Recorder Music In The Air

This morning when I walked into Terminal 2 at the Fort Lauderdale airport I heard a familiar, yet almost forgotten, sound in the air.  A local elementary school recorder group was working through some holiday music, piping away with all their might.

It brought back memories of going to school holiday music concerts when the kids were little.  Inevitably, at least one recorder performance was part of the show.  There was something about the peculiar, high-pitched, quavering sound of recorders played by little kids that seemed to directly attack the central nervous system.  We parents learned that a little recorder music goes a very long way.

Ever since, nothing says happy holidays quite like Deck the Halls played by a second-grade recorder band.

Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus Holiday Show

Last night Kish and I and Mr. and Mrs. JV attended the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus holiday music show.  Entitled Joy! “Set the Earth Aglow,” it featured performances by the Chorus as well as  Illuminati and Vox, which are two other choral groups, all backed by a piano, horn and violin sections, drums, and bells.

I love holiday choral music, and the Chorus show offered a good mix of traditional and new offerings.  I particularly like The Yearning, a beautiful piece I’d never heard before, the toe-tapping Oba Se Je, a fine rendition of songs from the Beach Boys’ classic Christmas album, and Recycle The Fruitcake, a rollicking comic triumph.  The show closed with audience participation in singing The Little Drummer Boy.

It was an excellent performance that really put me in the Christmas mood (and made me think that I need to get cracking on my holiday baking, too).  If you want to kick start your holidays and watch some guys who obviously enjoy singing and are having fun doing it, you can catch two other performances of the program, today and tomorrow, at the King Avenue United Methodist Church.

In Praise Of Vince Guaraldi

If you’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ve enjoyed the music of Vince Guaraldi.

Guaraldi’s jazz-flavored interpretations of holiday classics like O Tannenbaum, What Child Is This?, and Greensleeves, played by a trio with Guaraldi on piano, Jerry Granelli on drums, and Puzzy Firth on bass, were perfectly suited to Charles Schulz’s beautiful tale of Charlie Brown’s search for the meaning of Christmas.  I long ago bought the soundtrack CD at a bargain bin, and Guaraldi’s songs have been a key part of the holidays at the Webner household ever since.  I really can’t imagine what the holidays would be like without that music.

On a soundtrack album that is filled with gem after gem, my favorite track is the the instrumental version of Christmas Time Is Here — spare, shuffling, deeply melodic, with each note heartfelt and moving.  It’s the first song on my holiday mix iPod playlist and it inevitably puts me in the holiday mood.  It’s perfect music for a wintry day.

Although I will always associate Vince Guaraldi with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  With his trademark glasses and thick handlebar moustache, he was a staple of the jazz scene for two decades.  He recorded lots of excellent music, including the memorable Cast Your Fate to the Wind.  His career was cut short by his untimely death, of an apparent heart attack, in 1976, when he was only 47 years old.  You can learn a little bit more about Guaraldi and his music here.  It’s worth a few moments to know more about a man who helped to provide a soundtrack for our holidays.

Following In Bing’s Footsteps

Let’s say you are a successful modern recording artist.  Your agent or manager or record company comes to you and asks you to do a Christmas CD.

A Christmas CD sounds attractive for lots of reasons.  You wouldn’t need to write any new songs.  Flip through the pages of the American Christmas music songbook, pick out the songs you want to record, hire some studio musicians, book a week of studio time, and you’re set.  It’s cheap, and straightforward, and your dedicated fans will probably buy just about anything you produce.

And yet . . . if you were a real artist, and not just a fad act looking to make a quick buck, doing a Christmas CD should fill you with trepidation.  It’s daunting to follow in Bing Crosby’s footsteps and sing the same songs he put his stamp on.  And unless you want to go to the fringes of Christmas music and fill your CD with novelty numbers like All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do.  How do you bring something new and fresh to songs that have been sung thousands of times by different artists and are as familiar to listeners as Happy Birthday?

I love to listen to Christmas music when December rolls around, and one of the things I like about it is hearing how different artists have tackled the standards.  You wouldn’t think anybody could produce a White Christmas that could contend with Bing Crosby’s definitive treatment, but the Drifters’ doo-wop version, Oscar Peterson’s jazzy take, and Linda Ronstadt’s duet with Rosemary Clooney are each as enjoyable and memorable, in their own way, as Crosby’s rendering.  In fact, you could argue that the very familiarity of Christmas songs has caused artists to experiment and push the boundaries of the music — often to good effect.  Christmas music is flexible enough to work with the Windham Hill approach, jazz stylings, choral backing, rock ‘n’ roll, and other genres.

We should applaud artists who release Christmas CDs.  Some of them will suck, for sure . . . but every now and then someone will rise to the challenge and hit upon an arrangement or approach that gives a new perspective to an old favorite, and add to the long roster of holiday classics that we can enjoy, again and again, in holidays to come.

Holiday Mix

Christmas is less than two weeks away and the signs of the approaching holiday are everywhere.  The Christmas decorations have been taken from the basement and put in their familiar locations.  This weekend we will get our tree, trim it with the ornaments we have collected over the years, and hang our stockings on the chimney with care.   At the office, Christmas cards are arriving and being displayed on doors, and people have started to add seasonal touches to their clothing.  Women get to wear festive sweaters and scarves; men make do with holiday ties and socks (of which I have a decent assortment).

And, of course, a big part of the holidays is the music.  As I’ve mentioned before, I love Christmas music, and it is well-represented on the Ipod in the Holiday Mix playlist, which is 293 songs and 15.8 hours long.  I like mixing up music and I’ve tried to do that with my Christmas music playlist — instrumental music with vocal, traditional carols with pop songs and James Brown, jazz-influenced treatments with the Salvation Army band, classically trained tenors with ’50s crooners and torch singers.  The first 20 songs on the Holiday Mix playlist are as follows:

Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental) —    Vince Guaraldi,   A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Christmas Song —   Linda Ronstadt,  A Merry Little Christmas
Gruber: Stille Nacht (Silent Night) —    José Carreras, Christmas Favorites From The World’s Favorite Tenors
Sleigh Ride —    Leroy Anderson,  Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Colleion
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen —    Bing Crosby,  White Christmas
Jingle Bell Rock —   Bobby Helms, Season’s Greetings-Disc 2-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
O Come, O Come Emanuel —   Robert Shaw Chorale, A Festival Of Carols
The Holly & The Ivy —    Mediaeval Baebes, Mistletoe & Wine: A Seasonal Collection
Blue Christmas —    Elvis Presley, Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits
Go Tell It On The Mountain —   Mahalia Jackson,  Christmas With Mahalia Jackson
II – Redemption : Alma redemptoris —    Edward Higginbottom,  Nativitas
The Spirit Of Christmas —    Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney: White Christmas
What Child Is This? —    Oscar Peterson,  An Oscar Peterson Christmas
A Holly Jolly Christmas —    Burl Ives, Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas —    The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait
O Holy Night (Cantique De Noel) —   Mormon Tabernacle Choir,  Christmas With The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Let It Snow —   Dean Martin, Christmas With Ol’ Dino
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71A – Danses Caracteristiques: Marche —    Alberto Lizzio: London Festival Orchestra, Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake (Ballet Suites)
Feliz Navidad —    José Feliciano,  Feliz Navidad
Please Come Home For Christmas —    James Brown,  Funky Christmas

Christmas Music

I am a sucker for Christmas music of all kinds. I like traditional carols sung by choirs, ’60s holiday rock ‘n roll like Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, oratorical masterpieces like the Messiah, and jazz and Big Band treatments of the Christmas standards. I’m always on the lookout for some new holiday music to add to the Ipod “holiday mix” playlist. The challenge is to find another “Christmas album” that compares to the all-time classics, like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or, more recently, Linda Ronstadt’s a Merry Little Christmas.

And so, I must give kudos to the Purple Raider, who long ago recommended An Oscar Peterson Christmas. I finally picked it up recently, and it has met my high expectations. It is an excellent, note-perfect jazz tribute to the holidays that has to rank up there with some of the best Christmas albums ever. Its combination of slow and fast treatments, piano and vibes, will allow for an even better mix of tunes for the days of holiday baking.

More on Christmas music later. In the meantime, as we ramp up to the holidays, An Oscar Peterson Christmas gets the Webnerhouse seal of approval.