The Pianodao shortlist of the best Christmas Music books continues with music collections aimed at intermediate players (around UK Grades 3-5).
Here the range of music available begins to diversify, and I’ve picked out two series with a jazzy feel, as well as some more traditional collections…
Faber Easy Piano Series: Christmas
This collection includes a mixture of 12 slightly more difficult arrangements than The Really Easy Piano Bumper Christmas Book, but again including both traditional songs and contemporary hits.
Ace arrangers Oliver Weeks and Pam Wedgwood have concocted a delicious recipe stirring together a beautifully balanced mix of music from different genres, with something to please players of all ages.
Although advertised as “elementary”, the level of these arrangements pushes towards early intermediate in my view, but these pieces are well worth the challenge.
Once again, chord symbols are included, as are the words (here including all the verses), enabling others to sing and strum along.
I especially like the quality of these arrangements, so sympathetic to the originals while also being accessible to less advanced players. This collection has become a a big hit with my intermediate students!
Peaceful Christmas Piano Solos
Peaceful Christmas Piano Solos from Hal Leonard offers a mixed collection of 30 seasonal pieces superbly arranged for solo piano, suitable for intermediate to early advanced players.
A big draw of this publication is the spot-on selection of seasonal music, blending together so many great pieces in one affordable book. Most appear here in better-than-usual arrangements, too, making the book a delicious concoction for the Christmas holiday season.
It should be noted here that no words are included: these are very much solo piano arrangements of the songs, and there’s certainly a really lovely mix, ranging from traditional classics to the swinging Christmas favourites of the mid twentieth century.
Peaceful Christmas Piano Solos is without question one of the best and most useful anthologies of its kind currently on the market.
Piano Calm Christmas
Philip Keveren is one of my favourite arrangers and composers whose music has a contemporary popular vibe. His latest is Piano Calm Christmas, which promises “15 Reflective Solos for the Season”
While the music has the Christmas stamp on it throughout, I am happy to report that the piano writing and style of arrangement is in a similar vein to the previous Piano Calm book (reviewed here), making this a perfect fusion of seasonal cheer and relaxed piano vibe.
There is a brilliance of musical ingenuity throughout, from the simplicity of his Holly and the Ivy arrangement to the twinkling beauty of his Silent Night, in which only a careful attention to voicing will allow the melody to emerge from within the broader piano figuration with clarity (making this a wonderful learning tool as well as a gorgeous piece to just sit and play).
The notation is cleanly presented and easy to read. Keveren includes ample but not excessive articulation and phrasing in his pieces, some pedalling suggestions, and modest fingering recommendations appear throughout.
To summarise, I’ve not found any drawbacks in this publication at all, and there’s nothing to stop me giving this collection “full marks”. It’s really great!
Christmas Jazz, Rags and Blues
Martha Mier’s Jazz, Rags & Blues series is a true milestone in educational piano music publishing, and I’ve been using the five core books with students for years. Here we have five companion books which can be used parallel to the main series during the festive season.
The intermediate player will be able to whizz through the first book, aimed at elementary players, before exploring the second, third and fourth, which provide a wealth of progressive material that the student can look at year by year. The fifth and final book is suitable for early advanced players.
It’s worth noting that several tunes recur from one book to another, with more complex arrangements to suit the developing player. Also, UK readers will again want to know that the books have a US-centric choice of music (which is not, of course, a problem!)
Mier has a canny knack for both nailing a musical style and throwing down a catchy tune. Here, interestingly, she eschews the jazzy Christmas songs of the crooners in favour of traditional carol melodies, which she then turns on their heads to produce some fabulous re-workings that players and listeners alike will surely fall in love with.
Christmas Jazzin’ About
Bringing a more British spin to a similar concept, and attached to another landmark publishing phenomenon, Pam Wedgwood’s Christmas Jazzin’ About is an equally sure-fire triumph.
Wedgwood opts for a diverse selection of songs past and present, with upbeat arrangements of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer side by side with more relaxed contemporary renditions of I Saw Three Ships and Silent Night.
In addition to the 8 solo pieces in the collection, three duets appear at the back of the book: Sleigh Ride is a great arrangement of the Leroy Anderson classic, while swinging arrangements of Santa Claus is Coming to Town and O Come All Ye Swingin’ Faithful offer a rumbunctious conclusion to this great collection! An included CD offers complete performances and backing tracks for these pieces.
A second book offers a further eight duet pieces, suitable for players at the late intermediate level. Sadly there’s no CD with this one, but it’s another great collection that will surely appeal to enthusiastic duo partners everywhere:
If I have one caveat in recommending these titles, it’s that the notation of swing quavers is inconsistent and perhaps won’t appeal to those familiar with more recent jazz education materials. For my money however, that doesn’t change the fact that Pam’s arrangements here are exquisite, hugely enjoyable, and not to be missed!
These Christmas Jazzin’ About books are firm favourites that have pleased students and amateur players for many years already, and are likely to remain hugely popular for many more to come!
Capturing the Spirit of Christmas
Finally at the intermediate level, it’s a pleasure to remind you of two excellent collections co-written by composers Alison Mathews and Barbara Arens, Capturing the Joy of Winter, and Capturing the Spirit of Christmas.
Arens and Mathews are fine composers with many publications to their separate names; here we find their two musical voices side-by-side, complementing each other in arrangements of traditional Christmas carols and songs which are mostly lesser-known.
Capturing the Spirit of Christmas finds them taking turns to present deliciously pianistic accounts of such pieces as We Three Kings, Deck the Halls, Gabriel’s Message and O come, O come, Emmanuel. There’s 12 pieces in all, six from each arranger.
Capturing the Joy of Winter is an equally gorgeous collection, although here the selections eschew the religious aspects of the season in favour of pieces that celebrate and evoke the natural order and home comforts that accompany the colder months.
If you are looking for music in an accessible contemporary style, and something a little bit different from the usual fare, these books are for you, and are highly recommended!
So that’s my intermediate selections … and now, onward!