Christmas CDs to Ring in Holidays

Pop music fans will cheer these standout tunes, which incorporate jazz, blues, and even rap

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THERE'S good news for pop music fans searching for distinctive Christmas music this year. Several releases sidestep mediocrity and serve up original sounds, derring-do, and honest-to-goodness romance.

The following are top picks for this season. Most are available on both compact disc and cassette. HARK!

Richard Stolzman and guests

Recommended: How well do you know global Christmas traditions? Take our quiz!

BMG Classics

Gold is a Christmas color and also the sound of Stolzman's clarinet on this beautiful recording with guest artists Eddie Gomez, Dave Samuels, Bill Douglas, Jeremy Wall, and the Boys Choir of Harlem. Like Wynton Marsalis, Stolzman is one of the top classical "crossover" artists today. This album tastefully blends classical, jazz, and pop styles in a way that's hip and fresh, but not irreverent.

"Hark!" includes the most original and moving "Silent Night" I've ever heard. Stolzman's resonant tones turn this overplayed melody into a vision of stillness and shining stars. In the distance, a boy soprano sings the words like an angel overhead, but not in strict time. In fact, Don Sebesky's whole arrangement has a wonderful floating, unmeasured feeling.

With the help of jazz experts Gomez and Samuels on bass and vibraphone respectively, Stolzman performs "Ding Dong!," "We Three Kings," and "Deck the Halls" with a stylistic twist - but it works. Improvisation runs throughout the CD, except in the classical choral pieces such as "There Is No Rose" (Benjamin Britten) and "Nativity Carol" (John Rutter).

HANDEL'S MESSIAH: A SOULFUL CELEBRATION

Various artists

Warner/Reprise

If you've ever wanted to clap along to Handel, now's your chance. Some highly talented singers and arrangers have modernized portions of the "Messiah" with blues, funk, jazz, and even rap. It could be a shocker for die-hard "Messiah" fans, but if you like gospel and other African-American musical traditions (and have an open mind), slide this into your CD player.

A host of black artists such as Gladys Knight, Take 6, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Patti Austin, Stevie Wonder, and Diane Reeves take part in this salute to the 250th anniversary of the work and to the history of black music.

The centerpiece of the album is an all-star "Hallelujah!" chorus conducted by Quincy Jones. The text and vocal lines are true to the original, but the rhythms and instrumentation are decidedly gospel. Mervyn Warren, a former member of the a cappella jazz group Take 6, has produced this piece as well as six others on the album. His talent is unmistakable.

Top cuts include a pure funk and rap version of "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted," co-arranged by Warren and another Take 6 member, Mark Kibble. Let's just say you've got to hear it to believe it. Patti Austin's smooth alto suits the pop-flavored groove in "But Who May Abide The Day Of His Coming." Again, the melody and basic chord progressions are the same as Handel's, yet the underlying beat has changed.

The beat stays true, however, in Warren's brilliant arrangement of "Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage?" He translates Handel's unrelenting pulse into the driving bass line of a jazz rhythm section. Not all selections on the CD are as successful, but as a whole, the project deserves praise. LET IT SNOW

Artists from the '40s,

'50s, and '60s

Capitol

Don't let the cartoonish CD cover fool you. This generous compilation of tunes by great singers of the past has more true class and musicianship than any of the shamelessly commercial "all-star" Christmas albums that nab all the attention each year. No present-day performer can beat Lena Horne's swinging version of "Let It Snow" (1966) or Nancy Wilson's superbly romantic "What Are You Doing New Years Eve?" (1963). There's stylistic variety, too, as Lou Rawls kicks in with his jazzy "Christmas Is" (1967 ) and Dean Martin croons "The Christmas Blues" (1953).

Other singers include June Christy, Peggy Lee, Al Martino, and Bing Crosby. Though the 25 songs by 17 artists were transferred from analog tape, the CD is remarkably free of hiss. With the resurgence of interest in past greats like Nat King Cole, it's a wonder why Capitol isn't playing up this goodie more. THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM

The Manhattan Transfer

Columbia

If you're in need of some fire-side tranquility, the eight-time Grammy Award-winning Manhattan Transfer turns on the slow-burning heat with their first Christmas album. Eight of the 11 songs are soft and easy, offering lush violins and harmonically rich vocal arrangements. Special guest Tony Bennett gives a cozy rendition of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)."

But one wishes for more variety and pep throughout the whole CD. Even the traditional religious tunes like "Silent Night" and "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear" are stretched to their slowest limits. Only two cuts, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and Irving Berlin's "Happy Holiday" treat listeners to the rollicking jazz singing the quartet is famous for. Obviously, this album was meant for quiet winter evenings.

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