Robin Harper & Marvin Goldstein, Simply Christmas
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.
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.
“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.
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
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
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.