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These songs, mostly South American folk favorites played for all their sprightly worth by a band that at this point probably couldn’t play them any other way, emphasize the season’s less-religious aspects—festivity for festivity’s sake, one might say. Spanish speakers, however, will recognize an exception in the opening track, “La Rama,” which bases its festivity on Christ’s birth and His virgin mother’s beauty. In other highlights, the band has a go at doing for Freddy Fender and José Feliciano what it once did for Ritchie Valens.
Music for the Christmas Season
For the first 16 tracks, carol follows hard upon carol. Yet as performed by Fletcher, a classical guitarist of strikingly economical virtuosity, there’s no sense of haste or waste. In the dozen that follow, the familiar—Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Pachelbel’s Canon in D, excerpts from Praetorius’ Terpsichore, Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts”—alternates with the less familiar, concluding, and climaxing, with Andrew York’s “Jubilation” (aka “Sunburst”). The simplest but most appreciated gift of all: Fletcher’s opting for Kirkpatrick’s “Away in a Manger” over Mueller’s.
Immanuel: The Folk Sessions
You can look at this unplugged, EP-sized condensation of Penn’s full-length, plugged-in 2017 Christmas project in three ways: as a trailer for the latter, as a bonus disc completing the latter’s so-far-nonexistent deluxe edition, or as an uncommonly pellucid, stand-alone work of Scripturally based Christmas folk-pop. Two selections appear for the first time—“I’ve Seen the Glory” (sung from the point of view of Simeon) and Penn’s rearrangement of “The First Noel.” Neither feels like filler (unless stocking filler counts).
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Three-hit ’60s wonders in the U.S. (“Georgy Girl,” anyone?) but a veritable ’60s hit machine Down Under and in the U.K., the Seekers originally released this refreshingly unpretentious collection of carols and Santa songs in 2001 under the title Morningtown Ride to Christmas. This Decca Records reissue adds “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (thus justifying the new title) and a much more attractive cover. The overall effect is not unlike being serenaded by a band of carolers straight out of Currier and Ives.
Born in 1913, Margaret Bonds was a black, female composer and classical pianist at a time in which to be either black or female, let alone both, reduced a musician’s chances of being taken seriously. Margaret Bonds: The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs (Avie), a gorgeous new recording by the Malcolm J. Merriweather–conducted Dessoff Choirs & Orchestra and assorted soloists, shows how much those unaware of her output have been missing.
A cantata with lyrics by Langston Hughes, The Ballad of the Brown King triples as a moving celebration of Balthazar (tradition’s dark-skinned, myrrh-bearing wise man), black identity, and Christ’s birth. As an aesthetic and philosophical hat trick, it has few if any equals. “With this recording,” writes the harpist and Bonds scholar Ashley Jackson in the liner notes, “Malcolm Merriweather and I hope to bring [Bonds’] music to new audiences and to encourage future [Bonds] performances.” It’s hard to imagine its accomplishing anything less. —A.O.