This Christmas!

Christmas music, you either love it or despise it. If you're all about the love then it’s all about tracks, or collections of tracks and for me, of all the Christmas tunes, one has always stood high above the rest: the great Donny Hathaway’s 1970 single, “This Christmas.”

That tune is included on Donny Hathaway, Never My Love: The Anthology a new CD collection from Rhino Records. While this collection is not available yet as a high resolution download, HD Tracks does have a 192kHz/24-bit version of Hathaway’s superb Live record (also included in Never My Love) which is arguably the best part of this four disc set. (Oddly, when you search for “Donny Hathaway” on HD Tracks much of the Sonny Rollins catalog comes up). Sadly, there is also no LP version of this set, though given that one entire disc of this set is filled with unreleased material, the expense of assembling masters, cutting lacquers, etc. is undoubtedly prohibitive. Although the original records have impossibly long lists of engineers, most of what Hathaway recorded for Atlantic was sonically good if not great. Even the live record, produced by Arif Mardin, is better than most.

Like Clifford Brown in the world of jazz trumpet, Donnie Hathaway is one of the great “might have beens.” In Hathaway’s case the catalog of existent recordings is even smaller than that of Brownie, which makes every scrap worth a listen. When he plunged out of a 15th floor room of the Essex House in NYC in 1979 at the age of 33, in what was ruled a suicide, Hathaway, who had been on meds for schizophrenia, was reactivating his career which had drifted since the 1973 release of his third album, Extension of a Man. His death left unanswered the questions about where he would have gone musically and how well–known and influential he might have become. On Never My Love the first disc, “Favourites” collects Hathaway originals like “The Ghetto Pts 1 & 2,” “I Thank You Baby” (a co–write with fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield) and “Come Little Children” as well as the tunes he covered and made his own like, Ray Charles, “I Believe to My Soul” and Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” This is also where “This Christmas” resides.

The second disc here is all unreleased studio recordings, almost all of it from the mid–70’s. For about half the 13 tracks on this disc it’s unclear even where they were recorded. Yet Hathaway’s impassioned singing and always underrated keyboard work remains as powerful as ever. “Never My Love,” which was a huge hit for The Association and a lesser hit for both The Fifth Dimension and Blue Swede, is given a sweeping rendition. “A Lot of Soul,” is believable country music. Then there’s “Let’s Groove,” recorded at the Record Plant in 1974, which is straight up cool jazz. Two instrumental tracks “Latin Time” and “Talley Rand,” recorded in 1974 and 1978 respectively, with Hathaway on electric piano, are different stabs at a similar tune, which sounds very much like Bob James music from that same era. “After The Dance Is Done,” complete with a bizarre flute solo, is the disco track that was obligatory for everyone trying to cash in during the mid–70’s. That’s mercifully followed by a 1968 track, “Don’t Turn Away,” which while a flawed Chicago soul track, is at least Hathaway back in a genuine soul groove. The final track on the unreleased disc is “ZYXYGY Concerto,” a massive 20–minute number that features a full orchestra, and Hathaway as impressionistic keyboard soloist, that harks back to a time when record labels (in this case Atlantic) would pay for artists to indulge/explore their musical imaginations.

While the fourth disc of duets with Roberta Flack is what many people actually remember Hathaway for, it’s the Live record, reproduced here on the third disc, that is really the centerpiece to this set and, in a larger sense, Hathaway’s entire career. Recorded at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and the Bitter End in New York, the performances beginning with the opener, a masterful cover of “What’s Going On,” are loose and powerful in the extreme. Hathaway’s voice alternately glides over or digs into such classics as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Jealous Guy” and the eternal Hathaway classic, “Voices Inside (Everything is Everything).” Having a band with Willie Weeks on bass and Cornell Dupree on guitar only ices the cake. While CD boxed sets are seemingly in the twilight of their existence, Rhino and other labels keep coming up with absolutely essential packages like Never My Love.