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Jeff reviews his new favorite holiday album

As the holidays quickly approach us during a year rife with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty it is perhaps more important than ever that we take a moment to stop and enjoy something beautiful. Might I suggest a bit of music? I am thrilled to have an opportunity to open a little window into my world of music, which for me has always been a soothing balm during difficult times. 

For my first of many recommendations to come, I thought I’d start with an ensemble that has been near and dear to me since just about the first time I picked up a trumpet. No group has been more instrumental (pun definitely intended) in making chamber music just plain fun. Since their founding in 1970, they’ve produced more than 130 albums and have toured the world over and over. They have managed to stay relevant for more than four decades through their perfect balance of standing-ovation-inducing virtuosity mixed with the fact that they apparently will never be accused of taking themselves too seriously. If you’re still wondering who they are, here comes the biggest hint…while they always show up to a performance dressed to impress with their well-fitted suits, they also sport all-matching white, comfy sneakers. Yup, you guessed it: I’m talking about the Canadian Brass!

Though you can’t go wrong with any of their recordings, their all-time number one seller is Christmas Time is Here. It’s the Canadian Brass take on the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which turned out to be exactly the thing I needed to hear this winter. The pace of the holidays seem to quicken with every passing year, but the characters of Peanuts remind us that it’s ok to slow down and admire the tree. So, I encourage you to take a moment, turn on the stereo and give a listen to Christmas Time is Here. I promise the first track will immediately have you tapping your foot while you stir your eggnog with a cinnamon stick and begin to feel 2020 melt off of your shoulders.

The real beauty of the Canadian Brass is their breadth of stylistic mastery, which is on full display throughout the album. One minute they’ll be smoothly improvising arpeggios over the seductive chord changes of “Greensleeves” in a manner reminiscent of a “A Night in Tunisia,” while in the next they’ll be invoking the counterpoint of Bach in a variation of “Carol of the Bells” that would be fit to be performed in The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. 

Caleb Hudson and Chris Coletti are the group’s trumpet players, and they make listening to the second track on the album, called “Skating,” as easy as watching the flurries of snow fall outside your living room window while you lick the whipped cream off your lips after that first sip of hot cocoa. These guys have such a knack for fitting into each other’s sounds that it’s almost impossible to differentiate the two. The only tip I can give you is that Caleb is usually the one playing the piccolo. (That’s the little one that looks like a toy trumpet for all you non-brass players who may be reading this).

Now, when you open up a new Christmas album, if you’re like me, you skip straight to “The Little Drummer Boy,” to find out if the album was worth the money. I hate to disappoint, but you’re not going to find that track on this recording. Since this is a take on the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, it features a tune called “My Little Drum.” Yes, it does sound quite a bit like our favorite classic Christmas carol, but they play with the rhythm a bit, and also break into a samba in the middle of the song which features some soft velvety improvisation from the group’s trombone player, Achilles Liarmakopoulos. If you’re a purist, you might be left wanting; however, I think this track has a meditative quality that begs for you to close your eyes, take another bite of that gingerbread cookie, and keep on listening.

There is one track on this album that quite literally stopped me in my tracks. In fact, I interrupted my wife while she was wrapping white twinkly lights around our tree, so that I could hear every note without distraction. “The Angel Choir and the Trumpeter” features Caleb Hudson on the piccolo trumpet. He somehow manages to make his horn sound with all of the warmth of a clarinet, but with the purity of tone that, until Caleb, had only been produced by a flute. His articulation is so light that his sound seems to emerge out of thin air. For this recording, Hudson should be immediately inducted into the All-Time Trumpet Hall of Fame, although admittedly I may have a bias. The first time I heard Caleb Hudson play the trumpet was in 2005, while he and I were both members of the trumpet studio at the Interlochen Arts Academy. For his senior recital he performed a piece called “Cascades,” written by another well-known trumpet virtuoso named Allen Vizzutti. This piece requires the performer to execute technical acrobatics that would have tied my lips in a knot. Suffice to say, none of us who knew him were the least bit surprised when 8 years later he was introduced as the newest member of the Canadian Brass.

For a boost of Christmas spirit, this album also contains a handful of additions that you didn’t hear in A Charlie Brown Christmas, including “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and an exceedingly fun and creative arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The latter features the only remaining founding member of the Canadian Brass, tubist Chuck Daellenbach, who has managed to keep the musical integrity, as well as the funny bone, of the Canadian Brass alive through his brass quintet’s ever-revolving door of extraordinary talent.

Sometime between now and Christmas day, have a listen to the Canadian Brass’s Christmas Time is Here. It will leave you with the kind of warm fuzzies that I think we could all use this winter. You can listen on Apple Music, YouTube, or - better yet - download the album straight from the Canadian Brass website by following this link:

Happy holidays and happy listening!

Jeff Karlson
December, 2020