Happy Holidays, 2023
The Reason for the Season is an Attitude of Gratitude...
After an extended period of turmoil and uncertainty in music writing, I have reached a sort of endgame with this most loved avocation. Let’s celebrate with a look at some seasonal music of joy and hope.
The Gesualdo Six - Morning Star
(Hyperion Records, 2023)
Following up on their successful homage commemorating the 400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death with Byrd: Mass For Five Voices (Hyperion, 2023), The Gesualdo Six expanded the umbrella of seasonal choral music to include compositions celebrating The Epiphany on Morning Star. The Epiphany is a Christian feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi (or Three Wise Men), the baptism of Jesus, and the wedding at Cana. It is typically celebrated on January 6. Characteristically the group addresses the old, plainchants “Omnes de Saba venient” and “Vidimus stellam” and the new, Arvo Part’s title piece and Joanna Marsh’s “In Winter’s House.” Of particular beauty is Jacob Handl’s “Mirabile Mysterium.” Should the listener prefer the more traditional, seek out the group’s Christmas (Hyperion, 2019).
John Paul McGee Trio - A Gospejazzical Christmas
(Sugo Music Group, 2023)
Dr. John Paul McGee’s Gospejazzical, Vol. 1 (Sugo Music Group, 2022) was an exceptionally rich debut recording. Like that recording, McGee’s seasonal offering, A Gospejazzical Christmas, mixes formats (solo to quartet), arrangments, and reharmonizations like the best musical alchemists. McGee is masterful in his use of color and locale. “Emmanuel” is given a breezy islands treatment, while “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” presents McGee as vocalist taking the aging chestnut at a beautifully slow tempo. “Little Drummer Boy” goes back to the islands and “Christmas Time Is Here,” sung by Lori Williams with only McGee accompanying is black tie and Santal 33 elegant. “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is all McGee, summoning an exuberant churchy piano beneath his mirthful vocals. This recording is the celebration it should be.
George Gee Swing Orchestra - Winter Wonderland
(George Gee, 2023)
George Gee and his nine-member Swing Orchestra bring some decidedly midcentury modern tinsel to 10-holiday favorites, starting with “Winter Wonderland Mambo” performed in bright Ricky Ricardo Black and White on a 1950s Tuesday night. Vocalist John Dokes contributes to several selections (of note: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song”), sharing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Hilary Gardner so festive you can smell the spiked eggnog and filterless Lucky Strikes after your parents send you to bed. Gee’s holiday recording returns to a simpler, more nostalgically vibrant time.
George Burton - The Yule Log
(Porge Records, 2023)
Pianist and composer George Burton has a different idea about the holidays, one that is as anxious as it is hopeful. Burton’s conception of holiday music is multi-dimensional. A jazz artist, the pianist/composer colors well beyond the lines of the traditional jazz seasonal offering. Burton wedges a string trio (violin, viola, cello) into a standard jazz trio and proceeds to dismantle the Christmas canon in a most modern way. The traditional Catalan carol, “Fum Fum Fum” is performed with more than a little East European Jewish flavor. “The HollyAnd The Ivy” is cast as anything but a Medieval British carol. “We Three Kings” is frantically presented, demanding attention for its frenetic anxiety. Handling the vocal duties is Nancy Harms, with Aryssa Leigh Burrs as a special guest on one track. These singers add the nog to Burton’s egg, achieving an excellent holiday blend.
Mads Tolling - Cool Yule
(Madsman Records, 2023)
Besides leading The Mads Men, Danish violinist Mads Tolling was a Turtle Island String Quartet and bassist Stanley Clarke’s band member. The jazz violin is an instrument and approach that has been dominated historically by Stéphane Grappelli and his Quintette du Hot Club de France brand of jazz that he made with guitarist Django Reinhardt during the first half of the 20th century. Tolling joins Regina Carter and others in being a standard bearer for the jazz violin today. Cool Yule is Tolling’s tip-of-the-hat to the holiday season. Played with a piano trio, Cool Yule features the standard fare of “The Christmas Song,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” He shares with us seasonal songs from his native Denmark, “På Loftet Sidder Nissen (The Gnome’s Attic)” and “Jólakötturinn (The Christmas Cat)” played with his characteristic deep wooden sound, old, warm, and secure.
Samara Joy - A Joyful Holiday
(Verve Records, 2023)
Everywhere at once, vocalist Samara Joy, winner of the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best New Artist releases her follow-up to Linger Awhile (Verve Records, 2022) in A Joyful Holiday. Joy performs a slim six selections including the golden chestnuts: “The Christmas Song” (presented in the studio and live) and “O Holy Night” performed with the McLendon Family, with solemn organ accompaniment, a simple majestic reading ranking with that of Mahalia Jackson’s from Christmas With Mahalia (Columbia Records, 1968). Included are rarer holiday offerings in a reprise of Julie London’s “Warm In December” and a delightful performance of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me.” A smooth single malt of a recording.
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste - Arvo Pärt: Tractus
(ECM New Series, 2023)
This is not strictly holiday music. I include this here because Pärt is our greatest living composer and this choral music, based on the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, is the apex of modern musical thought. Tractus is made up of religious works composed by Pärt over the past twenty-five years. This is quiet and contemplative music intended to be heard circumspect in meditation. In Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste and ECM’s producer Manfred Eicher, Pärt has his most sympathetic collaborators. and they ensure the depth and quality of this brief and intense retrospective of Pärt’s completely human and accessible compositional method. This is a crowning achievement in the Pärt’s extensive ECM catalog.
The English Concert & Choir, John Nelson - Handel: Messiah
(Erato Records, 2023)
This is the first of two complete Messiahs released this year, and the newest to have been released since Hans-Christoph Rademann’s performance with Gaechinger Cantorey for Accentus in 2020. John Nelson’s setting of Messiah moves the performance toward older interpretations with slower tempi but retaining the authenticity of period instrumentation. Eschewing a single version, Nelson does a shake-n-bake selection of arias and arrangments. As a bonus, Nelson adds eight tracks offering further alternative arias for each of the solo singers and some rarely heard pieces. Tenor Michael Spyres and counter-tenor Alex Potter are standouts. This is a lively performance that amply reveals the joy in Handel’s masterpiece.
Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Musica Catalana, Orchestre de l'Opera Royal, Franco Fagioli - Handel: Messiah
Franco Fagioli is a marquee countertenor who has taken up conducting and for his first release has chosen Handel’s Messiah. Where the lion’s share of Messiahs smacks of the compositions of Anglo origins, Fagioli divines a warm Mediterranean spirit from Il caro sassone’s meditation on the life of Christ. This performance is reminiscent of Emmanuelle Haïm’s 2014 reading with Le Concert D’Astrée for Erato. This is decidedly not your parents’ Messiah. This is a warmer, more humid reading of the typically chilly presentations this oratorio has enjoyed. This is a performance worth savoring many times.