Monday, December 21, 2009

Do you hear what I hear?

I would be in shambles if we celebrated Christmas without song. In a season that is potentially quite stressful, holiday music is among my only sources of solace. So with just a few hours before we hit the 25th of December, here's to share with you some of the Christmas albums that have continued to keep me sane and safe through the years.

Undoubtedly my favorite Christmas album of all time. I had been a fan of The Swingle Singers' earlier holiday collection and jumped at the prospect of getting this more recent one when fellow chorister Tonet Santana volunteered to get me copy while he was in the U.S. With 21 tracks, THE STORY OF CHRISTMAS embraces the narrative of the Nativity from all possible angles and reflects all the shades of the season, from somber to grandiose, in a cappella. O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL and MAGNIFICAT are staggering beautiful, and the group's SILENT NIGHT never fails to make me cry.

Maybe not technically a Christmas collection, the album is a modern take on Handel's Oratorio, and traces the lush history of African-American music. I first read about the Quincy Jones's project in the early 90s and was flabbergasted by the roster of artists involved in it: Stevie Wonder, Take 6, Patti Austin, David Pack, Al Jarreau, Gladys Knight, Johnny Mathis, The Yellow Jackets, to name a few. My personal favorites are AND HE SHALL PURIFY and I KNOW THAT MY REDEEMER LIVETH, each with distinct R&B flavors, both rousing in totally different ways. I have three copies of the CDs--the two that I've lent out have never returned.

College classmate and songwriter Vincent Wongaiham played this non-stop during those months we were working on our thesis with Sandra Herrero-Gonzalvez and Jo-Ann Sto. Tomas-Reyes. Festive and full of cheer, the album conjures images of Christmas pageants and Dorothy Hamill on ice at the Rockefeller Plaza, what with the tubular bells and sleigh bells plus the dense orchestral arrangements in most of the tracks. I must have been influenced by the album sound when writing the musical we produced in college. Thanks to Karen and Richard, we got an A+.

The album had an underground following when I was in college; campus choirs kept requesting scores of ONE SMALL CHILD and STARLIGHT, among others. Coincidentally, I was then producing Bukas Palad's Christmas album and must have been swayed by the rich choral arrangements that were tapered for more pop-sounding choirs, and evident in AN EVENING IN DECEMBER. The sound was and still is both stirring and refreshing.

Maybe 5 years back, fellow musician Gino Torres gifted me with this album from one of our favorite vocal stylists, Kenny Rankin. Of course, I never told Gino that I had already owned a copy; besides, I was perfectly fine with owning two. With just man and guitar, the album manages to give new meaning to traditional Christmas songs and carols, infusing jazzy vibe and sometimes melancholic rhythm to such classic melodies as WE THREE KINGS and LITTLE DRUMMER BOY--and mind you, these are songs I had previously no liking for. Ooh, I am still mourning Rankin's recent passing.

This was my lucky find last year. I already had one of Amy Grant's holiday albums (which dear friend Reggie Regala borrowed, then lost but replaced immediately), and was elated to come across this collection compiling the artist's favorite Christmas tracks and some new ones to boot. My favorite BREATH OF HEAVEN and the first version I ever heard of the now-too-popular GROWN UP CHRISTMAS LIST made the cut. Equally moving for me beneath drums, synthesizers and electric guitars are I NEED A SILENT NIGHT and A CHRISTMAS TO REMEMBER.

I borrowed a cassette of this album from choirmate Lourdes Uranza-Jungnitsch and never returned it. Absolutely fabulous! Produced nearly 40 years ago, the music continues to intrigue and uplift with the magical arrangements of carols from around the world--all through scatting and without any of the original lyrics being uttered. Particularly fascinating for me are the medleys that take the listener through musical movements, rising and falling and rising again to depict the myriad of emotions that Christmas brings. I learned recently from friend and musical genius, Palan Reyes, that a CD of the album now exists.

All right. I guess I lied. Pasko Na is my favorite Christmas album of all time. But I am biased; you see the tracks are written, arranged, and recorded by people I love, and those who have shaped my perception of music and Christmas. They are a big reason why my holidays shall be forever filled with song.

A merry, merry Christmas to all!


Leilah said...

I love it! :-) Merry, merry Christmas, Norman. :-) I always look forward to your blogs. :-)

Pia said...

Nice entry, Norman. :) I was able to listen to a track from Kenny Rankin's album (thanks to Tonet) and I must say that it's one worth having. Sobrang pulido pala ng boses nya no? Merry Christmas! :)

Mommymoe said...

Normsy, Christmas play list please....again, picture me having to fold basketsful of laundry even at please have pity on me and post a Christmas play list that would keep me company "amidst" this drudgery. ;o)

wongie said...

Evening in December is still a fave of mine. I remember being the King of the World that time in college coz I had the complete choral arrangement songbook!! Unfortunately, it got lost and I dont know anymore where it is. AND THIS SONGBOOK HAS BEEN OUT OF PRINT FOR YEARS NOW! Oh do please tell me you made copies or something....

wongie said...

btw, I didnt know I played the Carpenters album that much. But considering how it is still a christmas staple for me and I can literally sing all the songs there backwards, I guess I must plead guilty to subjecting you all to non-stop Carpentering during those thesis preparation months. But I did stop after Christmas though, didn't I?

Norman Agatep said...

Hey, Pia. Yes...super pulido. Nakaka-inis. :P

Norman Agatep said...

Hey Monnette, Play list on the way! : ) Tamang-tama, pwede kang maglaba all through the holidays!

Norman Agatep said...

Hey Vincent! Yes, you are guilty. You coerced me to buy a cassette of that album. But thankfully, I did! Though regretfully, I don't have a copy of First Call's song book....

Natália Alves said...

it's cool (:
i don't speak english very well but I love it.