December by Jesse Brown – Album Review
December is the debut recording by Canadian pianist/composer/piano teacher Jesse Brown. Released in 2012, the album features fifteen of Brown’s solo piano arrangements of traditional Christmas carols. After reviewing Christmas albums for so many years on top of teaching Christmas music to my students for decades, I appreciate how challenging it is to bring something new and fresh to this music – especially the most often-heard carols – so I am blown away by how much I love this album! It isn’t that Brown’s arrangements are all that unusual – they are just so soulful and beautiful! The overall mood of the album is on the more quiet and contemplative side. A few songs have some jazzy passages and most have improvised sections, but the music has a wonderful grace and sincerity that allows the listener to hear the songs as new again. December is the perfect antidote for the frantic energy level the holidays can bring and is also a reminder of the reason we celebrate this time of year.
It is impossible to choose favorites on December because the whole album is so good. It begins with an original introduction/prelude to “O Holy Night” that sets a mood of reflection. The actual song is often performed with powerful drama, but Brown keeps it gentle with an emphasis on the haunting melody – a compelling opening track! “Angels We Have Heard On High” also begins with a prelude and weaves improvised passages between the verses of the song. “What Child Is This?” begins in a classical style with just a hint of a jazz rhythm. It’s amazing how Brown works in some blues chords here and there and how well they work! “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime (The Huron Christmas Carol)” isn’t as well known as most of the other songs, and is a very nice addition with its darker and more melancholy melody. “Shchedryk” is the original title for the carol better-known as “Carol of the Bells” or “The Bell Carol.” Always a favorite of mine and a piece that is adaptable to a seemingly endless number of musical styles, Brown’s arrangement is on the quieter and more graceful side – a beauty! “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” also lends itself to a wide variety of musical styles, and Brown’s arrangement is slower, a bit darker, and more compelling than most. His arrangement of “O Tannenbaum” is the bluesiest and jazziest track so far – totally charming! There are two versions of “Silent Night” on the album – the more traditional one and “Silent Night Blue.” The first is very gentle and hushed, and the second one closes the album with an anything but traditional arrangement. It is more of a blues/jazz waltz that is gentle, but also a bit edgy – a great close to an outstanding Christmas album!
I don’t know how I missed December when it was first released, but it’s never too late to share a wonderful new discovery! I will be following up shortly with reviews of Jesse Brown’s CD and songbook of original piano solos. I can’t wait! December is available from Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby. I give it my highest recommendation!