An Appalachian Christmas
The first thing you have to adjust to on violinist Mark O'Connor's new holiday release is its title: An Appalachian Christmas. The name seems to conjure the sort of Old World imagery that certainly seems in keeping with holiday tradition. Apply that to music, though, and you might expect a sort of antique acoustic sound that relies exclusively on pre-bluegrass country inspiration.
That's not really O'Connor's game plan here. Admittedly, he helped reshape an Americana/chamber hybrid sound with his Appalachia Waltz album more than 15 years ago. That landmark work is echoed twice on An Appalachian Christmas.
First, there is a brief reunion of the original Appalachia Waltz trio — O'Connor, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and double bassist Edgar Meyer — on a slight, stately reading of Stephen Foster's Slumber My Darling that comes iced with the delicate, wintry vocals of Alison Kraus. The second is an update of Appalachia Waltz's title tune, reworked as a lovely duet between O'Connor and guitarist Sharon Isbin. Both tunes possess a stark beauty that revels in the music's relaxed tempo, its rich but understated instrumental harmony and, of course, O'Connor's exquisite tone, which meshes robust classicism and an almost impressionistic folk glow.
But these songs represent only two holiday portraits on an album that regularly strays far from even the most expansive notions of musical Appalachia. Winter Wonderland and The Christmas Song spotlight O'Connor's long-running Hot Swing Trio (highlighted by the gypsy accents of guitarist Frank Vignola) along with jazz-infused vocals from cabaret songstress Jane Monheit. It's a fine and festive moment, but one that perhaps better fits a Manhattan jazz club than any Appalachian arena.
The same goes for Away in a Manger and Amazing Grace, both of which enlist the aid of Renee Fleming. Like O'Connor, Fleming is a classicist with a stylistically open mind, although the operatic detail of her singing, even when placed alongside the decidedly country fiddle lead of Amazing Grace, takes us into formal concert hall territory.
Elsewhere, An Appalachian Christmas favors contemporary Nashville with the sleeker country preferences of Now It Belongs to You, which is sung and composed by Steve Wariner. Ol' Blue invites James Taylor to the party for a plaintive canine eulogy, and Sleigh Ride reverts back to the one-man-band recordings that O'Connor cut in the '80s, with the violinist overdubbing his own contributions on mandola, mandolin, banjo, bass, percussion and more for music that leans on jazz with a suggestion of bossa nova.
None of this should deter you from hopping aboard O'Connor's holiday express. This is a crisp, expressive seasonal vehicle with consistently world-class instrumentation. Just don't expect the train to stay parked in Appalachia. Like ol' St. Nick, O'Connor has considerable ground to cover in a single outing.
Walter Tunis, Contributing music writer