R&B, Blues, Soul & Stax

Christmas Like No Other


Ray Charles' The Spirit Of Christmas, originally issued in 1985 and re-released by Concord in 2009, aren't typical corny renditions of Christmas chestnuts. Charles' sweet rasp and subtle piano fingers fit the holiday mood perfectly, coupled with some tasteful contributions from a host of guest players and the thoughtful arranging of the famous Marty Paich. Available as part of Concord's holiday music promotion, The Spirit Of Christmas offers something for both secular and faithful listeners, and plays with a range of musical styles that will put a grin on any Grinch.

A number of traditional tunes get the Charles treatment, including a gospel-tinted "That Spirit Of Christmas," supported impressively by the Jack Hollaran Singers and Charles' own longtime backup singers The Raelettes, who add a choir-like soul to the song; a big band-infused rendition of "All I Want for Christmas," with jazz trumpet great Freddie Hubbard trading lines with tenor player Rudy Johnson; and an undeniable, steel guitar-infused version of "Little Drummer Boy" that is unlike any other adaptation you've ever heard.

The album takes a fresh look at other classic jingles as well, including a beautifully drawn-out "Christmas Time," and a rendering of "What Child Is This?" that gives Charles' distinctive gravelly voice center stage before jumping into a wildly swinging instrumental translation. But perhaps the most powerful tune on the release isn't necessarily a Christmas song. Singer Betty Carter joins Charles to deliver a stirring variation on Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that almost steals the whole show and provides a satisfying close to the album.

The Spirit Of Christmas takes enough liberties with a well-traveled songbook that listeners will find themselves nodding heads, tapping feet, and singing along to typically shopworn melodies made special by the man of whom Billy Joel famously said, noting Charles' ability to meld musical forms, "I think Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley." Amen, brother -- and Merry Christmas.