THERE'S good news for pop music fans searching for distinctive Christmas music this year. Several releases sidestep mediocrity and serve up original sounds, derring-do, and honest-to-goodness romance.
The following are top picks for this season. Most are available on both compact disc and cassette. HARK!
Richard Stolzman and guests
Gold is a Christmas color and also the sound of Stolzman's clarinet on this beautiful recording with guest artists Eddie Gomez, Dave Samuels, Bill Douglas, Jeremy Wall, and the Boys Choir of Harlem. Like Wynton Marsalis, Stolzman is one of the top classical "crossover" artists today. This album tastefully blends classical, jazz, and pop styles in a way that's hip and fresh, but not irreverent.
"Hark!" includes the most original and moving "Silent Night" I've ever heard. Stolzman's resonant tones turn this overplayed melody into a vision of stillness and shining stars. In the distance, a boy soprano sings the words like an angel overhead, but not in strict time. In fact, Don Sebesky's whole arrangement has a wonderful floating, unmeasured feeling.
With the help of jazz experts Gomez and Samuels on bass and vibraphone respectively, Stolzman performs "Ding Dong!," "We Three Kings," and "Deck the Halls" with a stylistic twist - but it works. Improvisation runs throughout the CD, except in the classical choral pieces such as "There Is No Rose" (Benjamin Britten) and "Nativity Carol" (John Rutter). HANDEL'S MESSIAH: A SOULFUL CELEBRATION
If you've ever wanted to clap along to Handel, now's your chance. Some highly talented singers and arrangers have modernized portions of the "Messiah" with blues, funk, jazz, and even rap. It could be a shocker for die-hard "Messiah" fans, but if you like gospel and other African-American musical traditions (and have an open mind), slide this into your CD player.
A host of black artists such as Gladys Knight, Take 6, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Patti Austin, Stevie Wonder, and Diane Reeves take part in this salute to the 250th anniversary of the work and to the history of black music.
The centerpiece of the album is an all-star "Hallelujah!" chorus conducted by Quincy Jones. The text and vocal lines are true to the original, but the rhythms and instrumentation are decidedly gospel. Mervyn Warren, a former member of the a cappella jazz group Take 6, has produced this piece as well as six others on the album. His talent is unmistakable.
Top cuts include a pure funk and rap version of "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted," co-arranged by Warren and another Take 6 member, Mark Kibble. …