Christmas music is not for me. I resist it with the vehemence that a former elf might feel after a heartbreakingly bitter labor dispute with Santa. So when I volunteered to write a review of "cool new Christmas albums," I never considered doing any such thing. Instead I thought I'd make a kind of Parallel Holiday Sampler, bringing attention to some discs that I'll be enjoying this holiday season, not a Christmas carol to be found anywhere in the bunch.
1. When you listen to Tiny Voices by Joe Henry, if you find yourself reflexively leaning toward the speakers whenever the clarinet or tenor sax is highlighted in that record's incredible mix, you're responding (as I do) to the woodwind wizardry of Don Byron. Since the early 90s, Byron has appeared either as bandleader or sideman on an excitingly varied assortment of albums. Though jazz tends to be at the heart of the matter, clearly no genre can contain or define him. His playing runs the gamut from mellow to explosive, and it's always thrilling. On his new release, Ivey-Divey, Byron is joined by piano phenomenon Jason Moran and the legendary Jack De Johnette on drums, with bassist Lonnie Plaxico on five cuts and Ralph Alessi playing trumpet on two. Joyful and triumphant, this expansive disc may be Byron's best yet.
2. Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, and Johanna Marie Rose) is a vocal ensemble specializing in Medieval music. But their CD Darkness into Light showcases several pieces by the contemporary British composer Sir John Tavener (these featuring the Chilingirian String Quartet) alongside a cappella selections from the general vicinity of the 13th century. Tavener's music here takes its inspiration from Christianity, though it has a sorrowful, heart-opening beauty that, in my opinion, renders religious differences meaningless. The album has both a gravity and a pervasive peacefulness asked for by times such as these.
3. Even if you're driving in your car by yourself, as I was when I first heard Todd Walton's CD Buddha in a Teacup, you can have a significantly memorable holiday experience. All you need is access to a certain type of storytelling. I took in all 10 of the stories on Buddha while making my long way home one snowy afternoon, a potentially dull and lonesome journey turned brilliant with fiction read by its author. The brief piano interludes between the stories (played by Walton--he has also made CDs of his songs) aren't merely decorative in this case: these stories often end a bit sooner than you'd expect, and the music afterward creates a perfect space for arriving at your own conclusions. Sometimes amusing, sometimes touching, and frequently both, this CD might prove just the thing for that person on your gift list with a subtle turn of mind.
And if you're searching for a present for a gardening enthusiast, or maybe a farmer, or anyone who's working incredibly hard in the service of a dream, I recommend Walton's CD I Steal My Bicycle, which includes the story "Of Water and Melons." For nearly a dozen years now, I've wound up either re-reading or listening to that story at some point during each summer, inspired by gardening and heat. It is simply great again and again--but you don't need to wait until summertime to enjoy it.
4. And if you're going to have the blues for Christmas, I suggest you have these: Billy Goodman's collection entitled simply Blues. Set down without any meddling from a well-meaning producer, mostly recorded in bedrooms here and there around the world, these tracks were not intended for use on an album. Goodman planned to re-cut them, but then heard something in the specific performances--you'll hear it too. They've got the life in them. They've got the thing that many musicians lose on their way to the finished disc.
Basically it's just a guy in a room, singing it from the center, picking and sliding like he can completely trust his hands to do the job without a second thought from his brain. The only thing added to that is some fantastically right 2nd guitar from Thomm Jutz on three or four songs, and make-you-smile harmonica by Dale King on one. Whether the tunes are traditional country blues, classics by Robert Johnson or Rev. Gary Davis, or original instrumentals, the juice that Goodman brings to these proceedings--not a pseudo-vintage flavor but a completely winning naturalness--refreshes the spirit exactly the way the blues should. Released on his own label (based in Germany, where Goodman has made his home for the past decade), the CD is available primarily through the artist's website.
Instead of the usual over-roasted Christmas chestnuts, feast your ears on something a little different this winter season. And may you find joy in unexpected places during the new year ahead. James Meyers
athertonfletcher.com (todd walton online)