Now this is a surprise. Who would have pegged the Portland, Ore., pop exotica troupe Pink Martini to come up with one of the most diversely designed holiday albums, in sentiment and style, in years?
For the most part, the 14-song album Joy to the World flirts with familiarity. But it does so with immense taste and without ever ignoring or — Santa forbid! — disrespecting tradition. It opens with two versions of White Christmas. One is a slice of sleek, jazzy but reverential cool sung by China Forbes, with a nod to Phil Spector's '60s version ("there's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A."). The second is just as soothing, but it is sung in Japanese by Saori Yuki (proclaimed in the bio material as "the Barbra Streisand of Japan").
Do You Hear What I Hear? is similarly transformed into a light jazz shuffle, accented by brass, strings, congas and Forbes' deliciously understated vocals. When Thomas M. Lauderdale's piano enters to play counterpoint, the song seems float on air. The album notes offer a sobering reminder of the song's origins: It was written as a prayer for peace in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.
A few other staples are given similarly complimentary makeovers. Little Drummer Boy is propelled as much by Gavin Bondy's relaxed trumpet bursts as by percussion, and Stephen Taylor's animated orchestral design for Santa Baby sounds as if it hails from Whoville (but without all the frenzy).
The rest of Joy to the World takes a more multicultural view of the holidays. Shchedryk is Carol of the Bells, performed with its original Ukrainian text and a light, luminous arrangement built around the the Pacific Youth Choir and the Bells of the Cascades. Later, verses of Silent Night are sung lullaby fashion in German, Arabic and English, and Elohai, N'tzor is a stark, lovely Hebrew prayer sung by Forbes, Ida Rae Cahana and — wildly enough — NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro.
The finest entries in a distinguished lot are placed side by side late into the album. First up is a version of We Three Kings that weaves sleek, Afro-pop jams (more in line with Paul Simon's 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints than serious world-beat music) around Forbes' singing. That leads into a Pink Martini original, a regal bit of holiday pining titled A Snowglobe Christmas that luxuriates in a lazy backdrop of slide guitar and sleigh bells.
The latter is as campy as Joy to the World gets. And even it doesn't stray far from the refreshingly worldly wonder that Pink Martini has now brought to holiday music.