At one time, for a rather long period of time, most Christmas music consisted first of music that was liturgical. Although the earliest known Christmas music to become somewhat widely sung predates the 13th Century, when St. Francis of Assisi is credited with “inventing” the Christmas Carol, based on the chants, litanies and hymns that were sung in Latin, it is possible that some of the poetry and psalms that existed in Biblical times was “sung” by prophetic and kingly figures—at least until the time of King David. However, by the time St. Francis of Assisi adapted hymns into the rather more popular carol form, a new form of celebrating the birth of The Christ spread far across the continent. Strictly speaking, it was the English who combined the hymn with the musicality and lyricism of the circle dance and the carol as we know it today was born. It was John Audelay, a Shropshire priest and poet who was credited with compiling 25 “Caroles de Cristemas” as they began to be included in the repertoire of the “wassailers,” later called “carolers” groups of singers who went from home to home or orchard to orchard heralding and singing to avid listeners. Thus the carol was separated from the hymn as spiritual is from profane. Naturally this revelry was frowned up on during the iron-fisted Reformation when much of what begun as “Catholic” was supressed and ultimately banned as too profane a practice for church-going faithful. This lasted well past the Commonwealth of England, when Oliver Cromwell ruled from his seat in London.
It was not until the Restoration to the throne in 1660 of Charles II, the Stuart Monarch that the practice of singing carols was restored to the church’s celebrations and therefore became legal in England and its realm again. But Christmas music as is known today did not become popular until the 19th century in England, again, as William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern appeared in 1833, followed almost fifty years later by singing them in the church on Christmas Eve, 1880, with Nine Lessons and Carols sung in the Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. However, the creation of music to celebrate the birth of The Christ was marked by the composition of some of the most enduring music of all time, such as Thomas Tallis’ Latin MassPuer natis est nobis in 1554, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de n.s. Jésus Christ around 1670. Then there is the cantatas and other music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach for Christmas to Epiphany and the Christmas Oratorio of 1734; probably the most famous today is Georg Frederic Handel’s Messiah which was composed in 1941, but actually premiered in Dublin actually in April of 1742; but which has become one of the most celebrated Christmas music since then. Hector Berlioz composed L’enfance du Christ between 1853 and 1854. Other well-known compositions are Camille Saint-Saens Oratorio de Noël (1858), Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (1942) and a slew of other Christmas cantatas from the Baroque to the modern (21st Century) era.
…Jump-cut to 2008/09, then fade to 2011/12
And no historic recollection may be complete without mention of He is Christmas (1991) by the a capella group Take 6, a miraculous sextet that uses advanced harmonies and truly sophisticated improvisations, while keeping the message in the forefront, and David Foster’s record, The Christmas Album (1993, then Universal Music Group, 2008). The sheer arrogance of using the definite article in the name of the record, suggests that Mr. Foster was pretty sure of what he was doing musically and his version of “Carol of The Bells” proves his point. His recording is all brilliant from there on. Of course there is the predictable appearance by superstars such as Celine Dion, who performs a truly magnificent version of “The Christmas Song”. But Mr. Foster also includes exquisite arrangements by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack (“The Christmas Song”) “O Holy Night” with Michael Crawford and a slew of other wonderful songs with a slew of fine artists. It is no wonder then how Mr. Foster’s record has become a classic five years on. One of Mr. Foster’s greatest assets—apart from his ingenious musicality, of course—is his ability to spot great artistry in others, then write enduring arrangements—he shares the arrangements on this project with two great arrangers, Jeremy Lubbock and the great Johnny Mandel. On this album, these wonderful arrangements blur the lines between musical idioms and bring artists together to sing and play his arrangements. What is also true is that Mr. Foster can make a small ensemble sound like a 100-plus strong orchestra. However, on this album, he is supported by a 75-piece orchestra. However, much of the music calls for vocalists to be present and what a stellar cast Mr. Foster assembles. Perhaps one of the finest charts on the album is “Blue Christmas,” which features a timeless-sounding vocal by Wynonna Judd. BeBe and CeCe Winans’ version of “The First Noel” has been cast on a spectacular musical canvas as is Johnny Mathis’ version of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. Another inspired arrangement is the medley of spirituals “Go Tell It On The Mountain/Mary Had a Baby” as is its protagonist, the wonderful Vanessa Williams. The vocalist does not appear too often in this role, but when she does she always turns in the most majestic of all performances. Perhaps there is something to be said of being picky. This record is what Duke Ellington would surely have called the sound of surprise.
Alexis Cole’s 2009 recording The Greatest Gift—Songs of the Season is another one of those spectacular recordings that never seems tired, no matter how many times it is played and listened to. This recording is just as spectacular as David Foster’s, but while Mr. Foster’s recording references several musical idioms, Ms. Cole’s leans completely towards the jazz and rhythm and blues idiom. Borrowing from the African idioms may be completely appropriate, as is seen and heard in the 2011 recording (later) made by Geri Allen. Although this narrows things down a bit, the sophistication of the music—which sometimes includes the Alan Farber nonet—is sometimes so blinding that it leaves the listener quite breathless. The African American Spiritual “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” is superbly arranged. The inclusion of the Indian tabla and the tanpura, together with the soprano saxophone give the chart a truly ethereal air and make this version unlike anything that has been written and performed by any artist ever since modern recording can be tracked. Doubtless, there will be carols sung in the Indian vernacular that incorporate more ethnic idioms, but one that crosses the borders between Africa, Indian and the Americas would be hard to find. Ms. Cole’s vocal gymnastics throughout this chart are also quite special. Among the other special performances on the recording are those by the saxophonist, Don Braden, violinist Christian Howes, whose unbridled genius lights up each of the charts on which he plays, Alan Farber, who continues to remind listeners what a fine trombonist he is. The band’s choral version of “Silent Night” with spectacular dissonances appears late in the album and is well worth waiting for.
New compositions are few and far between, but some performances of Christmas music are likely to endure almost endlessly. Perhaps as famous as anything created and sung for Christmas is the song, “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. Although the fame of the song ought to be divided between Irving Berlin, its composer, and Bing Crosby, who made it famous, not once—as he did in 1942 when he first sang it on the radio; then several times until it became a hit when Mr. Crosby acted in and sung the now legendary song in the 1954 film, A White Christmas. Perhaps the bestselling song of all time, “White Christmas” the single has reportedly sold over 50 million copies worldwide. The chart has been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley (1954) and Al Jarreau (2008) to Andrea Bocelli (2009); Cee Lo Green (2011) to Rod Stewart (2012) and Erasure (1013). Yet Bing Crosby’s classic version remains the most popular ever. This and several other favourites appeared on a compilation album, Bing Crosby Christmas Favourites (2011) produced by Kathryn Crosby for the Bing Crosby imprint. It features 18 classic songs by arguably one of the most illustrious tenors in musical history. One of the 2011 albums that did not include “White Christmas,” and yet was one of the best Holiday album that year will continue to be This Christmas (BJR Records) by the Vancouver-based trumpeter and flugelhorn player Chris Davis. As a horn player, Mr. Davis uses all his wiles and brings many magical moments to his recording, which is informed by a warm, burnished tone and an extraordinarily colourful palette of sounds. Perhaps the highlight of this recording is its exquisite version of another Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy” a 1941 composition from the pen of an American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis.
However, one of the most exquisite recordings of 2011 was A Child Is Born (Motéma) by the inimitable pianist Geri Allen. This spectacular recording was made largely as a solo pianist, but also included the voices of Connaitre Miller, Carolyn Brewer and Barbara Roney. The album begins with a monumental version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” a largely improvised essay featuring some wondrous counterpoint played by a powerful left hand by Ms. Allen. The surprise of the album is Thad Jones’ immortal composition “A Child is Born”. There is the suggestion that came from that other wonderful pianist, Marian McPartland that the chart ought to become a part of the Christmas canon. It took the unbridled ingenuity of Ms. Allen to make it so. However it may be two versions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which features the voices of the Quilters of Gee’s Bend that could be the showpiece of the album, not only for the short exquisite vocal interlude, but also for the majestic tone of Ms. Allen’s voice and her equally grand improvisations, both of which feature Ms. Allen’s extraordinary bass-line melodic and harmonic inventions. “Imagining Gena at Sunrise/Imagining Gena at Sunset” is one of those charts that is based on the apocryphal story of the Shepherds of Gena, who, it is believed visited the baby Jesus in his crib at the time of his birth. The song alludes to the game they were playing in Gena, Ethiopia before they made their journey. The haunting beauty of Geri Allen’s version “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and her stark improvisations in this chart make it one of the most mesmerising charts of all. Ms. Allen’s epic and seemingly endless inventions continue through “The Little Drummer Boy,” the two sets of Christmas medleys, “God is With Us” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” until she returns to “O Come O Come Emmanuel” briefly, to close this magnificent recording. The packaging of this album was also one of its highlights and includes very beautifully written notes by the musician and educator, Reverend Dwight D. Andrews and lavish production by the label—all of which contributes to making this one of the most enduring of Christmas recordings in a very long time.
The year 2011 also saw the release of a superbly produced compilation Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by the Montreal based label Justin Time. Executive produced by its owner Jim West, the album broke some rules and chose to mix traditional and modern versions of Christmas songs and carols. For instance, the spectacular pianist Oliver Jones’ superbly crafted and rather modern version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” nestles rather comfortably with Hilary Cole’s “Let It Snow”. But then there is a rather madcap calypso medley of Christmas hymns which is all but forgettable thanks to “Little Drummer Boy” a masterful version by the New Jersey-born pianist Taurey Butler and his trio, followed by a swinging version of “Jingle Bells” by the celebrated Diana Krall; this priceless version swinging its way from stride, through swing and bebop before returning to its stride version. As if that were not enough, Ms. Krall is followed by Hank Jones’ majestic version of “The Christmas Song”, who is followed by Oliver Jones accompanying the wonderful contralto, Ranee Lee singing an almost aria-like version of “A Christmas Day”. But the most evocatively beautiful “Christmas Medley” by the Rob McConnell Tentet, one of Canada’s most celebrated big bands for several years, is the scene stealer on this compilation, despite the presence of Hank Jones, Oliver Jones and Diana Krall’s contributions.
Perhaps the most well-known Christmas recording is one that features a vocal artist who is very possibly the best-known by many accounts, since Frank Sinatra. On Michael Bublé Christmas Mr. Bublé shows why he was honored with a Grammy and nominated for another in the 2013/14 issue of the event. Although the Grammys is no exclusive indicator of the quality of music that an artist produces, it is eventually a fact that only the best of the best win. Also nothing is predictable about Mr. Bublé’s work. He continues to surprise with his vocalastics and his work on this album is no exception. Although most of the fare is wonderfully traditional in its selection, Mr. Bublé is one of the finest tenors and it bears mention that he seems to sound as wonderfully original as a certain Mr. Sinatra did in his heyday. While it may seem somewhat premature to compare Michael Bublé to Frank Sinatra, he is not really that far off and on his day he can phrase as marvellously as Ole Blue Eyes himself. Moreover Mr. Bublé is able to dazzle an audience like few other artists performing today and usually holds his audiences in the palm of his hands no matter where he is performing. Almost predictably, however, the finest song on this recording is “White Christmas”.
Another fine Christmas recording—this one also from Justin Time, Montreal—was released in 2012. This one is focussed on the singular vocal styling of the Canadian Halie Loren, who is accompanied by Matt Treder on piano for this spectacular recording Many Times Many Ways. Ms. Loren is a graceful singer with an earthy and ethereal tone and manner. Perhaps being brought up in a place so far north—so close to the North Pole that is—gives the vocalist a dreamy, almost spectral manner. Her intonation is glorious, almost aglow. Ms. Loren’s enunciates her words with spectacular clarity and her lines always end with a fading vibrato that is almost ghostly in its beauty. Her version of “The Christmas Song” returns the song to its fable-like antecedents. “Winter Wonderland” is almost embarrassingly beautiful and proves that Mr. Treder is a pianist with greater than mere listening skills. Among his finer moments is the deliciously served up “Sugar Cookies” and suddenly it appears that Ms. Loren may not be the only star of the recording. But of course she is at least one half of it. One rather striking feature of her music is that despite her rather young years Ms. Loren handles more sensuous fare such as “Blue Holiday” and “Santa Baby” with extraordinary poise and a sensuous charm of her own. However, the highlight of her Christmas collection may easily be the hauntingly beautiful “Nature Boy,” a song not generally associated with the Season, but one which Ms. Loren almost magically makes so. And then there was this: a rather surprising offering from the Brasilian born Miguel de León, who served up not one but two CDs of music: one was music sung in his native Portuguese entitled Natal and the other was a recording of the same fare, but translated and sung in Spanish. This recording, predictably, was entitled Navidad. Both recordings are superbly produced and because Mr. De León is bilingual, his intonation and pronunciation in both languages are beyond reproach; in fact it is more like spectacular. Mr. de Leon has a velvety counter-tenor and is one of the most sophisticated voices to grace the music of Brasil. The arrangements of the Brasilian CD are rhythmically superb, although the translations of songs such as “The Little Drummer Boy” translated as “Meo Velho Tambor” might take some getting used to, when the music graduates from the foreign to the local things get a lot better. Charts such as “Boas Festas,” “O Ano Passando” and the marcha “Os Reis do Oriente” are exceptionally beautiful. And “Fim do Ano” which concludes the Brasilian segment of the album is quite the crowning glory of the album. Miguel de León’s Spanish language is just as beautiful. Much of this has to do with subtly changes arrangements and of course Mr. De León’s exquisite voice.
2013: The year of a man and a woman
The year 2013 saw the rise of smaller labels and independents. Accordingly one of the most outstanding Christmas albums is most certainly the double album produced by pianist and vocalist Peggy Duquesnel. All I Ask for Christmas (Joy Spring Music) features a whole CD of instrumental versions of traditional Christmas carols and songs. But there are also four originals by the pianist, “All I Ask for Christmas,” “Christmas is Here” “Under The Christmas Tree” and the spiritually inclined “Light of Christmas”. Ms. Duquesnel is clearly an avid student of the history of jazz. She lets on right at the beginning of this recording as she launches into a magnificent vamp from “Blue in Green” to introduce an utterly beautiful version of “Little Drummer Boy” and continues harmonising her version of the song with that Bill Evans chart after Brian Bromberg, the bassist on the date plays an exceptional solo. Her Africanised version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is another spectacular chart—this one being rhythmically inclined naturally features percussion colourist Brian Kilgore and the inimitable Joe LaBarbera on drums. That Ms. Duquesnel is a fine pianist goes without saying. Her soli are exceptionally controlled and elegant and superbly crafted as if she were creating a great baroque edifice. But she can also be almost humbly simple in her approach to invention, which often—as in “Mary Did You Know”—makes for beauty that is stark and almost naked in its approach to pianistic invention. The African-Cuban version of “O Christmas Tree” is almost too delicious to enjoy. Once again, percussionists also excel in this chart. It feels almost appropriate that “Silent Night” should be a waltz with a slightly country flavour and here Jay Leech’s slide guitar played just under the vibes of Brian Kilgore adds just that subtle country touch to an already rocking waltz.
Ms. Duquesnel’s version of “What Child is This” written in the almost identical quintuple (5/4) time that Paul Desmond wrote the classic “Take Five” But that is where the similarity ends? Not quite, as Joe La Barbera’s solo almost follows Joe Morello’s solo note for note in an extraordinary tribute to one of the most famous and inventive quartets in the history of jazz. On the vocal side of the business Ms. Duquesnel adds some sugar and spice to music that she has already performed as instrumentals, on CD1. This comes in the form of her delightful voice now added to her fine pianism as well. The fact that Ms. Duquesnel is an accomplished pianist has much to do with the beautiful performances on CD 1. Now she adds her vocals to this and the effect is quite amazing. Who knew that there would be a performer who would give Diana Krall and Patricia Barber a run for their money? Using the same ensemble as she does on her instrumental music, Ms. Duquesnel exceeds herself as do the other musicians. “Light of Christmas” and “Christmas is Here” besides some fine renditions of traditional Christmas music are among the stand-out charts on this vocal CD2. “All I Ask For Christmas” becomes a svelte duet here with Ms. Duquesnel and Bill Cantos. Elsewhere the vocals are complemented by Emma Werderman, a fine vocalist in her own right. Ms. Duquesnel performs some of the instrumental fare in their vocal incarnations, but a majority of the songs are exclusive to the vocal side of the offering, which also makes this package well worth the money, and is likely to remain so, this year and for several more to come.
Another splendid Christmas recording Merry Christmas To You (Mack Avenue) comes from Jonathan Butler, a vocalist with a natural and a singular style, and a range from counter-tenor all the way up to falsetto—a remarkable ability for an R&B singer today. Mr. Butler is also a fine instrumentalist and like Stevie Wonder, can play almost any instrument quite competently. His Christmas musical offering also reaches high point quite early in the proceedings as he starts his set with Donny Hathaway’s extraordinary song “This Christmas,” and his version of this chart could also melt the ice off the Polar extremities. It might also come as a surprise to many that Mr. Butler was born in South Africa, where he suffered much as an artist and triumphed when his first single was also the first by a black artist to hit the South African charts and be awarded the South African version of the Grammys. In the light of his background, his version of “Little Drummer Boy” is easily the classic of this recording, played at a haunting tempo, swung in inimitable style; it begins with a superb tribal-like call that melts into a gospel version of the classic song, before returning to end in a subtle choral setting, but with a rhythmic beating of the cajón and an udu drum as well. His “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a beautifully enunciated chart played tantalisingly slowly and with a fine, plaintive vocal. Mr. Butler also performs a frighteningly beautiful version of “The First Noel,” accompanying himself on guitar, an instrument he plays with exceptional passion, grace and fire. “O Holy Night” is another magnificently performed chart, where Mr. Butler puts his voice and his guitar through their paces and gives stellar performances on both instruments.
With such erudite performances as those by Ms. Peggy Duquesnel and Jonathan Butler, it might easily be suggested that both these recordings will endure as did David Foster’s and Alexis Cole’s did. The same might be said of Geri Allen’s recording, which is clearly one that stands apart from the rest of the recordings which feature similar fare in terms of traditional music performed almost too close to the traditional arrangements to be considered unique. Thus there may be many more recordings of Christmas, but when considered along with perhaps a cantata or the choral works of “The Messiah” their ingenuity and timeless quality is sometimes called into question. But not Bing Crosby’s 1942 version of “White Christmas,” or Geri Allen’s “A Child is Born”. Only time will tell.