There are many traditional Christmas albums we hear at this time of the year, which have been passed down for generations. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole have been loved by people for more than several decades. More recently, there are Michael Bublé and Mariah Carey. In 2021, I also want to listen to new Christmas albums which I believe to become the standard from now on.
This is the latest Christmas Album by Norah Jones, the top singer who will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of her debut pretty soon. Although I introduced “Dear Santa,” a mini-album by “Puss N Boots,” a female band of which Norah is a member, in my column (#77) in 2019, this is the first Christmas album of her own. In addition to familiar songs such as ＜White Christmas＞ and ＜Winter Wonderland＞, it includes cool Christmas numbers and six Christmas songs she wrote are lined up nicely.
The opening track is her original ＜Christmas Calling＞. The lyrics of love song go as follows: “And the snow is falling, Can’t you see? Is it Christmas calling out to me? If I could be with you tonight, beside a fire shining bright, I’d open up to all your light.” Starting with this song, all the numbers Norah wrote sound happy and endearing. She also plays the piano, and thus, we can capture the entire artist’s image of Norah as a singer, a player and a composer. It contains other tracks such as ＜Christmas Time Is Here＞ written for “Charlie Brown Christmas,” animated TV show (Snoopy); ＜Christmastime＞, expressing Norah’s distinctive bluesy sense; and ＜Run Rudolph Run＞, well-arranged number of the rock ’n’ roll-style original song. The selection is so rich in variety that I never get bored.
This is the latest Christmas album released in 2021 by José James, the popular singer producing a new vocal style mixing the influence of soul music, hip hop and jazz. José spent his childhood in Minneapolis, Minesota. He made a snow tunnel, and a snowman until dinner time in the snowy city, and enjoyed the holiday season there with his family when he was little. As he mentioned what he wanted to cherish was his memory of those days, his song is gentle and heartwarming in every respect.
The opening song, ＜Christmas In New York＞ is the original he wrote with his partner, Taali, and it sounds melodic and familiar, as if it were old standard numbers. The next song, ＜This Christmas＞ was made by Donny Hathaway, a R & B singer, in ‘70s, and I feel it is so José to add this kind of song naturally to his repertoire. He is backed by Aaron Parks (piano) and Ben Williams (bass), only the best musicians at the forefront of modern jazz. Masterpieces such as ＜The Christmas Song＞ and ＜Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas＞ are performed with extremely fresh harmony. Furthermore, Marcus Strickland (tenor sax) joins in ＜My Favorite Things＞. His powerful performance is reminiscent of John Coltrane’s version of the same number.
This Christmas Album was released in 2019 by Rick Wakeman, a thaumaturgical keyboard player, who was also known as a member of “Yes,” the band representing British Progressive rock. In contrast to having played various keyboards in the band, here he is playing the Christmas melody beautifully on one acoustic piano. Since Rick was once studying at Royal Academy of Music when he was a teenager to become a piano teacher, this type of piano performance is his root, and may have been on his mind all the time. It seems self-explanatory that Rick has recently released his solo piano pieces, i.e., “Piano Portraits” and “Piano Odyssey.” Since he has already played a synthesizer in a Christmas piece, “Christmas Variations,” it may be natural for him to record a Christmas album only playing an acoustic piano.
His piano arrangement is always beautiful which genuinely shows the characteristics of each melody. He says, “Because the traditional Christmas music or songs have simple melodies, I have been able to make the perfect arrangements.” The recording which makes you feel the timbre of the piano as it is is also fantastic, and if you turn up the volume a bit, you can see the image of the grand piano Rick is playing in front of you.
Surrounded by various kinds of music from his childhood, Masamichi Okazaki joined Waseda University Modern Jazz Club. He started contributing articles to music magazines when he was a student. He covers wide range of music not only trad, modern and contemporary jazz, but also from pops to classics. He writes liner notes for CDs and LPs, and is a regular contributor to JAZZ JAPAN, STEREO, and others. He joined a big band, Shiny Stockings, as a saxophone player. He is a director of The Music Pen Club Japan (MPCJ).