Doug Hammer has released three CDs in close succession this year, one of which is a wonderful mostly solo piano Christmas album simply titled “Noel” (reviews of the other two CDs will be coming soon!). Hammer has arranged sixteen Christmas carols and songs from around the world and added one of his own originals to make a beautiful CD that is interesting and complex enough for focused listening but that also provides a colorful backdrop for other holiday activities. The majority of the songs are familiar to most people, but there are a few that had me running to liner notes to see what they were - I like that in a Christmas album! All of the tracks are solo piano except Hammer’s own carol, “It’s Christmas Time,” which has vocals by Amethyste. Some of the arrangements were done several years ago, but many were arranged “in the moment” as they were being recorded, making them fresh and contemporary. Hammer includes a few jazz arrangements that give the CD a bit of spice; other songs are lush and serene. The result is an exceptional Christmas album that is one of my favorites for the year. Hammer also has a production company, Dreamworld Productions, and the beautiful, crystal-clear piano sound on this recording speaks volumes about the quality of his work.
“Noel” begins with a beautiful arrangement of “When Christmas Comes To Town” from “The Polar Express.” From the contemporary, we zip back in time to “The First Noel,” which is given a simple, elegant treatment that accentuates the lovely melody, adding occasional harmonic changes to bring it into the 21st century. “Petit Papa Noel” is a French carol made popular by Josh Groban and Celine Dion, and works beautifully as a piano solo. As often as I play and hear “Carol of the Bells,” its haunting melody still gives me a bit of a thrill when it’s played especially well. Hammer’s version does that and is one of my favorite versions of this song. “We Three Kings” is given a jazz treatment that suits the song perfectly. From there, we move on to Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” beloved from The Charlie Brown Christmas Specials. Already a jazz piece, Hammer makes it dreamy and bittersweet - another favorite. I also really like “Entre Le Boeuf Et L’Ane Gris,” a French carol that dates back to the 16th century. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of my favorite carols, and Hammer’s version is rich and darkly beautiful. “Silent Night” begins with an extended improvisation that leads into a peaceful and delicate version of this song - another beauty. Hammer’s own “It’s Christmas Time” is sensitively sung by Amethyste, who lends her angelic vocals to the meaningful lyrics. Hammer closes this excellent album with a wistful and jazzy take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” always a great closer.
Bringing fresh interpretations to Christmas music is not an easy task, but Doug Hammer has done a great job! “Noel” is sure to give musical pleasure for many years to come! It is available from www.doughammer.net, amazon.com, cdbaby.com, and iTunes. Highly recommended!