Reviewed by Johan Palme on 2nd December, 2015
One of the strikingly unusual things about the music industry in the early sixties was how studio orchestra arrangers could become stars in their own right. Not touring band leaders, the grand big band jazz stars. But specifically the leaders of studio units, borne through newly empowered hi-fi into living rooms, their medium almost solely the album. And of course they all made Christmas records! Percy Faith, Mitch Miller, Mantovani, Fred Waring. Even Herb Alpert. And, perhaps the most prolific of all, Columbia records house arranger Ray Conniff.
In a period of twenty years, from 1956 to 1975, Ray Conniff released a staggering 63 full-length albums. Three of them, all platinum sellers, were Christmas albums. Of course, with that kind of production rate, a lot is far from brilliant, but there’s also a lot of shapness that’s achieved through perfectly honed skills. We Wish You A Merry Christmas finds Conniff far enough into his career to be cannily intricate, with a great feeling for how to update and connect the traditional fare that’s mostly on offer here. And he never falls into the gimmicky traps that would plague his later career – even the pure pop arrangements, like the closing medley that starts with “The First Noel” and finishes with the title carol, work perfectly in bringing out the best in the source material. All is beautifully sung.
This sort of record, wilfully easy-listening, is never going to scale emotional depths or bring out unexpected sublime truths. But sometimes, the work of a great craftsman is worth listening to in its own right. Especially one that can build Christmas atmosphere as well as this.