Over 40 years ago, Carla Bley had a job as an arranger of Christmas carols for schools. She has returned on occasion to festive music since then and now does so in the company of Steve Swallow and the Partyka Brass Quintet. The result is a selection of classic carols, festive hits, and original compositions presented in Bley’s distinctive arrangements (think the Salvation Army Band meets Miles Davis and Gil Evans). The music veers between familiarity and exploration, humor and seriousness, with plenty of reinvention that saves the pieces from the torpor that yuletide fare often invites. Highlights include the two-part “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, as part one features an exploration by the brass instruments of the tune’s dynamics, and part two features an exquisite piano version by Bley.
There’s a jolly and jittery “Jingle Bells” that manages to be at once buoyed by the rhythmic high-end brass and pulled into a deep tuba undertow. Bley’s originals, “Hell’s Bells” and “Jesus Maria”, are appropriate choices and feature here in inspired settings. The album closes with two tracks recorded live in Berlin, a wonderfully yearning “O Holy Night” that resolves into a brief and triumphant “Joy to the World”. These beautifully arranged pieces place this among the really enjoyable and surprising Christmas albums.