Yo-Yo Ma and Friends
Songs of Joy & Peace
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You get the sense of what cellist Yo-Yo Ma is up to on Songs of Joy& Peace as soon as Jerome Kern's You Couldn't Be Cuter kicks into gear. First, it's not a Christmas song, but a spry jazz treat popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. Here, Ma's “friend” is Diana Krall, who quotes Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas on piano just as the tune switches from pastoral reserve to swing. It's a trim arrangement — just cello, piano and bass, with Krall's hushed singing serving as the muted star on the holiday tree. But in a manner that is purely effortless, the music takes on an earthy seasonal glow.
Meshing genres to create profound mood pieces in understated terms has been a Ma speciality for years. It didn't matter if he was introducing his classical audience to Appalachian string music with Mark O'Connor or exploring multicultural instrumentation with his Silk Road ensemble. Ma long ago earned the artistic clout to jump stylistic fences. To hear him forge new holiday voices out of music both familiar and foreign is the real joy of Songs of Joy & Peace.
A quick look at the top tier of the vast guest list — specifically, such mainstream stars as James Taylor, Alison Krauss and Chris Botti — can imply a snoozefest is at hand. But even here there are surprises. For example, there is a presence to Krauss's whispery singing on The Wexford Carol that is positively ghostly. Of course, with Ma and the extraordinary Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster behind her, an Old World string sound charm emerges to make the song one of the more richly traditional moments on the album.
Botti is a trumpeter of sublime tone that is often squandered on stagnant, syrupy smooth jazz recordings. But here he turns My Favorite Things — a pop standard with unbreakable ties to jazz after it was appropriated and redefined by John Coltrane — into a conversation piece between cello and trumpet that builds with quiet but bright wintry colors.
Of the big leaguers, only Taylor disappoints on George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun. God love him, but sweet baby James simply sounds anesthetized on the tune.
But cut to some of Songs of Joy & Peace's less obvious guests and Ma's party really comes alive. Leading the pack is 88-year-old piano pioneer Dave Brubeck, who takes Joy to the World out for a cunning stroll as Ma solos around him before the warm glow of Paquito D'Rivera on clarinet crosscuts the fun briefly with the melody from The Christmas Song.
Then there is Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace), which is repeated like a theme throughout the album. It opens with Ma playing an overdubbed duet with himself and surfaces again with bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile. Their interplay is a mere set-up for the brittle, animated chill of The Wassail Song. Brazilian guitarist siblings Sergio and Odair Assad later improvise on a third Dona Nobis Pacem with Ma before the tune is reprised yet again with Botti. As the final version blends into Auld Lang Syne to end the album, the mood conveys celebration with a subtle, stately and luminous glow. Once again, the obvious becomes new.
That's the brilliance of Songs of Joy & Peace. Its emotions are universal, its tone is quiet but expansive and its sense of seasonal spirit is radiant.