Each year about this time I have found myself sharing a bit of holiday music that has caught my fancy. You all know that I tend towards the traditional in my Christmas (and Advent) music, but this year I have decided to add something that might appeal to the more jazz-minded among you. As for the other 92% of you? Sorry, I’m afraid you are out of luck. But I think you will find something of interest in at least one of these two selections. You may also be a little surprised at what these two albums have in common.
First let’s go with the traditional. A couple of years ago I shared a then-new release from the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles. This community of Benedictine Sisters in northwestern Missouri has been blessed with a number of enthusiastic young sisters who follow the traditional Rule of St. Benedict, the distilled summary of which is “pray and work.” I ordered their Advent CD (yes, I cannot give up the idea that to “own” some music I have to be able to hold it). I liked it so well that I bought their first Christmas CD, their inaugural effort from 2008.
Then last year I stumbled across a release by the Dominican House of Studies for the Eastern Province of the U.S., called Christ Was Born To Save. This collection of all male voices provides a different flavor from that of the Sisters. They are similar in style but each is unique in its sound. If you missed either of these pieces, I have linked to them in the bold print just above.
With Christmas approaching once again, I wondered what else along these lines I might be able to find. I decided to look into what the Benedictine Sisters might have been up to since I last looked and was rewarded with another new release: Caroling at Ephesis. Which I promptly ordered from their website. (It is also available from Amazon or iTunes.)
After enjoying their earlier works, I have enjoyed their newest release no less. In fact, one less inclined to traditional music might prefer this effort overall due to it being all carols. While I enjoy some of the Gregorian chant pieces that were found on the other CDs, I could see where they can be “mood killers” when someone is in a “joyous Christmas music” kind of mood.
I normally try to find a video sample in a form that can be clicked upon directly, but this one seems to be available only on the Sisters’ website. But you need to click on the link right before this paragraph. I’ll wait. After all, Who doesn’t love the Carol Of The Bells? Which happens to be Ukranian – something I did not know at all.
Some of the carols are familar while many are not (or at least were not to me). But after a couple of times through I have found each of them a worthwhile addition to my seasonal soundtrack. Most all of these gems were mined from the deep caroling traditions of England, France, Germany and elsewhere in both western and eastern Europe. Don’t tell me that Western Civilization didn’t produce something worthwhile.
Why does this music appeal to me so? I am a sucker for beauty and these Sisters can make some beautiful music, let me tell you. I love the way that their voices mix in the complex chords that their skill level permits them to carry off so well.
I also love seeing (and listening to) young people who consider their faith so important that they are willing to give up so much in order to make it their life work. Christmas seems a little more real to me when women like these are singing the songs that make the season special.
OK, now for a change of pace. This next recommendation is neither new nor strictly traditional. It is also not strictly jazz. If you are already familar with A Merry Christmas by Stan Kenton, you can just nod your head as I explain why the rest of you should listen to it. Several months back I featured a Stan Kenton record from the mid 1970s in one of my meanderings into jazz. That record was Kenton at the end of his life – still interesting but definitely on the downhill side of his career. A Merry Christmas is a product of the final peak period of Stan the Man’s creativity.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure what I would be getting when I ordered this one online a few years ago during a deep dive into the Kenton catalog. Stan Kenton’s records were always kind of like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never knew what you were going to get. This was not only because his quality could be a little uneven, but mainly because he went through musical styles like most of us go through clean dishes. This Christmas album from 1961 turned out to be quite unlike anything else I had heard from his band.
Stan Kenton leading a nineteen piece band was nothing unusual. A nineteen piece band made up entirely of brass and percussion/rhythm instruments was definitely unusual, even by Kenton standards. For those who don’t normally follow these things, nineteen pieces is on the large size of bands that include a full five piece reed/saxophone section. But there are no saxophones here.
Here is one sample – We Three Kings. I chose this one to share specifically because in a little over two minutes it goes from full traditional to full jazz and back again without even a little bit of awkwardness in the transition. All of the Kenton hallmarks are there: the prominent low brass (tuba and trombones), the intricate arrangements and the clean, crisp trumpet section that lives live way, way up there in the horns’ range.
One other thing you may notice right away is the four man mellophonium section. This was an instrument that was the product of a collaboration between Kenton and the C. G. Conn Company (of Elkhart, Indiana, by the way), the manufacturer. It is a cross between a trumpet (it plays in a high range) and a french horn (which has a very fluid, mellow tone). They were notoriously difficult to keep in tune. Also they were played by guys who normally played trumpet and who actively hated the things. Kenton’s bands of the early ’60s have come to be called his Mellophonium Bands and this was one of the records made in that short but excellent era.
Here is another thing that sticks out: Most jazz or jazz-like collections of Christmas music are heavy on Santa, snow and the romantic roasting of chestnuts. There is none of that here. Kenton agreed to do the album on one condition – that he would get to do traditional carols, but do them his way. His way was . . . really good.
Stan Kenton played music like nobody else and these carols are like nothing else I have heard. Can music be both traditional and midcentury modern? Both not-jazz and jazz all at the same time? This album proves that it can, indeed, be done. And here it is done very, very well.
I recently had a conversation with one of my sons and a brother in law. Each of them tried to convince me that the canon of decent Christmas music did not slam closed with the dawning of the rock era. They argued their point well, citing Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You as a modern Christmas song that has stood the test of time.
Well, I’m not buying. I am not a hater of a more secular style of Christmas music, so long as it is good music. And I will admit that my specs may be a little tighter here than would be the case for most of the rest of you. Bing and Nat and Frank are all part of my holiday playlist.
But I have a longstanding love for genuine Christmas carols. Really folks – these need to be sung and listened to. Civilization doesn’t just pass itself along to the next generation by itself. It is up to us to keep traditional carols from falling (farther) into obscurity. And as long as there is a deep well of real carols to be played, whether in an overtly religious rendition by some Benedictine Sisters or in the inimitable style of Stan Kenton, my celebration of Christmas will be everything it should be. And I hope that yours will be as well.