It’s easy to drown in the mindless, 140-character tagline of another commercialized Christmas. Nothing seems to make sense or hold much meaning. A weary world spirals into darkness and depression, searching desperately for a reason to rejoice and for a soul, as timelines continue to scroll bad news, police brutality, violent protests, economic ruin, wars and terrorism, death and disorder, the next Kardashian takeover — but make sure to storm the big box stores and favor the online retailers first.
Listening to Christmas songs isn’t even fun anymore, as any two-bit artist off the street thinks nothing of releasing substandard holiday rip-offs in a grab for 15 minutes of YouTube fame. A glance at “iTunes Top 100 Christmas Songs” on PopVortex.com — updated December 7 — lists the same old stuff: “Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me,” Pentatonix’s “Little Drummer Boy,” Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24” and “Christmas Canon,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” and that dreadfully bland Wham! “Last Christmas.”
Come on, dig deeper. There’s nothing really wrong with Brenda Lee or Mariah Carey. But their Christmas songs don’t really speak to the true meaning of the holiday season, whether you’re a church-going Christian or a card-carrying atheist. This is a special time of year, a time to focus on loved ones and love, living for more than the loot under the tree or who has the brightest decorative lights outside, a time of introspection before a new year begins.
This is a time for Christmas carols, the original messengers of peace on earth, good will toward man.
“O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël)” is often overlooked by the general public, but it’s one of the most exquisitely rendered marriage of music and lyrics, a delicate balance of pitch, sentiment, and control conveying a wealth of meaning in spare, ancient poetry — commissioned by the Roquemaure parish priest in 1843 of an atheist and wine merchant named Placide Cappeau. At the time, the church organ received a complete and much-needed makeover, which required a celebration of the order of kings. Also a poet, Cappeau went outside his faithlessness to write, “Minuit, Chrétiens (Midnight, Christians).” Later on, in 1847, Adolphe Adam added music and opera singer Emily Laurey performed the carol publicly. The version familiar today comes from Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight of Dwight’s Journal Of Music, who wrote a singing edition.
Many contemporary artists have covered the Christmas carol with varying degrees of success, none more successfully than Celine Dion and more recently, American Idol Carrie Underwood. This carol separates the wheat from the chaff of singers. One false move — any attempt at glorifying oneself through tempting vocal histrionics (Mariah Carey) — and the special effect is laid bare, cheapened with the self-serving effort. “O Holy Night” should never be about the singer trying to show herself as some holy light (Glee’s Lea Michele) in episodic television, however touching the glances at the late Cory Monteith (Finn).
The singer who can put her entire focus on the subject of the carol — the baby Jesus and His promise of hope for the world — and really make people stop whatever they’re doing, cause them to catch their breath and wait for the next delicate, glorious drop around treacherous melodic twists and turns… that’s the singer who’s captured the spirit of Christmas. When done right, every eye in the room should fill up with tears at “Fall on your knees!” and “O night divine” without an ounce of self-conscious, PC guilt. And when she hits that impossibly high note, she will touch a chord within us all. Amen, Mahalia Jackson!
New York-based jazz vocalist Kelley Suttenfield knows about hitting the right chords. Her new album Among The Stars seeks to also float above the poverty line of the usual covers to the meat of the meaning simmering beneath. Her unusual song selections — “One Fine Day,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “Wash Me Clean” — are swept into the bosom of her hushed loveliness in an acoustic majesty with guitarist Tony Romano. Reviews are understandably gushing.
She felt the worth of her favorite Christmas songs on December 6. “So you want to know about Christmas songs? Well, as you know, most of my references are from childhood, even when childhood was not so groovy. So the #1 song has to be ‘Blue Christmas.’ My puritanical mother, from whom I had to hide my Beatles collection, insisted on playing that LP every year ad nauseam, to the point where we were forced to replace it at least once. And now it just doesn't seem like Christmas without it. I even sing it on gigs, but a softer version of course. Then there’s ‘Christmas Time Is Here,’ from Charlie Brown. I also sing that on gigs, but I think I prefer the original. Lastly, there is the ‘Christmas Song.’ I’ve grown to love that over the years, from Nat King Cole to Mel Tormé, and it’s just about the only Christmas song my guys will play on a gig without rolling their eyeballs.”
Another lovely jazz vocalist chose her favorites well. Seattle’s Gail Pettis has probably performed her host of Christmas tunes throughout countless gigs closing in on the holidays, including the upcoming 18th annual, free KPLU Christmas Jam Holiday Concert broadcast this Thursday, noon-1 p.m., at Pacific Lutheran University’s Lagerquist Hall-Mary Baker Russell Music Center. She’s even got a big one at Jazz Alley with Pearl Django January 2-4 of the new year.
Her list runs the gamut from jazz crooner Harry Connick Jr. to First Church of Deliverance soloist Corneal Overton going old school. “Ooooooh, Harry Connick’s ‘Must Have Been ‘Ol Santa Claus!’ Big band arrangement that sounds just like New Orleans to me. Lots of syncopation, fab funky piano and bass, clever lyrics — perfection!” Pettis described on December 5. “I also like that it’s seen through the eyes of a child. That’s the number one holiday song I’ve been enjoying lately, along with Derrick Wells/Fred Nelson Legacy’s ‘Changed.’ Really more of a gospel tune with no direct references to Christmas, but for me personally, gospel = Christmas, although I realize that may not be true for everyone. Great groove and soaring, heartfelt vocals by this guy Carneal Overton. Repeat, repeat, repeat... Oh yeah, and ‘Please Come Home For Christmas (Bells Will Be Ringing).’ Love that one, too.”