Violinist Joshua Bell may not be part of the classical crossover class that such mavericks as Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer belong to. But a listen to his new holiday album Musical Gifts evens those comparisons considerably. The recording fashions familiar Yuletide fare to a variety of classical, pop, jazz and folk settings that underscore and often enhance his remarkable musicianship. But the real treat is watching such a versed classical voice adapt to the “friends” gathered around him.
Take a duet of Greensleeves with pianist and jazz icon Chick Corea. The interpretation begins with stark, loving finesse by Bell. In terms of tone alone, it’s a dazzling display. But when Corea enters, with typically playful rolls and bursts of piano, the tune takes on an almost danceable air full of autumnal color. It is an exchange marked by cunning, animation and immediacy.
The same can be said for much of Musical Gifts because the majority of the recording whittles the songs down to smaller combo settings. In reading the hearty list of guests on the album sleeve, one is almost predisposed to dismissing the project outright as another glammed up celebrity summit. The album’s serene lightness, however, is ingrained in these sessions. Even the usually slick and over-orchestrated trumpeter Chris Botti sheds the baggage for a loose, fun jazz reading of White Christmas. Then there is the regal but contained vocal power of Placido Domingo on O Tannenbaum that is set against a Bell-led quartet colored by harmonium and a folk-leaning I Want an Old Fashioned Christmas with Renee Fleming, the soprano who has become something of a stylistic minx herself of late.
The sense of subtle invention reaches a zenith during two trio collaborations with cellist Steve Isserlis. The first is a distinctive violin/cello/organ arrangement of Ave Maria that is all lyrical grace. The second subs piano for organ on a beaming and discreetly dramatic Baal Shem: Simchat Torah (Rejoicing).
The vocal group Straight No Chaser is left in the dust by Bell’s dervish string runs on Nutcracker Medley while Michael Feinstein’s singing on The Secret of Christmas offers the only instance where Musical Gifts surrenders to sentimentalism. But Alison Krauss’s ghostly treatment of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen counteracts that to bolster Bell’s holiday offerings with a sound and sentiment that is effortlessly ancient.