Major Canadian record label Justin Time Records put together a seasonal compilation album for Christmas, hitting all the right notes. Released September 11th, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” features several of the label’s recording artists — newbies and award-winning vets — on Christmas classics and originals, revamped for a jazzy version of the holidays.
For the most part, the compilation album manages to instantly put listeners — even the Scrooges and Grinches — in a festive mood, and pull them into a world where everything is shiny and new, and full of hope. Nothing is overdone, laid on too thick, or completely adulterated. Because everyone knows a turkey, some mistletoe, and too much Christmas music can get on the nerves.
The Christmas classics and previously unreleased tracks in this compilation album take on timeless, yet contemporary tones with the updated, refined arrangements and the restrained vocal temperance. The classic and new mix was recorded within a 1993-2011 timeline.
Revered pianists Diana Krall and Hank Jones obviously anchor this compilation CD as the superstar attraction (she turns in two songs, “Jingle Bells” and “The Christmas Song,” while he does an instrumental version of the latter). Their songs are decent and respectful enough, with the inventive phrasing spaced out, taking time for thoughtful, endorsing jazz solos. It’s the same for much of the rest of this album.
Predictable and, well, ho hum, really.
Until two artists come into view from the shadows. The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, led by founder/director Trevor W. Payne, turns the Christmas classics upside-down, enlivening their “Christmas Calypso Medley” into a warm, spirited, multi-cultural, overseas affair. The Calypso beats against the gospel steps break up the usual dark and snowy monotony of a typical winter holiday season. The complicated whirling percussive intro really sets the mood to feel free from the encumbrances of a buttoned-up stark, cold Christmas cliché. The jumpy Calypso lightens up an otherwise grave Christmas service in a medley touching on “Joy To The World,” “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” Who says a gospel choir has to sound like a funeral dirge? Not this gospel choir.
Next to “Let It Snow” (sorry, Hilary Kole), possibly the worst Christmas song ever written and performed to death is “Little Drummer Boy.” Most Christmas songs tend to be that way, overly sentimental, overly commercialized, and just overdone. By the time Taurey Butler swings around the first melodic turn of an all-too-familiar tune, he changes the rules completely.
Who is this guy? Turns out Butler’s originally from East Orange, N.J., a kind of child prodigy on the piano at seven. He fell in love with jazz via Oscar Peterson, got his degrees from Dartmouth learning Japanese and electrical engineering of all subjects, gigged and toured, before settling in Montreal and getting scooped up by Justin Time Records. The jazz newcomer has his own self-titled solo album out since November.
On “Little Drummer Boy,” pianist Butler does wondrous things to the melody. The overall effect is pure bliss. He keeps up the melodic bottom in the drumming, naturally, and reconfigures the rest on the piano, stressing dramatic points throughout until he builds toward a hair-raising climax (one minute and 46 seconds into the piece). This transcendental turn gently takes the heart and soul of this classic, and raises it up into the incandescent, genre-crossing stratosphere. There’s clearly a touch of 1970s romantic nostalgia in crescendo big band rock here (the horn section in “Pretty Lady” by Lighthouse and anything by Three Dog Night).
None of the notes detract from the bones of “Little Drummer Boy,” or dumbs it down into a cornball Hallmark commercial. Instead, Butler’s arrangement pulls out only what’s true with each poignant note, amplifying the importance of this moment when the little drummer boy plays only the finest music for the baby Jesus, and quietly but effectively legitimizing the theme of beauty in humility.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is a nice, mindless little holiday album, with some stretches of musical convergence and invention. But buy it for Taurey Butler. He lifts this Christmas compilation album out of the recycle heap into the specials section, and will have you wanting more of whatever he’s on.