Reviewed by Johan Palme on 18th December, 2015
How do you actually create something that sounds like Christmas music? It’s probably a question that has vexed all those Christmas record hopefuls that have tried to create best-selling music for the holidays. Classics are, perhaps, straightforward, but what if you want to create new music that evokes the specific spirit?
Vocals are, to an extent, comparatively easy. Merely putting the word “Christmas” somewhere in the lyrics will often get you qualified as a Christmas song, whether the rest of the song is about the holiday or not. (Think, for instance, of Joni Mitchell’s mournful love anthem “River”. Or The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles”.) But instrumental music is another matter entirely. How do you convey “Christmas” there? Handbells, seems to be the lazy standby answer. Or little musical allusions (like the phrase from “Jingle Bells” that starts off the aforementioned “River”), a certain straightforwardness in melody perhaps, or those complex arrangments that suggest other Christmas records.
And yet, sometimes a record just captures something in the essence of the Holiday. Piano virtuoso Ramsey Lewis and his Trio members “Red” Holt and Eldee Young had an uncanny ability to adapt outside the music itself – they repeatedly brought jazz styles that by most commentators were considered dead to the very top of the charts, tapping into the mood of the nation without changing their style. And their first fantastic Christmas album does a similar trick: it’s very clearly a straightforward jazz trio, yet it somehow manages to feel completely like Christmas music even in the cuts that are not based on older Christmas music. In the newly written title track there are no handbells, no clever allusions, and yet there’s some particularly arcane magic that says, yes, this is indeed the Sound of Christmas.