Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Late Winter, Christmas, and Music

Late winter, leading up to Christmas, is a time that calls to flurries of activity and travel, preparation and celebration, even as it calls equally to reflection and quiet. Music, specifically of the season and otherwise, is always a good companion and a fine gateway to all these things. For a moment in the midst of hurry or for a longer time in the silence of night and morning, let the work of these musicians be you companion and guide.

Allow this music to renew your hope and peace and joy...

Wintersong, from New England based quartet Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem offers joy, sadness, reflection, exuberance, and good questions. All of this is framed in great harmony, fine lead singing, and top class playing on fiddle, bass, guitar, and percussion. There’s a lively treatment of Jesse Winchester’s Let’s Make a Baby King, a gospel infused spiritual from the African American tradition with Children Go Where I Send Thee. Christmas Bells finds guitarist Anand Nayak setting Longfellow’s words to a new, reflective melody. The four (Arbo on fiddle, Scott Kessel on percussion, Andrew Kinsey on bass, and Nayak on guitar; they all sing) interweave voices on a song Kinsey grew up with called Julian of Norwich. Arbo’s haunting lead well suits her original music framing words by Alfred Lord Tennyson in Ring Out Wild Bells. There’s a lifting of hope in the closing song, Singing in the Land. That’s just a hint of the music, which will make a fine companion for winter’s celebrations and questions.

The title of Heidi Talbot’s newest recording, Here We Go 1,2,3 suggests change. That is an idea that pulls through the songs, the ones she writes, and the ones she chooses from contemporary writers and from traditional sources. Talbot is Irish, living now in Scotland and married to fiddle player and composer John McCusker, who worked with her to produce this project. They’ve created a musical journey that references tradition and yet is contemporary. A clear eyed facing of shifting ground and a thread of resilience to learn from whatever comes are threads that pull through as well. These are stories, too, that leave any certain conclusion open to the hearer’s reflections. Talbot’s fine soprano and thoughtful phrasing illuminate these ideas in songs including the title track, Chelsea Piers, Song for Rose (will you remember me), and The Year That I Was Born.

...and if you happen to be looking for Christmas music, Talbot worked for some years with the band Cherish the Ladies. She is the voice on their fine seasonal album called On Christmas Night on songs including Silent NIght, The Holly and the Berry (all the women trade verses on this one), and The Castle of Dromore.

For her album Songs for Christmas, Emily Smith has chosen traditional and contemporary songs along with carols that have become favorites over the years as she done festive season concerts in her home region of Dumfries and Galloway in the southwest of Scotland. This year she’s expanded her holiday tour across Scotland, sharing such favorite carols as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Silent Night along with the gentle contemporary piece Santa Will Find You, the American spiritual Heard from Heaven Today and the Scots song Christ Has My Hairt Aye. Her clear voice and thoughtful phrasing imbue the songs with holiday grace and make the collection work well together. Smith’s own songwriting shines too on Find Hope and on Winter Song.

This is Cara Dillon’s first year to offer a Christmas album. Her choices for the album, which is called Upon a Winter’s Night, are in keeping with the path she’s been following in her non seasonal work, With husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman, Dillon has created a seasonal outing that shares several original songs from the couple, a piece in Irish, a reach back in time to the twelfth century for the Wexford Carol and even further back for the Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Dillon, who grew up in Northern Ireland, infuses the songs with a haunting grace and touches of Celtic connection along the way.

Carrie Newcomer’s recording The Beautiful Not Yet is not filled with carols -- it is not a seasonal album -- but the ideas of connection, of questions, of thoughtful reflection, and of staying in touch across time and miles work well with the holiday season. New comer has a gorgeous alto voice on which to tell the stories in this collection of original songs, too. It is an album that works well across the seasons -- as indeed all the recordings here do. During the winter holidays you might find Lean in Toward the Light, The Season Of Mercy, Sanctuary, and The Slender Thread especially worth hearing.

Bringing us back to Advent and Christmas, Matt and Shannon Heaton offer Fine Winter’s Night, which moves from contemplating how the cold dark skies of winter connect to warmth inside our homes and lives, to lively jigs and reels, both original and from Irish tradition. There’s a vignette of a Christmas love story set in Victorian era winter, and a story about a cat and Christmas, too, along with thoughtful presentations of carols including O Little Own of Bethlehem and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Shannon plays the flute, Matt plays the guitar, and they both sing, trading leads, joining in duets, and adding graceful harmonies as festive songs mix in with seasonal tunes.

Photograph at top by Jude Beck, other photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Music for a Winter’s Day at Wandering Educators
Scotland, Christmas, and Music at Journey to Scotland
Music for the Heart of Winter: Cathie Ryan here at Music Road
Cherish the Ladies: storytellers in song: Christmas here at Music Road

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posted by Kerry Dexter at

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