In the spirit of the Music to Quarantine By series and the holiday season, here's Music to Holidays To, Volume I: an eclectic mix of tunes featuring instruments only ranging from acoustic guitars to smooth saxophones to lush orchestras, jazzy pianos, electric violins, and more. Enjoy!
With so many tracks to sift through, there was no way I’d be able to come up with just one playlist of winter gems. And so, I didn’t try. I’ve split up my “Music to Holidays To” series into several themed volumes, beginning with instrumentals.
Although filled with quite a bit of smooth jazz (deal with it!), this mix has some fairly intriguing instrumental arrangements of old songs.
We start with “Deck the Halls” by David Arkenstone. That is a name that will appear frequently in this series. A new age artist and fantasy soundtrack composer, David Arkenstone has released at least five different Christmas albums over the years. And by “different”, I mean truly distinct and engaging styles. It doesn’t get much more eclectic and versatile than releasing a chill lounge Christmas album, and a Native American Christmas album. As enjoyable as the arrangements are in the latter, there is a certain irony to hearing an indigenous musical interpretation of “I Saw Three Ships” amongst other colonial carols. Nonetheless David Arkenstone is truly a Christmas music genius.
David “Hit Man” Foster’s epic and frantic rendering of “Carol of the Bells” keeps the dramatic element of the song while adding a spritely, complex orchestral energy to it. I used to think I was the only one in on this secret masterpiece, but then I heard it in a video or in a commercial and the Christmas dream was shattered...
The Vince Guaraldi Trio—one of the most recognizable sounds in California jazz, provides the necessary classics. In the liner notes for a Peanuts songbook, I learned a whole slew of new information about Vince Guaraldi including his death before even reaching fifty.
Of all the possible takes on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, the vibrant, salsa-infused recording from smooth jazz legend Russ Freeman wins for Most Unexpected, although Jonathan Butler and Keiko Matsui easily win for Smooth and Dark, I think.
Another guitarist of note included is musician and composer, W.G. “Snuffy” Walden. Besides having one of the coolest names to see on a list of recording artists, Walden is responsible for the sweeping theme from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. As a huge Sorkin fan, those guitar riffs bring to my mind transitional cues during a deliberately poignant moment on Sports Night. Once you’ve heard a melody articulated on acoustic guitar by W.G. “Snuffy” Walden (it’s even just fun to type the name!), you will always recognize his sometimes plaintive, but always distinct style.
Confession: I’ve never been a huge fan of “Good King Wenceslas” … until I heard the Piano Guys take a stab at it with an insistent, pounding groove on an otherwise monotonous song. Try listening and not gesturing on those downbeats in the chorus—I dare you.
“This Christmas” is such a fascinating song in general. Regardless of the singer, the chorus of “This Christmas” always has a sort of wailing quality to it—not necessarily in a bad way, but in a very soulful, yearning sense that compliments the words. As a fairly informed connoisseur of smooth jazz saxophone, I’ve only come across a handful of musicians who play in such way that they make their instruments almost sing the lyrics. Gerald Albright (and his recording of “This Christmas” in particular) is one of those occasions.
Other standouts (among a list of standouts. of course) worth commenting on are the virtuosic violinist Lindsey Stirling’s tracks, the effervescent arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” by The Carpenters (without even relying on Karen’s silky voice). And, of course, Scott Bradlee’s solo piano arrangement of “Silent Night” towards the end of the playlist. Known for retro takes on modern songs, Bradlee dials it back on this recording while still demonstrating technical prowess. There is more of Jim Brickman than Jelly Roll Morton to his work on “Silent Night” and was certainly worth including.