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Tucson Weekly Heavenly Piece

When it comes to holiday music, everyone seems to be recording "Silent Night."

By Russ Tarby

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  PIANOMAN BUTCH THOMPSON can remember a night exactly 42 years ago this month. He recalls it vividly.

It was Christmastime, he was 12 years old and he was playing piano, leading a small combo that closed his school's holiday program with an instrumental reading of "Silent Night." The sixth grade quartet--Thompson at the keys, two clarinets and a cornet--played the old carol three times through in unison.

"We played it straight," Thompson remembers. "We had a comfortable, unthreatening reedy sound, not much different from an old pedal organ. As we say in the Midwest, it could have been worse."

In fact, if Thompson had followed his jazz muse that December night in 1954, his "Silent Night" would surely have raised a few eyebrows. "Rehearsing at home one day, I happened to throw in a little 'Good evening, friends' blues lick that I thought sounded pretty good, but my mother persuaded me that people might not want to hear that kind of thing on a favorite hymn. They might be offended, she said, or worse I thought, they might laugh."

Nobody's laughing now, as Thompson has established himself as one of the most vibrant and versatile of America's performing pianists. Through his many appearances on Garrison Keillor's popular National Public Radio program Prairie Home Companion, and with several carefree and comfortable jazz albums under his belt, Thompson has become one of the nation's best-loved keyboard kings. And he's able to play "Silent Night" however he darn well pleases now, thank you, and he does just that on Yulestride (Daring/Rounder Records), his holiday collection of 17 piano solos.

There's something about the everlasting sustain of piano and organ notes, especially on grands and baby grands--the way those big hammers slam the string to send that note flying! And then there's the counterplay of full bodied chords against twinkling melody lines. And then glissando--the playful pawing of any number of keys on the keyboard all in one fell swoop. There's something about those special piano sounds that make it the perfect instrument for traditional holiday tunes that seem to reside in our very veins, or at least our collective consciousness.

Thompson's producer, the aptly-named Mason Daring, observed, "There can be no greater body of popular melodies than those we recall at Christmas. Butch's deferential treatment of these melodies provides an astonishing result--the marriage of traditional jazz piano stylings, chief among them stride, with the familiar music of the holidays."

" 'Silent Night' is a fragile and beautiful work," Thompson comments in his Yulestride liner notes, explaining why he opens the disc with an adventurous re-interpretation of the ancient hymn. Superstar pop vocalist Mariah Carey also leads off her album, Merry Christmas (Columbia), with "Silent Night," but Carey's version is more traditional than Thompson's free-wheeling nocturnal rumination. Nevertheless, Carey is buoyed by Loris Holland's sensual piano and Hammond B-3 organ, as Holland's flowing tone underscores the aching humanity of her vocal.

Los Angeles R&B veteran Charles Brown also offers a rendition of "Silent Night" on his disc, Cool Christmas Blues (Bullseye Blues/Rounder). Brown's throaty vocal is fine, but he chooses to merely meander on the piano, while tenor saxman Clifford Solomon is the one who romps, reverently of course. Lemonheads' head man Evan Dando also comes up short with his "Silent Night" (on the compilation So This is Christmas, from Atlantic). Dando opts for a single, casually strummed acoustic guitar. Less is usually more, but too much less is simply not enough, especially when it comes to these oh-so-familiar melodies.

On the other hand, there are those ambitious modern musicians, enamored of technology, who simply can't resist the temptation to over-produce. Such is the "Silent Night" of synthesists/samplers Philip Aaberg and Bernie Krause, who actually recreate a silent night--more weird than wonderful--with the recorded sounds of crickets, bats, walrus and dolphins, on their disc A Wild Christmas (The Nature Company).

For musicians and non-musicians alike, songs such as "Silent Night," have achieved a kind of archetypical aura quite apart from their spiritual appeal. Indeed, legendary rock 'n' rolling cousin-humping redneck boogie-woogie piano pumper Jerry Lee Lewis stepped up to his family upright when he was but 6 years old, and what was the first tune he fingered? You bet--"Silent Night," by ear.

" 'Silent Night' is a melody I've known since before I could talk," Thompson concurs. "This kind of music was the repertoire for many of my earliest public performances at church and at school."

Those memories are why these songs speak so strongly to us now. They harken back to more innocent times. We can all recall the schoolteacher plopped on the piano stool, paddling the pedals as she leads the class in a chorus of carols. Or maybe you remember an eggnog-swigging uncle plugging in the droning Wurlitzer in the living room, before bellowing his best Bing Crosby imitation. And of course, there were the stately, high-as-the-sky church organs, whose powerful piping would vibrate in our very stomachs. Singing along loudly was the only way to counterbalance those windy reverberations.

And when we sang those hymns, with the keyboard leading the way, the hopeful harmonies seemed more hopeful somehow, more possible--maybe heavenly peace really was achievable! Or so it seemed.

Whatever rocky path we've tread since those green and golden days, however, we return every Christmas season to the same safe, snow-white glade...and music still lights the way, brightly.

Here's an overview of some recent holiday discs that deliver the goodies in ebony and ivory:

Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues (Bullseye Blues/Rounder). Something old and something new, something borrowed and something blues. West Coast pianist Charles Brown and Christmas make a good marriage. He wrote the top R&B holiday tune of all time, "Please Come Home for Christmas," and popularized the song "Merry Christmas Baby," when he first released them on his King label, classic Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs. Five of the 11 tracks here are re-recorded versions of the King cuts, while the other six follow the same magical path--blending jump jive with California cool. The resulting music is smooth as eggnog spiked with a shot of Crown Royale. Brown pours it slow with new tunes such as "Santa's Blues" and "To Someone That I Love," then turns the heat up under the figgy pudding, with swingin' things like "Christmas Comes but Once a Year" (with special guest Johnny Otis sitting in on vibes). Brown's keyboard work rarely draws attention to itself, but he's got plenty of flash in his pocket. He hammers 'em down when he has to, but usually exudes more finesse than power. That soft touch (couched in agile accompaniment by a jazz quartet) makes this record the best choice for those seeking romantic interludes this holiday season. Just fire up that Yule log, pop Charles in the old victrola, turn on the Christmas tree, and you're halfway home! And here's one of the reasons this album sounds so good--it was produced by another fine blues pianist and B-3 heavyweight, Ron Levy, a veteran of the B.B. King band.

Fats Domino's Christmas Is a Special Day (Capitol). New Orleans' most famous fatman makes way too few records. So this collection of 12 Christmas songs, with a second-line strut and a boogie-woogie brashness, is welcome news for fans of fine piano playing--no matter what season it's celebrating. Fats and his band ring "Silver Bells," bemoan a "Blue Christmas," and reveal polar secrets in the newly penned "I Told Santa Claus"--inside jive from one famous fatman to another.

Ben Keith and Friends' Seven Gates (Reprise). Steel guitarist Ben Keith has gathered a disparate crew of traditional and neo-country music types (from J.J. Cale to Johnny Cash) for this mostly instrumental collection of 11 Yuletide classics. Seven Gates mostly alternates between dreamy steel guitar instrumentals and strident chorale pieces. But it also contains one of the oddest--but beautiful--uses of keyboards, as none other than Neil Young plays pump organ and sings along on a choral version of "Greensleeves."

Butch Thompson's Yulestride. (Daring Records). Stride is that jazz piano style characterized by a strong left hand alternating rhythmically between solid bass notes and mid-range chords. Thompson, known far and wide as The Minnesota Wonder, employs the swinging stride style and other improvisational jazz devices to re-invent 17 mostly traditional tunes, from "Silent Night" to "O Holy Night." Working without accompaniment nor vocals, Thompson turns his piano into a holiday hurdy gurdy pumping out ragtime, barrelhouse and unabashed boogie woogie. And he climaxes in a classic vein, with "Ave Maria" by Johann Sebastian Bach. "As all you kids should know by now, it really is best to let the old man have the last word," Thompson explained.

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