Music News & Reviews

Critic's picks: Carla Bley, 'Carla's Christmas Carols'; and Tori Amos, 'Midwinter Graces'

We leave the last word on holiday music this year to the ladies: veteran jazz composer Carla Bley and pop fairy godmother Tori Amos.

As artistically eccentric as they are stylistically distinctive, both seem unlikely candidates for yuletide albums. Yet each adds a refreshing and stately stamp on seasonal serenades.

Carla's Christmas Carols is a wonderful surprise. There are hints here of the playfulness and invention of her large ensemble music, but the album sets nine familiar carols and two originals to arrangements executed by Bley (on piano and celeste), longtime electric bass foil Steve Swallow and the Partyka Brass Quintet.

As a result, much of Carla's Christmas Carols has an Old World street-corner feel. By setting Ring Christmas Bells to horns, the carol is somehow demystified. Yet none of its wintry fancy is lost. Similarly, the album-closing Joy to the World (one of two tunes recorded at a Berlin concert last year) is taken at a lovingly slow pace to sound cheery without the usual seasonal sentimentalism.

The real delights emerge in Bley's own Jesus Maria (a longtime concert staple of, among others, guitarist Leo Kottke). Here the deceptively simple and lean melody is given over to the royal hush of the brass quintet. Every crease of the tune's warm, wobbly lyricism is enhanced. Bley's elegant piano solo also serves an appropriate ice cap.

Finally, there is a spry Bley original called Hell's Bells, which is a feast of decadent swing that is every bit as joyful and warm as the warhorse carols.

Amos' Midwinter Graces is stately and reverential as well. She invests much of the album with an almost icy regality, as on the hymn Emmanuel. This is when Midwinter Graces is at its best. It forgoes ooey-gooey sentimentalism and cuts very much to the spiritual tone of the season with varying levels of orchestral support.

Of course, Amos still can't shake the muse of Kate Bush from her music. The spirit of Bush's pouty diva vocal flair is in full force on What Child Nowell, a brassy revision of Coventry Carol and even her own Snow Angel. But that has become such an elemental influence on Amos' music that it's hard to fault her for it. Besides, channeling Bush as she tosses Star of Wonder to the Casbah only enhances the tune's inherent Eastern intrigue.

Seasonal formalities subside, however, on Pink and Glitter, an odd little seasonal come-on crooned to a slow-swinging big band arrangement. It sports a refreshing Ella Fitzgerald-esque attitude that brings Amos and all her wintry fascination in from the cold.