Over the years I have come up with three loosely defined categories for Christmas music: Traditional, which includes carols and classical Christmas music, Mall music - the toasty and toasted standards and pop songs they play in the malls to put you in a buying mood, and winter songs - songs for and about the season that evoke the mood of winter and describe the spectrum of feelings the holiday season can bring. Most of the recent Christmas releases that have gotten any hype have been pure mall music, full of the songs that make you feel like you are on the outside looking in on a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting or a 40's movie. It's supposed to put us in the mood for frenetic shopping and socializing, the stuff that leaves you broke, exhausted and somehow feeling like you underachieved the Holidays. What Al Jarreau has done on his Christmas album is create a mix of standards, winter songs and sacred music that captures the spirit of the season and takes it out of the mall. Listening to it is like opening a window on your Advent calendar that says slow down the world and savor the season for all that it is.
Jarreau has wanted to do a Christmas album for a long time. The two projects he most often spoke over the years were an album of standards, which he delivered a few years ago with the brilliant Accentuate The Positive and this holiday project. Christmas and Accentuate the Positive have a lot in common, actually. They both have that feeling of warmth that comes when you turn your recording sessions into a gathering of friends, the song selections cover familiar standards, off-the-wall gems, and some tasty originals, and he is in fine form vocally, sounding as much at ease and in his own zone as he did in his early career recordings when he wasn't trying to push himself into palatable pop-hit mode. Not many artists can reinvent beloved holiday tunes and add pop and jazz elements to traditional carols without sounding contrived but with the help of his musical compatriouts that is exactly what he does. Luckily, Christmas has the record company support that Accentuate could not get. GRP was crashing, Rhino is thriving, so you will be able to hear and find this album now and for many seasons to come.
This Christmas celebration was a gathering of friends who were home for the holidays. Well, OK, maybe not the holidays as the recording was done in spring and summer, but it was done at home- at producer-arranger Larry Williams' home studio with the group of musicians who have been touring and writing with Jarreau for quite a while.The presents they brought were a bounty of ideas for hanging new decorations on this collection of songs. William's arrangment of "Winter Wonderland" sways and swings without losing the mid 20th century sensibility of the song, Jarreau stylizes the beginning phrases of "White Christmas," sings the next verse straight then just opens it up, making it fresh, new and totally his own. Take 6 weave their intricate harmonies and melodic twists around Jarreau improvisations on "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Carol of the Bells" is totally jazzed up in a trio setting and 5/4 time and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' gets some bossa-nova flavor.
This set of songs is quite an eclectic mix. The folk-carol "Some Children See Him," is sung with a sense of awe and purity. He adds some brightness to the beloved Charlie Brown song "Christmastime is Here," and shares a real find - "The Little Christmas Tree," a lovely obscurity from Nat "King" Cole about taking home a scraggly "Charlie Brown tree" turning it to a thing of beauty. "Gloria In Excelsis," written by Williams and Jarreau, is a rousingly funky commentary, complete with a gospel chorus, on how the Holy Family, shabbily dressed and possibly unwed, would have been treated by contemporary gossips as they sought shelter for the night.
Taken as a whole, this Jarreau Christmas is a revelation. The song sequence is a shake of a snow globe, swirling multiple impressions of the season that inspired it. Songs about Santa and snow are sandwiched between hymns and jazzed up carols. Shaggy christmas trees stand next to choirs of angels. And the real present for long time fans is that this music is pure Jarreau, with all the individuality, quirkiness, virtuosity, seriousness and humor that have been present in his best work. Hopefully his next present to us will be a new album of songs that get this same treatment: a lot of love, the spirit of collaboration, and a heavy shot of ever- evolving “Jarreausims.”