Cool Spins for the Holidays

Dec 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Mix staff

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This month we're deviating from our usual Cool Spins format so I can give a tip o' the Santa hat to some favorite holiday CDs in different genres. In our household, we listen to a lot of Christmas music during December. Herewith, a dozen time-tested classics for the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Frank Sinatra: Christmas Dreaming (Columbia)
Not surprisingly, there are several different Sinatra holiday collections available, the most popular being The Sinatra Christmas Album, which includes several tracks performed with his kids in the mid- and late '60s. I prefer this admitedly rather short set recorded in the '40s and early '50s; it's the young crooner Frank, and his voice has rarely sounded more angelic. The emphasis is on Christmas ballads, with "White Christmas" and a truly heartbreaking rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" the clear standouts.

No recording information available, but it was cut in New York and Los Angeles.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Joy to the World (CBS, 1964)
This is Christmas bombast at its most stirring, with the famous 375-voice choir backed by the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble and the largest pipe organ in the world. The group is more convincing on "serious" religious material than lighthearted carols, but all are performed with gusto and feeling. This is the musical equivalent of putting too many lights and beautiful ornaments on a tree - but it still dazzles.

Producer: Thomas Frost. Engineers: Edward Graham and Arthur Kandy. Recorded at the Mormon Tabernacle (Salt Lake City).

Leon Redbone: Christmas Island (Private, 1989)
If you know Redbone's ouevre, you can guess what this disc sounds like - sort of a '30s swing approach; Django Reinhardt meets Burl Ives. Redbone is in excellent form vocally and he's got a great acoustic group backing him, including Dr. John on piano (and shared lead vocals on a delightful version of "Frosty the Snowman"). Redbone's crooning is clearly Sinatra-influenced, but he has both the chops and a certain whimsical quality that makes his retro approach pretty darn appealing.

Producers: Beryl Handler and Leon Redbone. Engineer: Doug Epstein. Studio: Manhattan Recording Studio.

George Winston: December (Windham Hill, 1982)
A beautiful solo piano voyage through the holiday season ranging from Winston originals such as "Thanksgiving" and the three-part "Night" to variations on Pachelbel's "Kanon" (which by its inclusion on this popular CD is now considered by some to be a holiday piece), "The Holy and the Ivy," "Carol of the Bells," and more. A true modern classic.

Producers: William Ackerman and George Winston. Engineers: Steven Miller and Karen Kirsch. Studio: Different Fur (San Francisco).

Various Artists: Hipster's Holiday (Rhino, 1989)
This totally swingin' and often hilarious disc features 18 tracks, most of them from the '50s. What a cast: Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Miles Davis and Bob Dorough, Eartha Kitt, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and more give the holidays a fresh twist on songs such as "Cool Yule," "Santa Baby," "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus," "We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo," "Christmas Night in Harlem" and "'Zat You, Santa Claus." Wild!

Compilation Producer: James Austin.

Various Artists: Phil Spector's Christmas Album (Warner/Spector, 1963)
From the first note of this famous holiday record, you know it can only be a Phil Spector production; in its own way it's as grand as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Wrecking Crew's inimitable Wall of Sound is in all its glory on tracks sung by Spector stablemates The Ronettes, Darlene Love, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans and The Crystals. Some of this is over-the-top even for Christmas, but the best songs are so overflowing with Spectorian spirit that only a Grinch would complain. The arrangements are by the late, great Jack Nitzsche.

Producer: Phil Spector. Engineer: Larry Levine. Studio: Gold Star (Hollywood).

The Roches: We Three Kings (MCA, 1990)
Sisters Maggie, Terre and Suzzy Roche put their beautiful and distinctive harmony blend to marvelous use on this 24-song collection of mostly well-known holiday tunes. Whether soaring through religious hymns or scampering through playful numbers, The Roches' deft touch always sounds fresh and inspired. My one disappointment with the disc is that it does not include their fabulous arrangement of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," the Easter chorale that's become so closely identified with Christmas.

Producers: The Roches and Jeffrey Lesser. Engineer: Jeffrey Lesser. Studio: RPM (NY).

Wynton Marsalis: Crescent City Christmas Card (CBS, 1989)
In a mainly up and lighthearted mood, jazz trumpeter Marsalis leads his late '80s sextet through a well-chosen collection of holiday standards, many of them rearranged to have a little N'awlins feel. High-profile guests include clarinetist Alvin Batiste and singers Kathleen Battle and Jon Hendricks.

Producer: Stephen Epstein. Engineers: Tim Geelan and Dennis Ferrante. Studio: CBS (NY).

David Grisman's Acoustic Christmas (Rounder, 1986)
Like everything mandolinist David Grisman does, this CD is loaded with chops, spirit and good taste. His group on this outing includes some of the best players of the new acoustic movement, all of whom have gone on to do great things since their days with Dawg Grisman: Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Rob Wasserman, Martin Taylor and Bela Fleck, augmented by recorders (the instrument), piano and sax on several cuts. The ensemble's jazzy take "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" has a fluttering bebop flavor, while the ballads "White Christmas" and "Auld Lang Syne" are warm and affecting.

Producer: David Grisman. Engineers: Bob Shumaker and Phil Sawyer. Studio: 1750 Arch Studios (Berkeley, CA).

Various Artists: Narada Christmas Collection (Narada, 1988)
At its best, so-called "new age" music (an odious term) has a soothing and relaxing quality that does elevate the spirit and set the mind to wandering in pleasant directions. This collection features some of the best-known pioneers of the genre - including David Arkenstone, David Lanz & Paul Speer, Peter Buffett, Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel - floating through some familiar and obscure seasonal numbers. Synth washes abound, as you'd expect, but there is also lovely soloing on cello, guitar, lute, harp guitar, ocarina, piano and other instruments.

Producers: Eric Lindert, Spencer Brewer, Peter Buffett, David Lanz and Paul Speer, Nancy Rumbel, William Elwood, Billy Oskay. Engineers: David Vartanian, Russell Bond, David Scott, Paul Speer, Lary (sic) Nefzger, Ian Thomas, Billy Oskay. Studios: DV Productions (Milwaukee), Edenwood Studios (Dallas), Music Annex (Menlo Park, CA), Independent Sound (San Francisco), Miramar Studios (Seattle), Triad Studios (Redmond, WA), Ian Thomas Productions (Winona, Ont.).

Various Artists: Jingle Bell Jazz (Columbia, 1962)
This is the granddaddy of the many fine Christmas jazz compilations, a record so good you might even play it after the holidays are over. There are lots of big names here - Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Carmen McRae, Paul Horn, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and more - and, without fail, the arrangements and the playing are stellar, whether for a large group or an intimate ensemble. A couple of these tracks also appear on Hipster's Holiday; both are worth owning.

Producers: Teo Macero, Irving Townsend (one track), Frank Driggs (one track). Engineers: Frank Laico, Murray Zimney, Harold Chapman. Studio: Columbia (NY).

King's College Choir: O Come All Ye Faithful (Argo/Decca, 1984)
This is a CD of traditional religious and secular carols and a few lesser-known holiday folk tunes, beautifully sung by the world-renowned King's College Choir of Cambridge, England. It's a relatively small group (especially compared to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), and that means you can hear more character in the individual voices rather than just a giant choral schmear. The KCC has put out a number of CDs of Christmas music since this one - in fact it's become something of a cottage industry for the group - but this is the only one I can vouch for personally. Pass the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding!

Producer: Chris Hazell. Engineer: Simon Eadon. Recorded at King's College Chapel.






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