[14 December 2008]
The thing about Christmas music is that so much of it is godawful. One can only listen to Paul McCartney sing about simply having a wonderful Christmas time for so long before the urge to drown oneself in the eggnog becomes overwhelming. Luckily, there’s Béla Fleck and his backing trio the Flecktones, who liven up cookie-cutter carols with their unique jazzy bluegrass sound and infectious holiday cheer. All of the standards from Bach to Guaraldi are tackled here, and a couple nontraditional songs as well; Jingle All the Way ends with a lovely instrumental version of Joni Mitchell’s “River”. Despite their oftentimes breathtaking innovation, mixed with a healthy dose of weirdness, Fleck and his bandmates keep the improvisational noodling to a minimum, making this an enjoyable album for jazz fans and nonfans alike while still maintaining the integrity of these holiday classics.
The album begins with a version of “Jingle All the Way” in which the vocalizing is done by Tuvan throat singing ensemble Alash. The raspy chanting is an interesting counterpart to the delicate flute and banjo arrangement, creating a Christmas song like you’ve never heard before. Alash’s strangely beautiful vocal stylings may turn off more conservative listeners, but it gives the song a uniquely international quality that so many traditional holiday songs are lacking.
Up next is a no-nonsense “Silent Night”, featuring some nifty bass playing by Flecktone Victor Wooten, who shines throughout the record. By far the shining song on the album is Fleck’s lighthearted rendition of “Sleigh Ride”, complete with nimble banjo riffs, understated percussion from Flecktone Future Man, and some mean saxophone, courtesy of woodwind expert Jeff Coffin.
The Flecktones’ version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face, thanks to the back-and-forth between band members, the inclusion of Edgar Meyer on bowed double bass and a brief cameo by Alash. Meyer reappears on Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio #41”, his bass providing, in Fleck’s words, “intense counterpoint” to Coffin’s saxophone.
The band then pays tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas with their version of “Linus and Lucy”, which will have listeners bopping along just like the Peanuts gang. Really, “Linus and Lucy” is one of those songs that is so wonderful that it becomes impossible to screw up, and anything other than a fairly straightforward cover, which the Flecktones thankfully perform, would be borderline sacrilege. Jews don’t get left out of Jingle All the Way: Béla and the boys deliver a “Hanukah Waltz” while guest star Andy Statman contributes clarinet. “Medley” is exactly what the title states, an amalgamation of several holiday songs including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “My Favorite Things” and others. “Medley” has actually been a popular Flecktone holiday standard at concerts for several years, but this is the first time it has been recorded.
As far as holiday music goes, Jingle All the Way is a keeper, thanks to Béla Fleck’s reinvention of tired songs. Put it on your stereo and your Christmas party will have the best soundtrack in town.