Yo-Yo Ma, the prolific pop-classical cellist, has for a number of years capitalized on his position of relative eminence among classical performers. He’s parlayed recognisability and goodwill into a solid, dependable consumer base who seem continuously delighted at the gentle expansions of scope Ma presents with his jazz, soundtrack and easy-listening collaborations. At the same time, it’s a mark of Ma’s own omnivorous taste that he’s performing this “unserious” music at all. Throughout all of his Silk Road, Morricone, and even Brazilian and Japanese folk phases, he’s approached every piece of music with a characteristic magnanimity. He does the same on the Christmas music that’s woven through Songs of Joy and Peace. Ma bestows on even the most trite and staid melodies the respect accorded much more serious classical work.
Songs of Joy and Peace isn’t a straightforward holiday album. Interspersed between staples like “Joy to the World”, “My Favorite Things” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” (in three permutations), Ma offers us collaborations with a diverse array of boomer-approved performers, from Dave Brubeck to James Taylor. There’s Taylor performing “Here Comes the Sun” and Hawaiian ukelele phenomenon Jake Shimabukuro on “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. The tracklist is obviously constructed for that oh-I’ve-heard-of-that waiting-in-line-at-Starbucks moment. As it plays, the album works as the sort of dinner-party accompaniment that occasionally piques an otherwise intermittent interest.
I’m certainly not sophisticated enough a classical music listener to critique Ma’s idiosyncrasies of style and technique. And let’s not forget that before he was a pop star, Ma was, and probably still is, regarded as one of the elder statesmen of cello performance in the world. Certainly his playing here is as crisp and economical as ever, these days, if his sensibility strays a little towards the maudlin. In these collaborations, too, Ma is often willing to play accompaniment to a more recognizable vocalist or charismatic instrumental frontman. Joshua Redman’s saxophone on “My One and Only Love”, for example, completely takes over the slippery atmosphere of the arrangement. It’s part of Ma’s modesty, perhaps. Only on his solo tracks, which are scattered across the album, does he allow himself small moments of virtuosity.
It is the jazz performers, such as the aforementioned Redman, Brubeck and trumpeter Chris Botti, who most hijack the direction of the album. The performances are uniformly precise, super-professional, and occasionally emotionally transporting. But often the limpid atmospheres of these light-jazz arrangements are strictly background-music. The vocalists Diana Krall, James Taylor, Alison Krauss and Renee Fleming likewise take starring roles, sometimes at the warbling expense of the music’s directional movement. Krauss’ straightforward rendition of “The Wexford Carol” may be the most overtly holiday moment on the album. It’s a little out of place, but not unwelcome.
Songs of Joy and Peace, though occasionally transportive, seems a somewhat expected holiday release. It’s not characteristic of Ma, and we could perhaps give him the benefit of doubt here. The album’s not completely cynical, and has moments of lush pop-classical atmosphere as well as a sporadic glimpse at a cellist who still has the technique to inspire breathlessness.