By RYAN O’MALLEY
Entertainment Editor, SNSPost
There are pretty much only two camps when it comes to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: Those who are fans and those who have never heard them. And selling a newcomer on them isn’t exactly easy, either. Jazz Banjo? Electric drums? Soprano sax? You mean like Kenny G? Yeah, well, just listen. Put aside any prejudices you have towards any of the above and resist the urge to be immediately critical and just listen. Bela Fleck (banjo), Jeff Coffin (woodwinds), Victor Wooten (bass) and Roy “Future Man” Wooten (percussion) have found an amazing way to take an unlikely combination of instruments and turn them into some of the most interesting, unique and awe-inspiring music available today. It doesn’t hurt that each one has, for all intents and purposes, mastered his particular craft, either.
With nine studio and two live albums under their belt, these virtuosos turned their attention to perhaps the most oversaturated market in music—a Christmas album. Have no fear though, Jingle All the Way isn’t your dad’s Christmas album. Well, actually, in my case it is, but you get my point. Let’s just say Anne Murray, Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis may have paved the way, but the Flecktones have broken new ground and haven’t exactly made it easy for those wishing to follow.
To start with, I’ve never heard a “Jingle Bells” use a tension and release technique, but somehow the quartet (with the help of Tuvan throat singers Alash Ensemble) has managed to do so. Without conjuring up any more innuendos than necessary, it’s impressive how the anxious and driving chorus builds to a threshold before letting go into the the cathartic and calming verse, both eventually melding together in a suprising harmony.
The five-four time of “Silent Night” adds a unique touch to the traditional three-four, with Coffin taking the lead on soprano sax but leaving room for solos from Bela and Victor. And the half-time “Sleigh Ride” feels a bit more like a Clark Griswold slicked-up saucer ride than a horse-drawn ride with Charles Dickens.
As if playing as a group doesn’t demonstrate their expertise enough, many Flecktones albums also include complete solo numbers, usually by Bela or Victor, giving them a chance to really shine, and Wooten’s soft-hearted solo of “The Christmas Song” is yet another demonstration of his mastery of the bass. Effortless and tasteful, Wooten is able to add texture and dynamics to this classic on an instrument that is rarely featured alone, especially not on a holiday song.
Now, let’s just take a quick breath and collect ourselves because it is very hard to even write this next line…………Okay, here goes. The true highlight of Jingle All the Way is, without a doubt, “Twelve Days of Christmas.” There. I said it. But before you close out your browser and dismiss any musical taste I have as poor, let’s think about this. In a way, it kind of makes sense. It would take musical geniuses to turn in an even tolerable rendition of Twelve Days of Christmas, and amazingly the Flecktones have gone even beyond that. When most song writers pen a tune it’s almost always in the standard four-four time. Maybe they’ll get a little creative and throw it in three-four or even five-four, but that’s about it. And maybe after a couple of rounds of verses and choruses, they’ll throw in a key change just to spice things up. Well, how about one song played in twelve different signatures and twelve different keys? Yes, you read that right. I’ll give you a minute to digest it. These bastards decided to not only play each day in a different key but also a different signature, each corresponding to its day, ie two-four for the second day, three-four for the third, five-four for the fifth and so on, all the way through all twelve days. AND that’s both up and back. So the ever so fun “twelve drummers, eleven pipers piping, ten lords a leaping…”? Yup, changing keys and time signatures all the way back down to one. You know what? Here, just watch.
Okay, so now that that’s done, what’s next? How about a little classical in the shape of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (BVW 248 #41), bringing in Bela’s buddy in all things classical, Edgar Meyer on the double bass. Versions of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” and “Linus and Lucy” are spot on and not without some Flecktones flair.
The “Jingle Bells Reprise,” again with the Tuvan singing, is the only unnecessary track on the album. It’s nothing against the Tuvan talent, but there isn’t enough variety in it to feature at now three different points in the album (the second being a brief appearance in Twelve Days). But short and to the point, it at least doesn’t overstay its welcome entirely.
I’m not sure if the inclusion of “The Hanukkah Waltz” is done to offer universality or just because it’s a great fit for the Flecktones, but either way it works. As does the second classical track, “Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies.”
And please welcome back Alash Ensemble! The only unfortunate thing about “What Child is This” is that it’s the 12th track. The now fourth appearance by Alash fits quite well with the orient-flavor the Flecktones put on the Greensleeves redo, but at this point it’s coming off as a tired gimmick, which any fan of the Flecktones knows they aren’t opposed to. But the redeeming factor is that the tune is actually quite well done, so I guess I’ll cut them some slack.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” is absolutely amazing, not necessarily for the fact that it’s very well played, but more for the fact that no member of the Flecktones plays on it. How completely unselfish to stand aside and allow two outstanding (and outsider) musicians take the stage, with Meyer returning on double bass and Andy Statman on mandolin.
The “Medley” is a really fun way of incorporating a number of traditional holiday tunes without the need to make a double disk album. Using “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as the central theme, “Medley” also dabbles in “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Rudolph,” “My Favorite Things,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “We Three Kings.”
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” takes on a fun, bouncy feel almost reminding of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” And adding a touch of the modern, Bela plays both banjo and piano on his solo rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
Thank you, good night! But while you leave, Bela will serenade you a bit more with his own Christmas medley as a solo bonus track.
Alright, so let’s just cut to the chase here. The only reason not to own this album is because you don’t like Christmas songs. Past that, I can’t think of any good reason. Don’t like the banjo? Don’t worry, you’ll have a new appreciation for it after this. Already have plenty of Christmas albums? Well, I can guarantee you that nothing on your shelf provides even close to the variety of this. So, as long as you’re not that aforementioned scrooge, do yourself a favor and get this album. Not only that, get it for your friends and family. And when they open it and you are met with the looks of “jazz banjo?” “electric drums?” and “soprano sax like Kenny G?”, push play, sit back and tell them to just listen.
Originality: 5/5 (the fact that there aren’t any original songs on it aside)