It’s easy to gripe about holiday music. A dearth of good Hanukkah tunes. Too many cheesy strings. Novelty songs about reindeer and snowmen. Bob Dylan dredging up material from school assemblies of yore.
My approach has been to stick with the classics: brass quintets, lush classical choirs, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme. But now that I have teenagers, I must try to stay relevant. So I made an impulse purchase a couple of weeks ago at the counter of guess-which-coffee-franchise, and bought Joy to the World by a “little orchestra” based in Portland, Oregon.
Oh, Pink Martini! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. Such visual taste! Your pale pink packaging, as comely as a cupcake, with cut-out skyline featuring a church and a mosque, and only the most subtle of references to the complementary colors of red and green.
2. Such musical taste! Spare jazz guitar and trombone, glorious harmonies, a slide guitar, a cello, an accordion, a mandolin.
3. Such intellect! The duo fronting Pink Martini, classically-trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale and singer China Forbes, met as Harvard undergraduates. Joy to the World features songs and verses sung in Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Ladino and Arabic. Oh, and NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro sings (astoundingly well) on both of the Jewish-themed songs.
4. Such cosmopolitan sophistication! Rhythms from Afrobeat to Brazilian samba revive songs I thought I never wanted to hear again (“We Three Kings,” “Auld Lang Syne”). And Forbes’s sultry, smoky lounge sound makes new such classics as “White Christmas” and “Santa Baby.”
5. Such leaping across boundaries! Forbes is half African-American and half European-American. Bothness! My theme! Just like an interfaith child, she embodies the future, recombines cultures. Nimbly avoiding the “let’s throw in one lame Hanukkah song” tradition, Pink Martini does justice to Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic tango of a Hanukkah song, “Ocho Candelikas,” and a gorgeous contemporary setting of part of the Amidah, a central Shabbat prayer (out of place? who cares?). And how many holiday albums attempt to move beyond dialogue to trialogue? In an inspired oblique reference to all three Abrahamic faiths, Joy to the World features poetic Arabic verses on two songs, including “Silent Night.”
6. Such historical hipsterism! In interviews, Thomas Lauderdale admires the golden age of Christmas music written between 1940 and 1965. Joy to the World includes definitive renditions of two of my guiltiest secret pleasures from that era, “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Who knew that the latter song was a plea for peace written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis? And if you just cannot bear “The Little Drummer Boy” again, well, you’re missing something.
Pink Martini will broadcast live this evening on Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor got all crotchity last year on the subject of Christmas songs, I know. But how many holiday albums truly reflect the joy of our global, cross-cultural, interfaith world? Tune in, bliss out, enjoy the glow of Pink Martini.
Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.