Music for the Holidaze

Digging out from a blizzard of seasonal CD releases.

CALLING BIRDS THAT FLOCK TOGETHER
Of the latest seasonal compilations based on styles of music, A Country Superstar Christmas (Hip-O) is perhaps the most lukewarm. Because so few of today's C&W celebrities have much to do with C&W, you're left with a lot of tracks like Trisha Yearwood's "The Christmas Song"--pleasant, but little more than that. There are a few standouts (George Strait's "Merry Christmas Strait to You," the Tractors' "Santa Claus Is Comin' [In a Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train]" and the Mavericks' "Santa Claus Is Back in Town"), but the majority of the music is com-mercial in a very predictable way. Acid X-Mas, an electro-music platter put out by Miami's Streetbeat Records, is quite a bit livelier but extremely spotty. Plenty of the backing tracks are diverting, but when the dial manipulators are finally forced to utilize the familiar melodies, the results are often just plain silly: D.J. Demonixx's "Carol of the Bells (A Demonic Christmas)," D.J. Rob E.'s "Jingle Bells" and George Acosta's dreadful "Jingle Bell Rock" are cases in point. The best moments here are "Frostie's X-Mas Dub," by D.J. Friction and D.J. Spice, "Little Drumma's Dub," by D.J. Voodoo and Mr. Knight-life, and Acid Factor's "Acid X-Mix," none of which sound all that much like Christmas music in the first place. And doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose?

Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas (Epic) is also erratic, but it's not a complete washout. Some of the current scene's best-known instrumental wankers are on hand, and though a handful of tracks (like Eric Johnson's "The First Nowell," Joe Satriani's "Silent Night/Holy Night Jam" and Richie Sambora's "Cantique De Noel [O' Holy Night]") are tedious and pretentious in equal measure, more cuts than I had anticipated hold up to repeated listens. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Joe Perry wisely turn up the heat on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells" and "Blue Christmas," respectively, and Jeff Beck ("Amazing Grace") and Alex Lifeson ("The Little Drummer Boy") get decent mileage out of their showcases. More problematic is Angellica, a CD that brings together opera and rock with often nauseating results. It's not strictly a Christmas album: Although "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Ave Maria" and several numbers with religious overtones are on hand, they are juxtaposed with secular ditties from Rigoletto, La Boheme and the like. But despite the skills of Steve Vai, Steve Stevens, Dweezil Zappa and the aforementioned Eric Johnson, the production and arrangements put together by project mastermind Clif Magness manage to bastardize both genres. My guess is that it will appeal only to numskulls convinced that having it in their collection will impress their girlfriends. Don't fall for it, ladies.

HORNY HOLIDAYS
There are a lot of good, jazzy Christmas albums out there: Blessed Quietness, by Cyrus Chestnut, and Let's Share Christmas, by John Pizzarelli, both from last year, certainly fill the bill. But none of the four jazz CDs that have come my way in late 1997 are noteworthy; in fact, they're barely endurable. December Makes Me Feel This Way: A Holiday Album, by saxophonist Dave Koz (Capitol), is a blatant effort to jump on the Kenny G money train. Koz takes familiar compositions such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree)" and smooths them out until there's practically no spark left in them. Wake me when it's over. On the Blue Moon/Atlantic release Christmas Present, trumpeter Rick Braun takes up Koz's cause, delivering fourteen instrumentals so concerned with being unobjectionable that they generally forget to swing. "Jingle Blues" has the right idea, and "Christmas in Gorgonia," with its classical brass voicings, sticks in your head, but the rest attain an almost supernatural dullness.

Breath of Heaven--A Holiday Collection, by Grover Washington Jr. (Columbia), doesn't sink to the same depths, but it certainly doesn't conjure up visions of Charlie Parker. "Away in a Manger" has some vigor to it, as does Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here," but "Christmas Day Chant," based on a Gregorian air, could have used a lot more darkness, and neither the vocal nor instrumental version of "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" does more than take up space in a pretty but vapid way. That's also the story with Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party, an amalgamation of recordings by twelve different signees to the Warner Bros. imprint. Boney James ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), Kirk Whalum ("A Cradle in Bethlehem") and Mark Turner ("Pure Imagination") are more Chuck Mangione than John Coltrane, and vocal tracks by Al Jarreau ("Celebrate Me Home") and Michael Franks ("I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree") aren't much more adventurous. Bela Fleck survives a pairing with the extremely humdrum Bob James on "White Christmas," and Joshua Redman does "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" in an acceptable old-school fashion. But next time you want to throw a jazz party, gentlemen, make sure you include a little more jazz.

CHRISTMAS FLASHBACKS
Here are some nostalgia provokers for you. A Classic Cartoon Christmas, Too (Nick at Nite Records/550 Music) is a followup to last year's successful A Classic Cartoon Christmas. Like its predecessor, it skimps on liner notes, leaving you to plumb your memories for details of the programs from which its tracks are culled. Worse, the material is obviously second-tier. Whereas the first volume included prime-time stuff from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this one can come up only with Burl Ives's "Silver and Gold" (from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and "We Wish You a Hairy Chestwig," from The Ren & Stimpy Show Crock o' Christmas. A treasure trove it's not. Instead, pick up What a Wonderful Christmas, by Louis Armstrong & Friends (Hip-O). In addition to Armstrong growling his way through "Christmas in New Orleans," "Christmas Night in Harlem" and others, there are also "Jingle Bells" by Duke Ellington, "Merry Christmas, Baby" by Lionel Hampton, and Eartha Kitt's timeless "Santa Baby," which is listed as track five but actually plays on track ten. Does that make it a collector's item? I thought not.

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