Recordings of January 2010: Carla's Christmas Carols, Christmas in the Heart

CARLA BLEY: Carla's Christmas Carols
Carla Bley, piano, celeste; Steve Swallow, bass, chimes; Partyka Brass Quintet
WATT 35 (CD). 2009. Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, prods.; Gerard de Haro, Nicolas Baillard, engs. DDD? TT: 60:36
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

BOB DYLAN: Christmas in the Heart
Columbia (CD). 2009. Jack Frost, prod.; David Bianco, eng.; David Spreng, Bill Lane, Glen Suravech, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 42:20
Performance ****
Sonics ****

From Chuck Berry to Frank Sinatra, from the Sex Pistols, Ryan Adams, and Death Cab for Cutie, from Pops to Dex and Bird, Christmas music has and continues to cast its inexplicable spell over musicians. The punch line is that many musicians will, to use a uniquely Christmas metaphor, throw all the logs on the fire and commit heart and soul to a performance of a tune like "Jingle Bells." Not all Christmas music is tossed off in one take. The number of versions of "Jingle Bells" in which you can hear the sweat and creativity churning is astonishing. Sinatra opened an album with it. In 2005, Diana Krall rode it to a No.5 slot on the US Adult Contemporary chart. And in her song "River," from Blue, Joni Mitchell borrows the melody line of its chorus.

Two thousand and nine will never be mistaken for a banner year for Christmas music; the continuing disappearance of physical product, and the overall slide of the business itself, seem to be taking their toll. Yet the old year past did see the release of two records sure to stand tall in the Christmas canon for many years to come.

When it comes to making genuine efforts—really digging in and finding something new in sturdy Christmas tunes—few recent Christmas albums have been as creatively arranged as Carla Bley's heartfelt Carla's Christmas Carols. Bley, as it turns out, is not only one of those musicians hooked on Christmas music, but has had a long relationship with this much-abused genre. A fan of the music as a kid in California, the onetime cigarette girl at Birdland arranged a book of carols for use in public schools in the 1960s; later devised something called a Humatron, in which music students sat in a circle and passed instruments around while playing "The Twelve Days of Christmas"; and finally, in 2006, began arranging Christmas carols for brass quintet. Two years later, she and her longtime collaborator, bassist Steve Swallow, joined by a quintet of German horn players, embarked on a short European holiday tour, the success of which convinced them to repair immediately to the south of France to record the program, much of which became this record.

The arrangements—all recorded in glorious, sharp, sonorous sound that manages to capture both solo horns and ensemble sections with equal clarity—are not punchy or ostentatious. After "O Tannenbaum" becomes a short fanfare, "Away in a Manger" is recast as a hushed piano-bass duo with spare horn section accompaniment. Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song," with its leisurely pace, is the perfect vehicle for an all-brass showcase in which trumpet/flugelhorn players Tobias Weidinger and Axel Schlosser trade solos.

Two Bley originals make their appearances here. "Hells Bells" is kind of a faster, jazzier "Jingle Bells" that becomes the setting for a long, high-note flugelhorn solo. Bley also gets into the action, playing a jagged piano solo, and at one point trading calls and responses with the horns. If there's one complaint with this record, it's that Bley spends more time comping than actually flashing her chops.

A muted, wanton-toned trumpet drunkenly sways and swaggers through "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," giving this usually gentle tune a welcome back-alley jazz-club quality. Bley saves her sassiest arrangement for the aforementioned "Jingle Bells": a peppy trumpet carries the melody in short bursts, while Ed Partyka's tuba provides a humorous counterpoint and the rest of the quintet repeats a snappy figure in the background. The closer, a relaxed version of "Joy to the World," was recorded live and features a hearty burst of applause at the end—an unusual and deserved coda to an original and listenable Christmas record.

When it comes to codas, no discussion of Christmas music 2009 would be complete without mentioning Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart, a condition that Bob has apparently contracted. There are few life experiences that equal the otherworldliness of hearing Bobby's ravaged voice skipping through "Winter Wonderland," accompanied by a cheery gaggle of female voices:

When it snows, ain't it thrilling
Though your nose gets a chilling
We'll frolic and play the Eskimo way
Walking in a Winter Wonderland.

That's soon topped, however, when he turns his lusty moonscape growl onto "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Dylan detractors will naturally find fault and label the album a disaster, but there's something undeniable about the man's determination. At 68, he's still on the road most of the year, releases good to great albums, supervises a series of reissues of his rarities, hosts a marvelous satellite-radio show, and, yes, plays it straight on a Christmas record that is absolutely fabulous in its all-consuming weirdness. Smirk and scorn if you must, but this is a Christmas record for the ages, a grotesquery that will make you smile and take your breath away.—Robert Baird