Sheet Music Review
For musicians, the countdown to Christmas is about to begin in earnest, if it hasn’t already. Sheet music needs to be acquired, pianists and students must start learning their Christmas repertoire, preparing for seasonal performances, and so on.
In this review, I will round up some of the Christmas piano publications that I’ve received in recent months – as well as revealing my favourite standard Christmas Song book at the end!
Jazz on a Winter’s Night 2
Jazz music and Christmas have a beautifully nostalgic association for many, and it’s no surprise that jazz pianist Nikki Iles’ Jazz on a Winter’s Night has been such a huge success since its 2009 publication, spawning outstanding sequels in Jazz in Springtime, Jazz on a Summer’s Day and Jazz in Autumn – each including a selection of seasonally themed jazz standards and originals from Nikki herself.
So I was thrilled to notice that Oxford University Press have brought out a second collection of Christmas classics arranged by Nikki in a range of jazz styles that pay homage to legendary jazzers.
Here’s the list of the pieces included in volume 2, and in brackets the artist who inspired Nikki’s treatment:
- Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer (arrangement inspired by Harry Connick Jr)
- We three kings of Orient are (Fred Hersch)
- Adam lay bounden (John Taylor)
- Let it Snow! (Ella Fitzgerald)
- Away in a Manger (Keith Jarrett)
- ‘Zat You, Santa Claus? (Louis Armstrong)
- See amid the winter’s snow (Bill Evans)
- Angels from the realms of glory (Sonny Rollins)
- Sussex Carol (Stan Sulzmann)
- Past three o’clock (Jim Hall)
In terms of levels, the arrangements are Early Advanced, UK Grades 6-7 – and they are every bit as fabulous as the first book!
As one would expect in jazz, there are regular stretches of a seventh, but not much beyond that, meaning that the pieces are also suitable for those with smaller hands.
The included CD is essential listening, conveying nuances of rhythmic and tonal inflection which can’t be notated. Nikki is of course an exceptional and highly experienced professional jazz performer, and it really shows here. For a well-styled performance, the audio content offers an outstanding model which should not be ignored.
Jazz on a Winter’s Night has established itself as my all-time favourite Christmas music book – but this sequel gives it a run for its money!
Both books are now utterly essential for any pianist above intermediate level. It’s great to find that Jazz on a Winter’s Night 2 is as absolutely brilliant as its forerunner, and it really does deserve to sell a million!
- Check out the publisher’s website, which includes samples and audio.
Capturing the Joy of Winter
Capturing the Joy of Winter is the sequel to another recent success – last year’s Capturing the Spirit of Christmas, which I reviewed here when it appeared.
As with that publication, Capturing the Joy of Winter is a collaboration between composers Barbara Arens (many of whose books I have reviewed here) and Alison Mathews, whose Treasure Trove has been brilliantly received by my own students, young and old, and is becoming something of a standard in my studio (read my review here).
Commenting on their ongoing collaboration, Barbara and Alison say:
“The main impulse was to create a contrasting book to provide repertoire not related to a religious festival, but simply to celebrate the winter season. We decided to include not only arrangements, but a selection of original pieces too. We discovered some wonderful international folk music imbued with the winter spirit.”
This gives this collection a special appeal which goes beyond the standard Christmas fare, and makes the book an ideal complement to their previous one. And as with that publication, the standard of the pieces is around UK Grades 4-6 (Late Intermediate).
The 16 pieces are as follows:
- Grisial Ground (Alison Mathews, AM)
- White on White (Barbara Arens, BA)
- Plum Blossom (AM)
- Kulning och Vintersolstånddans (BA)
- The Winter Wood (AM)
- Under the Mistletoe (BA)
- Tracery on a Frosted Window (AM)
- Eggnog & Hot Mulled Wine (BA)
- Candlelit Evening (AM)
- Northern Lights (BA)
- Green Grow’th the Holly (AM)
- Det Blir en Julhelg Glad (BA)
- A Snowy Owl Takes Flight (AM)
- Frosty Morning (BA)
- This Immense Land (AM)
- Fire in the Hearth, Snow on the Hills (BA)
Ironically, although the composers have avoided direct reference to Christmas itself (at least the religious festival), this collection seems to me to have even more seasonal charm than its predecessor.
The pieces are wonderfully evocative, and it is again a delight to see how the two quite distinct voices of these composers complement each other so well, rounding out the collection.
You can get more of a taste from this promotional video:
Is it too much to hope for Spring, Summer and Autumn books to follow?
Música de Navidad
Earlier in the year I published my review of Wynn-Anne Rossi’s Jazzin’ Americana series, and I was pleased to see that she has also recently brought out two books of Christmas favourites, arranged in a variety of Latin styles, and published by Alfred Music.
The first book is subtitled “8 Late Elementary Christmas Piano Arrangements”, and includes:
- Campanas de Belén (The Bells of Bethlehem)
- Canta, rie, bebe (Sing, Laugh, Drink)
- Cascabel (Jingle Bells)
- Le deseamos Felix Navidad (We Wish you a Merry Christmas)
- Noche de paz (Silent Night)
- ¡Regocijad! Jesús nació (Joy to the World)
- Somos tres reyes de Oriente (We Three Kings of Orient Are)
- Venid, fieles todos (O Come, All Ye Faithful)
The second volume is subtitled “9 Early Intermediate Christmas Piano Attangements), and contains:
- Ángeles cantando están (Angels We Have Heard on High)
- Hacia Belén va una burra (A Donkey is Going to Bethlehem)
- Jesús en el pesebre (Away in a Manger)
- Las posadas (The Inns)
- Noche de paz (Silent Night)
- Oh árbol de Navidad (O Christmas Tree)
- ¿Qué niño es este? (What Child is This?)
- Ve, dilo en las montañas (Go, Tell it on the Mountain)
- Ya Ilegó la Navidad (Deck the Halls)
The focus here is really on learning Latin Styles – the Christmas songs themselves often appearing as “hidden melodies” within, and I certainly found that this proved to be lots of fun!
To further help engage with the different Latin grooves, “Rhythm Workshop” boxes appear before each piece. There are also some interesting and useful comments about each piece, offering background to the musical styles and culture.
In the first volume, I was mildly troubled that most pieces have a minim (half note) beat, acknowledged in the metronome mark, but are written in 4/4. Amending the time signatures to 2/2 would fix this, but in some cases I would definitely have found these easier to read with halved note values and in 2/4. This is a small criticism if course, and in the second volume the notation is in any case more standard.
Overall I think these books are well worth a look, and offer an interesting, highly enjoyable alternative to the usual fare.
Now That’s What I Call Christmas
If you are keen to play some of the big Christmas hits of recent decades, you need look no further than Now That’s What I Call Christmas, brought to us by Wise Publications and distributed by Music Sales.
The format here is “PVG” – Piano, Vocal and Guitar, so that the music appears across three staves – the top stave being the vocal melody with jazz chords and guitar tab, the other two providing a piano reduction of the instrumental backing for each song, including important signature licks and vamps.
The PVG format is tremendously flexible, and particularly good for pianists who wish to sing the vocal or accompany another singer or soloist. Those playing in a band with others have everything they need here to get rehearsing their covers of the songs. To avoid the many page turns, you might like to write out the lyrics for singers separately.
For the solo pianist looking for a transcription, there is likewise everything you need here to make one, but you will need to adapt the material, using the chord symbols, signature parts from the accompaniment alongside the melody itself.
Wise Publications have long been masters of producing these PVG scores, and this is no exception. The piano parts are highly effective simplifications that retain the essence of the original tracks, and they are very nicely presented – the printing, binding and engraving are all great.
Here’s the list of what is included:
- All I Want For Christmas Is You (Carey, Mariah)
- Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan)
- Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley)
- Fairytale Of New York (The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl)
- Happy New Year (Abba)
- Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon & Yoko Ono)
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Frank Sinatra)
- I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Wizzard)
- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Dean Martin)
- Merry Christmas Everyone (Shakin’ Stevens)
- Merry Xmas Everybody (Slade)
- Santa Baby (Eartha Kitt)
- Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (The Crystals)
- A Spaceman Came Travelling (Chris De Burgh)
- Step Into Christmas (Elton John)
- Walking in the Air (Aled Jones)
- When a Child is Born (Johnny Mathis)
- White Christmas (Bing Crosby)
- Winter Wonderland (Doris Day)
- Wonderful Christmastide (Paul McCartney)
Finally, for those looking for a top-quality collection of more traditional festive favourites, this remains my go-to recommendation.
Although linked to the Pianoworks method books “for older beginners”, this collection has no links to that series other than the name and presentation. As a free-standing collection of Christmas Carols and Songs I have found it has been hugely popular with players of all ages.
There are two particular strengths that contribute to my enthusiasm and make this my top recommendation for a traditional Christmas collection:
Firstly, the arrangements of Christmas carols found elsewhere are often adapted from church choir versions, with four-part chords throughout that aren’t always as easy to play as you might expect.
Here, by way of contrast, we have truly idiomatic piano writing, but which is no less faithful to the spirit of each carol, maintaining familiar harmonic colours rather than diminishing them in any way.
Secondly, it includes an easy solo version of Walking in the Air, and it’s likewise a version that fully satisfies my students’ enthusiasm for the song. In Christmasses Past, many had bought the single sheet version of the song, but here we have an ideal two-page version that is, again, absolutely true to the original.
Here’s the complete song list:
- Away in a Manger
- Ding dong! merrily on high
- Go, tell it on the mountain
- God rest you merry, gentlemen
- Good King Wenceslas
- Hark! the herald angels sing
- It came upon a midnight clear
- O come, all ye faithful
- O little town of Bethlehem
- On Christmas night all Christians sing
- Once, in royal David’s city
- Rocking Carol
- See amid the winter’s snow
- Silent Night
- The first Nowell
- The holly and the ivy
- We three kings of Orient are
- While shepherd watched their flocks
- Jungle bells
- Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
- Santa Claus is Comin’ to town
- Walking in the air
- Winter Wonderland
- We wish you a merry Christmas
This book is a true studio essential!
If any more Christmas books arrive between now and December I will be sure to tell you about them.
As it is, I hope you will enjoy one or more from among those I’ve reviewed above – there’s really something for everyone. Unless, of course, you would prefer to stock up on humbugs!
Enjoy the Countdown to Christmas!!