Bell’s classical violin is on prominent display throughout these splendid performances of holiday favorites (yes, “holiday”—Bell includes nods to Hanukkah). But so are the vocalists Alison Krauss, Frankie Moreno, Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Gloria Estefan, Michael Feinstein, Kristin Chenoweth, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City; the jazz instrumentalists Branford Marsalis, Chick Corea, and Chris Botti; the classical instrumentalists Steven Isserlis and Sam Heywood; and the comedy-instrumentalists Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyun-ki Joo. And, somehow, despite the pluribus, it’s unum that comes through.
One difference between this jazz Christmas album and other jazz Christmas albums is that it’s live. Another is that it’s a carols-only affair. Yet another is that for the bassist Friesen and the pianist, drummer, and two saxes he both undergirds and unites, there’s no difference between jazz and Christmas. The quintet clearly states recognizable melodies, loses itself in exploratory improvisation, and returns with confident ease and elegant virtuosity. One has to order Morning Star directly from Friesen via his website, but the rewards repay the effort.
Even at a mere five songs, this gorgeous acoustic-folk Christmas EP tells a yuletide story, albeit an elliptical one. The Santa-anticipating “Tomorrow Is Christmas Day” (a Smith original) provides the exposition. The Santa-preceding “What Child Is This?” introduces the conflict. The respite-from-conflict-seeking title cut (another Smith original) raises the tension. And “Silent Night” reveals the climax: Jesus wins. Smith leaves it to listeners to fill in the blanks for themselves—and to a tender “Auld Lang Syne” to supply the resolution.
Originally released in 1994, these 24 a cappella carols (no “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” here) comprise an aurally reverent journey into Christmas Past far as the curse is found. Maybe half a dozen are universal favorites, each with its original, politically incorrect masculine terminology (if not its best-known melody) blessedly intact. The rest, whether in English (“The Apple Tree”), Finnish (“Giv mig ej glans, ej guld, ej prakt”), German (“Susser die Glocken nie klingen”), or Latin (“Gaudete Christus est natus”), suggest it’s a big world after all.
Kool & the Gang’s Kool for the Holidays (ATO) is misleadingly titled in that Kool & the Gang only sing of one holiday—Christmas. And James “J.T.” Taylor, the lead singer of such ’80s hits as “Celebrate,” “Ladies Night,” and “Cherish,” is not aboard. But the four founding members who are (the brothers Robert and Ronald Bell, Dennis “D.T.” Thomas, and George Brown) have made sure that the album lives up to the sophisticated, celebratory pop-R&B expectations of their many fans.
It lives up to other expectations as well—first, that there be at least a few recognizably rendered standards (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song”) to ground the six original songs and the funky, revisionist excursions (“The Little Drummer Boy,” “Winter Wonderland”); second, that there be at least one original composition capable of becoming a standard too. “Do Not Be Afraid,” in posing a series of questions for Gabriel, deftly recapitulates Luke 2. And it’s lovely.