His music-loving elves suggest listenable albums in many styles

'SANTA' DELIVERS THE HOLIDAY CHEER

December 08, 1991|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Startled by the sudden buzz of his intercom, S. Nicholas looked at his watch and realized that he'd been daydreaming again. He wasn't sure why, but lately it seemed as if the same image kept popping into his head -- a strange ballet in which all the dancers were pieces of Christmas candy. "Gotta ask my shrink about this," he muttered, reaching for the "talk" button.

"Yes, Virginia?"

"It's the Christmas music committee, sir," crackled the voice on the intercom. "They're waiting for you in conference room A."

Nicholas groaned. Of all the organizational changes the company had gone through, the Christmas music committee was the only one that still rankled. He had no problem with automating the North Pole workshops, had grudgingly agreed to collective bargaining for the elves. He'd even gone along with the brokerage's insistence on a new corporate name, although he still felt that "SantaCorp" had a friendlier sound than "SCX."

But he hated having to choose new Christmas music each year.

"What do the elves need new music for?" he griped, hauling his bulk out from behind the desk. "Why can't they listen to Bing Crosby every year, like I do?"

As expected, the committee members were in place when he got there. Noel, a carol fan from accounting who handled the old-fashioned albums, had claimed the chair at Nicholas' right; next to him sat Yul, the computer elf who dealt with jazz and R&B.

Felix, a doll-painter who made recommendations on folk recordings, was across the table, and to his right was Kris from shipping, the token rock fan.

"So-ho-ho," laughed Nicholas, eager to get this over with, "who wants to start?"

"I do, sir," answered Noel. "As you know, the last few years haven't been particularly kind to the older carols; if they weren't being parodied by punk bands, they were being desecrated as disco.

"This year, though, all that has changed. Why, even the pop fans seem to want a taste of tradition. Just look at Natalie Cole's nostalgic rendition of 'The Christmas Song' (Elektra 8473). Granted, it's just a single, but honestly, she sings the song almost as well as her father did.

"That's just an appetizer, though," Noel said, his enthusiasm growing. "There's a lovely collection of choral performances called, modestly enough, 'The Most Beautiful Christmas Carols' (Milan 35605). Lovely and low-key, it makes great background music. But if you really want to get that chestnuts-roasting mood going, get out a copy of 'And the Angels Sing' (North Star NS0035), a collection created for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that offers exquisite, chamber music arrangements of favorites like 'Oh Holy Night' and 'Joy to the World.' It's divine."

"That's nice, Noel," said Nicholas, "but do you have anything a little less arty?"

"Well," he said, "there's 'Merry Christmas from Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Orchestra' (Amherst 94406). Between the band's fondness for brass choir voicings and the occasional use children's chorus, it's a surprisingly traditional-sounding album. But I doubt it will make big band fans terribly happy."

"Don't sweat it," shrugged Yul. "If it's the big band sound they want, let 'em buy the Glenn Miller Orchestra's 'In the Christmas Mood' (LaserLight 15418)."

"Glenn Miller?" asked Nicholas. "Isn't he dead?"

"Oh, sure," answered Yul. "For that matter, half the songs here hadn't even been written when he died. But you wouldn't know it by this album -- the arrangements are so Milleresque it's scary.

"Still, real jazz fans might want something a little more modern, and for them, a couple choices come to mind. Like Marcus Roberts' solo-piano album 'Prayer for Peace' (Novus 63124); it gets a little 'out' at times, Roberts being a big fan of Thelonious Monk-style dissonance, but has some lovely moments anyway. 'Course, if it's pretty you want, it's hard to top guitarist Tuck Andress, whose 'Hymns, Carols and Songs About Snow' (Windham Hill 10135) is quiet, cool and definitely swinging.

"I suppose I also ought to mention the 'GRP Christmas Collection, Vol. II' (GRP 9650), an all-star fusion session featuring Patti Austin, Spyro Gyra and George Howard. But to tell the truth, if you're going to get that close to pop, you may as well go all the way. Like Stephanie Mills does on 'Christmas' (MCA 10427); I mean, if you ever wondered what 'Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer' would sound like as new jack swing, this is where you find out."

"New jack what?" said Nicholas.

"Personally," admitted Yul, "if you're going to mess with Christmas music, I'd much rather hear a straight-up blues like the version of 'Merry Christmas Baby' the O'Jays slipped into 'Home for Christmas' (EMI 96420) -- brother, it's deep. But keep away from that Take 6 album, 'He Is Christmas' (Reprise 26665), unless you think Christmas songs should all sound like radio station ID jingles."

Nicholas shuddered (though not quite like a bowl full of jelly) at the thought. "Felix, I hope you have some jollier news than that for us."

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