While dozens of holiday-themed albums are put out each year, only a handful possess a special magic that seems of the moment, truly creative, fresh and fun.
This year, banjo master Bela Fleck and his equally virtuosic, go-anywhere fusion music group the Flecktones are in that winner's circle with their (nearly) all-instrumental album "Jingle All The Way." The set jumps out of Santa's packed bag with a whimsy and adventurousness that can't be beat - from a "Jingle Bells" featuring a weirdo Tuvan throat singer gurgling/humming in two voices simultaneously, to a swinging, super-playful "12 Days of Christmas" that changes key and tempo with every round.
The album also tiptoes in sprightly folk-classical fashion through "Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies," jazzes that "Charlie Brown Christmas" music and nods to the Jewish Festival of Lights with an old worldly "The Hanukkah Waltz" featuring ace clarinetist Andy Statman.
Oh, and now that we've got your appetite whetted - all this good stuff (and more) will be celebrated live when Bela and the Flecktones offer up a holiday concert at the Kimmel Center on Tuesday.
In a recent chat, Fleck allowed that he'd been thinking about and slowly collecting material for this album for years. The in-demand player also worked, instructively, on "a bunch of other musicians' Christmas projects, some good, some just OK" - citing a jazz-flavored Warner Bros.' artists disc and an all-acoustic, picking session with David Grisman - "kinda similar to ours" - as his special faves.
"And we've long been doing some Christmas songs in concerts this time of year - like [bassist] Victor Wooten's amazing solo version of 'The Christmas Song' " (also found on the new album) and "our counterpoint blend of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman' and 'Little Drummer Boy' that's lots of fun to perform live."
In the next breath, though, Fleck cautioned that he and his cohorts have been resistant to "the selling of Christmas. The main reason to do these songs is simply because we all love them. As with everyone else, they've been ingrained in our brains, from hearing them so many times. In that way, they're a lot like hit records."
So what finally made Fleck jump this year with a project that's also been anointed "2008's Best Christmas album" by O magazine? "Truth is, I don't really know if Oprah Winfrey herself has heard it, but someone on her staff clearly liked it," Fleck conceded.
In the end, the doing came down to the timing, to the fact that Fleck is one of those musical pros who has his next three career moves plotted way ahead of time. "I've been busy with all kinds of stuff, working with a variety of people this past year," he said - from jazz duets with Chick Corea to low-profile bluegrass touring and recording sessions with country lass Abigail Washburn.
He's also been pumping up interest at film festivals for a documentary (and companion album) called "Throw Down Your Heart." Self-produced with his brother (television producer/writer Sasha Paladino), the project traces the African roots of the banjo and follows Fleck connecting with musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. A bunch of those guys will be coming up to tour with Fleck next spring "and a Philadelphia date is a possibility."
But back to the Christmas music venture. "I looked at the calender and saw we only had a couple months open to tour with the Flecktones at the end of the year, before we'd split apart again to do other things. We didn't want to come out and tour without new product, we always need new music.
"So I had the idea that this was finally the time to make the album we've always talked about. Once we committed, the ideas started flowing really fast. People would start humming a Christmas song in a new time signature, then we started thinking about what we could do that would really kick ass. We didn't just want to play all the tunes you know in a conventional way."
It probably helps that Fleck comes from a spiritually mixed, free-wheeling background. His mom is Jewish "but my brother and I weren't raised with the religion. Everyone in New York had a Christmas tree, including us, and when I was little I thought there was a Santa for a while.
"We celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas in our house. Like everyone else, I always loved the positive memories and associations that Christmas songs have. That's why they keep coming back. But I didn't grow up singing them in church, which is where some musicians get imprinted with a very traditional, serious way of performing them. To me the classic Christmas performances were Stevie Wonder's and Nat King Cole's."
Adding fuel to their creative fire, the Flecktones have always had a goofy, tongue-in-cheek side. "After our last album, 'The Hidden Land,' which was our most serious and frankly, non-commercial, we were feeling the urge to go a little crazy this time," Fleck said.
The oddest notion - having those otherworldly Tuvan throat singers (from the Russian land of Tuva) on the record, mumbling through "Jingle Bells," "12 Days" and "What Child Is This," was actually thrust upon Fleck when they "contacted us out of the blue and said they'd be visiting the U.S. They're disciples of a great Tuvan singer we'd previously worked with. So we told them to come to Nashville and maybe we'd work something out. This is what resulted. Strange but incredibly compelling. And our fans really seem to like it all. At our show, they're buying fistfuls of the album to give away as presents." *