend and tone.

The disc’s centerpiece is Thomas Tallis’ “Puer Natus Est” mass. It is interspersed with selections by William Byrd, John Sheppard, John Taverner, and Robert White.

Stile Antico does particularly wonderful things with the music of Byrd, as you can see below. (Since we ran their EPK in an earlier post, the group was kind enough to supply fresh video of “Tollite Portas.”) And their singing of the Tallis mass is truly marvelous. They manage to balance its often complexly arrayed contrapuntal passages, finding a through-line even when it is at its most dense. Tallis’ music also contains considerable chromaticism and many cross-relations. Stile Antico relishes each dissonance and savors their resolutions, clarifying the Mass’ overarching harmonic trajectory.

Though White may be less of a household name than some of the others on the disc, his Magnificat setting is a particularly felicitous inclusion. The work intersperses ambitiously ascendant passages of counterpoint with sections of plainchant. While it’s in a style that may be less intricate than Tallis’ mass,  the Magnificat is, in its own way, its equal in terms of eloquence.

Puer Natus Est may consist of music for the Advent and Christmas seasons, but I have a feeling that many listeners will want to play it year ’round.