If you're looking for good sounds to wrap up for the season, look no further. From Herbie Hancock and Taj Mahal to Alanis Morissette and Don Walser, there is something for all music lovers. Here, five Monitor writers and contributors present a sleighful of their favorite recordings released this year.
I've been giving jazz recordings for gifts at holidays and any old time for years and only recently have discovered what my selections have in common. My gifts underscore my sense of jazz as a freewheeling celebration of life's transcendent moments through melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention.
DANILO PEREZ - CENTRAL AVENUE (IMPULSE!): While Herbie Hancock was arguably the most striking jazz keyboardist of the 1960s, I'd nominate Perez for that honor during the '90s. His is a stunning mix of Latin and jazz keyboard styles pitched at maximum emotional intensity. This is an up-tempo mood elevator, with a romantic cover of Duke Ellington's "Lush Life" for a change of pace.
VIENNA ART ORCHESTRA - A Tribute to George Gershwin (RCA Victor): This European experimental big band has a great deal of fun improvising with both the classical and jazzy sides of Gershwin. Aided by guest vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Shirley Horn, the band musicians zero in on Gershwin's wit as well as wisdom with a boisterous spirit of devout tribute.
HERBIE HANCOCK - GERSHWIN'S WORLD (VERVE): With guests ranging from folkie Joni Mitchell to operatic superstar Kathleen Battle, this album's success stems mainly from Hancock's sensitive rethinking of how best to swing Gershwin's signature tunes from "Porgy and Bess."
Those with a generous gift budget are also advised to check out HERBIE HANCOCK - THE COMPLETE BLUE NOTE SIXTIES SESSIONS (BLUE NOTE), a six-CD treasure box reflecting what the pianist learned from his apprenticeship with trumpeter Miles Davis.
- Norman Weinstein
Classical music makes an excellent gift, since fashions don't shift as frequently as in pop-music fields, and there's never a shortage of superb CDs to choose from.
HILARY AND JACKIE - MUSIC FROM THE MOTION PICTURE (SONY CLASSICAL): This arrival blends well-known classical selections with a high-toned Hollywood score and takes its cue from an upcoming movie based on the true-life story of cellist Jacqueline du Pr. The recording features an Elgar concerto that figures in the movie much as a Rachmaninoff piano concerto propelled "Shine" two years ago. A vigorous Bach flute suite also rubs elbows with Barrington Pheloung's original film music.
A more varied program fills Midori - VIOLIN CONCERTOS (SONY CLASSICAL): This disc by violinist Midori features concertos by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, the latter played well enough to rival David Oistrakh's legendary recording.
KANON POKAJANEN (ECM NEW SERIES): Listeners who appreciate crystal-clear vocal purity will be moved by this tradition-minded work by the adventurous composer Arvo Prt, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in an Estonian church ideally suited to the piece's resonant religiosity. Prt is a rigorous artist who strives more for transcendence than for entertainment value, and his work provides rich rewards for those with the patience to explore it.
EMMANUEL AX (SONY CLASSICAL): Returning to mainstream fare, pianist Emmanuel Ax provides torrents of smartly articulated emotion in his new recordings of three Chopin masterworks, aided by Sir Charles MacKerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing instruments from the period when the pieces were composed.
And for full-fledged modernists there's an excellent CD (Nonesuch) of two recent John Adams compositions: John's Book of Alleged Dances, a suite of dancelike pieces played by the brilliant Kronos Quartet, and Gnarly Buttons, inspired by everything from a hymn to a hoedown. It's inventive and expressive from first track to last.
- David Sterritt
The world of country music now is so replete with cowgirls and cowboys jumping the fence into the pop arena, only a few like George Strait are sticking with the straight spurs and cow-punching sound. The wide-grinned Texan's ONE STEP AT A TIME (MCA NASHVILLE) delivers his trademark: steady strum and drawls that have made him an icon. There is no finer sound than Garth Brooks singing about the rodeo in DOUBLE LIVE (CAPITOL) which sold 1.7 million copies in its first two weeks on the shelves, or crossover crooner and Canadian SHANIA TWAIN'S COME ON OVER (MERCURY), her third album.
Some other new CDs that make great stocking stuffers:
EMMYLOU HARRIS - SPYBOY (EMINENT): In this live career retrospective, Emmylou's haunting vocals in "My Songbird" and the rolling "I Ain't Living Long Like This" create the latest in a long line of critically acclaimed successes for Harris.
Allison Moorer - Alabama Song (MCA Nashville): For those looking for a more traditional sound, country newcomer Moorer's debut single on "The Horse Whisperer" soundtrack was a prelude to this memorable debut CD. This fresh new face and strong independent voice are destined to be around Nashville for a long time.
DON WALSER (SIRE): Also new for the holidays is this western one-of-a-kind who mixes old favorites "Please Help Me I'm Falling" with originals including "Ramon" and the tire-squealing "Hot Rod Mercury." Also worth checking out: Walser's previously released box set, which features songs from authentic western to '40s swing and '70s honky tonk.
Jerry Douglas - RESTLESS ON THE FARM (SUGAR HILL RECORDS): For those seeking something different, consider Jerry Douglas's new release. From the driving chords of "Turkish Taffee" and the smoky reprise of Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Gun to Town," Douglas keeps recording winners. Six-time Grammy winner Douglas deserves to be a household name.
- James N. "Skip" Thurman
There's certainly no shortage of artists in this category. Big-name and up-and-coming musicians pumped out recordings all year. Here are several that you won't want to miss.
JEWEL - SPIRIT (ATLANTIC): The pop superstar once known as Jewel Kilcher has come a long way since living in a van on a San Diego beach. In her 1995 debut "Pieces of You," she asked the musical question, "Who Will Save Your Soul?" In her second release, "Spirit," she solves the puzzle. In the beautiful and calming "Hands," she sings, "If I could tell the world just one thing/ it would be that we're all OK." Her lyrics may be simple, but her vocals are extraordinary - from a soaring voice to a hushed whisper. The 13 easy-listening folk-pop ballads will hook you.
ALANIS MORISSETTE - SUPPOSED FORMER INFATUATION JUNKIE (MAVERICK): The Canadian singer's first album, "Jagged Little Pill," set the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the biggest-selling debut ever (28 million worldwide and counting). Morissette has a lot to live up to, but her latest album doesn't disappoint. A 1997 visit to India inspired all 17 songs for her much-hyped sophomore release. The songs are laced with worldbeat rhythms and psychedelic twists, and are all about reconciliation with lovers and parents. The album's high points: the catchy pop tune "Thank U" and the danceable "So Pure."
EAGLE EYE CHERRY - DESIRELESS (WORK/SONY): His father is the legendary jazz-trumpet player Don Cherry, and he is the half-brother of Neneh Cherry. Born in Stockholm and brought up in the Swedish countryside, he moved to New York at 14 - not to become a musician but to study acting. Good thing Eagle Eye chose music. This impressive debut features a collection of 12 soothing songs about his experiences in New York. Acoustic guitar with bluesy overtones and loose string arrangements make this a winner. My favorites include "Save Tonight" and the jazzy "Desireless" (written by his late father).
Also, don't miss U2: THE BEST OF 1980-1990 (ISLAND). It's a classic collection that includes "Pride," "New Year's Day," and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
- Lisa Leigh Parney
Dozens of fine releases marked this ever-expanding category. Three stand out as no-risk, sure-fire, bound-to-be-played-over-and-over winners.
RY COODER - BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (WORLD CIRCUIT): American musicologist, musician, and composer Ry Cooder traveled to Havana in early 1997 to record some African musicians. Because of a visa snafu, they never showed up. With his makeshift recording studio ready for action, and his mission in jeopardy, Cooder and his percussionist son, Joachim, hit the streets and put some legendary (but long-ago retired) native Cuban musicians to work. The result is a charming, heartfelt, and totally unpretentious recording that reminds us that making music isn't always about business, but can be a celebration of the best qualities of human expression. All that, and you can dance to it!
TAJ MAHAL - IN PROGRESS AND IN MOTION (COLUMBIA/LEGACY): Taj Mahal, born Henry St. Clair Fredricks to a Jamaican mother and musician-composer father, caught the blues bug early in life. This 54-track, three-CD retrospective covers a span of 30 years, including straight-ahead rollicking blues-rock, acoustic country blues, reggae, calypso, and R&B. These tracks paint a portrait of an artist - one of the truly great voices in any genre - determined to take the music of his ancestors to a new and widely accessible level. Friends who don't normally like blues all enjoy Taj. His enthusiasm, good humor, and musical gifts are hard to resist. Another release, Taj's Blues (Columbia/Legacy), is a good (and less expensive) introduction to this talented man's music.
RICHARD STOLTZMAN - DANZA LATINA (RCA VICTOR): Like the other two artists above, clarinetist Stoltzman embraces the world of musical possibilities and makes it his own. Recent CDs showcase his jazz and classical chops, while this sublime new offering is a heartfelt valentine to the romantic charms of the tango and samba. Backed by a simpatico group of gifted musicians - featuring piano, classical guitar, and string quartet - Stoltzman weaves a seductively soulful spell, riding weightlessly atop swaying Latin rhythms and gorgeous melodies. It's a spell that's a pleasure to fall under.
- John Kehe