Classical Music Review: New Releases

New Century Saxophone Quartet - A New Century Christmas.  Funkin' with the Bells; The First Noel; Little Drummer Boy; We Wish You a Merry Christmas; In the Bleak Mid-Winter (Holst); Christmas Medley; Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (Praetorius); My Favorite Things; O Holy Night (Adam); God Rest Ye Merry Gentle Mensch; What Child is This; Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (Brahms/Praetorius); Santa Claus is Coming to Town; O Little Town of Bethlehem; We Four Kings; Rock Land Bell Winter Jingle Wonder; In Dulci Jubilo (Bach); The Last Noel; Silent Night (Gruber).  Arrangements by Benjamin Boone, Lawrence Dillon, Arthur Frackenpohl, Gordon Goodwin, Glenn Haynes, Brad Hubbard, Ben Johnston, David Ott, Lenny Pickett, Ronald Rudkin, Jeff Schiller, and Ken Valitsky.  New Century Saxophone Quartet (Michael Stephenson, soprano sax; Robert Faub, alto sax.; Stephen Pollock, tenor sax; Brad Hubard, baritone sax), with Panc Daalder (drums and percussion) and Ernst Glerum (bass).  Channel Crossings CCS 14698 (73'09).

It's not easy to pull off a Christmas album in these cynical days.  The melodies are trite and shopworn, but without them the project doesn't come across as all that "Christmassy".  The music should be engaging and at the same time unobtrusive.  The trick is to combine the novel with the traditional.

The New Century Saxophone Quartet juggle all these conflicting requirements admirably in this release.  They commissioned arrangements of various Christmas "standards" from a rather distinguished list of contemporary composers, admonishing them to arrange the tune "in their own compositional style."  While a project like this runs the risk of being a sequence of showy effects, the arrangements for the most part turn out to be rather apt and restrained.

And several turn out to be quite extraordinary.  "The Last Noel" (arr. Lawrence Dillon) features rapid upward scales followed by sustained notes, giving the music a nice improvisitory feel.  The same tune, here given its proper title, is set by Ben Johnston as a quiet chorale in Phrygian mode, the reedy saxophones and modal scales creating a sense of timelessness.  That same feeling is evident in Glenn Haynes' arrangement of Praetorius's "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," in which the rich harmonic textures of the opening a subtly augmented by a rhythmic ostinato in the tenor sax.

Of the more upbeat settings, the opening piece, "Funkin' with the Bells" (arr. Lenny Pickett), lends a Latinesque drive to the usually saccharine "Carol of the Bells."  Benjamin Boone contributes a swinging "My Favorite Things," and Ronald Rudkin creates a medley of three carols that wouldn't sound out of place on one of those "Firestone Christmas" collections from the late 1950's.  Very stylish!

The playing of the Quartet is superb.

Tony Gualtieri
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