When I was offered a review copy of Alexis Cole's Christmas album, I accepted gladly enough — but with trepidations. An element or two of the presentation gave me a pause. Then there's the simple fact that I wasn't familiar with the artist, and (as a rule) only accept items for review in the hopes that I'll enjoy them, and be able to recommend them.
In this case: whew! I really did, and I really do.
The Greatest Gift is a most delightfully eclectic jazz album, mixing sacred and secular Christmas music in a variety of jazz stylings. These fourteen tracks lay out a remarkable array of jazz variations. What do you like in your jazz?
- Trombone? Check
- Piano riffs? Check
- Guitar ramblings? Check
- Violin? Cello? Check, and check
- Vibes? Check
- Add to it all Alexis Cole's own smooth, very pleasant voice — her own sound, but reminiscent of an intersection of Roberta Flack and a mid-career Joni Mitchell.
- Plus Alexis' father Mark Finkin provides soulful voice stylings on some tracks
The first track ("Joy to the World") is a joyous, jazzy instrumental featuring one of those classic jazz guitar solos that starts off like a beginning student hitting random notes, and builds into a hot dance with a slick horn arrangement ultimately resolving into a mellow refrain.
The next track starts off with an instrumental arrangement of "Jeanette Isabella," which shifts to Cole's lovely voice singing her own composition, "The Call." Cole is joined by a children's choir, and then her father, to form a duet — then the song breaks out in a fun, dashing piano excursion.
Following this comes a very cool, bluesy arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," as Cole's scat-singing leads to her father's voice, accented by Cole. Muy sabroso. You can get a taste of a shorter version of the song in a music video, which also plugs Cole's charity of choice. Then comes (sorry to repeat myself, but) a very cool, up-tempo, mildly Caribbean arrangement of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."
One of the two most daring arrangements comes next, as "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow" begins with an extended, Eastern/Indian sounding intro melding Cole's intonements with tabla and tambura backing. The other is track 12, "Silent Night." Surprisingly, the arrangement is very discordant from the very start — most surprisingly when the violins come in, almost sounding out of tune. This persists, solely instrumental, for 2:55, at which point Cole sings "Sleep in heavenly peace," after which the violins play to a sweet finish.
Neither arrangement will "work" for everyone, though one admires Cole's urge to reach and push the envelope. I wonder whether the point of the Silent Night arrangement was the discord and disharmony preceding Christ's coming, and the change that His coming effects in those who receive Him.
"What Child Is This?" is a fairly straightforward jazz choral arrangment, but it's followed by a very nice, sly instrumental reworking of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (Mark Finkin arranged and played piano).
The last track is a song written and sung by Mark Finkin, joined by his daughter Alexis, a toe-tapper titled "Jesus Is the Best Part of Christmas." The literature I was sent describes Finkin as a Jewish believer (i.e. he has departed from the majority of Israel's apostasy when the Messiah came).
I really enjoyed the album. It's layered, complex, adept, fun, pleasing, engaging. If you like jazz and Christmas music — you're set! (Available for purchase here or here.)
(The album is a benefit for World Bicycle Fund.)