Friday, November 23, 2012

A Fun New Take on Christmas Music

Robin Harper & Marvin Goldstein, Simply Christmas

I admit it: I don’t like Christmas music. Many artists tear off Christmas albums to get something in under deadline, and apparently hope to score a crossover hit, so the music doesn’t get as much care as it deserves. Between the bland secular gruel and the pious pomp, I turn my radio off more at Christmas than any other time of the year. Which is why I like Robin Harper’s Christmas album, misleadingly entitled Simply Christmas.

Harper sings a selection of Christmas standards, including old hymns, recent chart toppers, and classics you probably heard on your uncle’s old 45’s. Though none of these songs are original compositions (the most recent is from 1993), Harper puts her own spin on them. She sings in a classic Broadway jazz-fusion style, backed by pianist Marvin Goldstein, whose playing recalls Richard Carpenter, or a more laid-back Vince Guaraldi.

The “Simple” part of Harper and Goldstein’s title refers to their stripped-down style. With no overdubbing or ornate orchestration, they play with remarkable intimacy, like the star musicians at a wine-and-cheese party. You can imagine these two at your favorite fern bar, an impression amplified by the audible smile in Harper’s voice, and the playful embellishments Goldstein throws on his piano. Their music eschews hip studio trickery.

But do not assume this music is “Simple” because it lacks sophistication. Harper’s vocals recall the heyday of jazz pop, and while she doesn’t growl like Shirley Bassey, she could hold her own with the likes of Connie Francis or Dinah Shore. And when she takes on songs associated with particular artists (Eartha Kitt on “Santa Baby,” Kathy Mattea on “Mary Did You Know?”), she avoids the trap of merely mimicking the famous renditions.

Harper and Goldstein are not satisfied merely playing lounge classics; this is not somebody’s bland karaoke album. Interesting flourishes, like Harper’s accelerated take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” or her unexpectedly brisk “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” keep listeners guessing what she’ll do next. Behind her, Goldstein throws ornaments on his playing that keep his piano spirited, without overwhelming his vocalist.

Nor is Harper afraid to vary her tone. Her take on “Mary Did You Know?” captures the minor-key energy of Mattea’s classic recording, but in an urbane jazz style that deflects Mattea’s country original. Harper captures the fear Mary must have felt, knowing she’d birthed the Son of God. This remarkable detour into sonic darkness sustains the poignant edge that she begins with the almost political “Grown-Up Christmas List” and carries into her bold yet wistful “Silent Night.”

I especially appreciate that Harper’s repertoire is specifically Christmas-oriented. Between her use of religious songs, and secular tunes that specify Christmas, she maintains a thread that her music stands for something. No “Happy Holidays” here, thank you very much. Of her eleven tracks, only one, the jazz standard “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” doesn’t mention Christ or Christmas specifically.

Even “White Christmas” and “The Man With the Bag,” artifacts of seasonal sentimentality that usually bore me, have remarkable spirit in Harper’s renditions. Perhaps that’s because, instead of rendering them in the blandly inoffensive stylings of lounge singers everywhere, Harper sings them like they mean something to her personally. This results in tracks that feel like she’s sharing something intimate with us, like she’s invested a piece of herself in the product.

Harper bookends the album with two takes on Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ “The Christmas Song,” which, in its combination of religious and secular images, sums up her album well. Of her many covers, this is probably the closest Harper comes to recreating the original, and she does a great job capturing Nat King Cole’s barely detectable syncopation. This track clearly situates Harper as part of an ongoing jazz Christmas tradition.

My only complaint with this album is its brevity: it runs just under thirty-five minutes, merely LP length, which by current standards is unusually short. Harper and Goldstein could have taken on many more tracks from the great Christmas tradition without losing the energy that makes this album so listenable. Maybe she figured less is more. But it ends much sooner than I would have liked.

This album probably won’t change my opinion of all Christmas music. As long as artists see the season as a chance to be insipidly sentimental, I’ll probably dodge Christmas songs. But Harper and Goldstein do well in an area where better-known artists fall flat, and craft a listenable album for the season.

1 comment:

  1. really enjoyed their rendition of Christmas songs ..not disrespectful to our Christmas songs in any way ..but put a happy feeling and you wanted to get up and dance ......I too wished they had done more songs .. will look for their recordings in the future ... hope they do more