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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: In The Christmas Spirit


1) Jingle Bells; 2) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town; 3) Winter Wonderland; 4) White Christmas; 5) The Christmas Song; 6) Silver Bells; 7) Merry Christmas Baby; 8) Blue Christmas; 9) Sweet Little Jesus; 10) Silent Night; 11) We Three Kings; 12) We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

Okey-dokey. This is an album by Booker T. & The M.G.'s, called In The Christmas Spirit and containing twelve songs whose titles you could probably guess even without looking at the track list. It was issued in time for the Christmas season of 1966 on the Stax label. What else needs to be said? I'm at a loss for words.

Actually, if you are on the lookout for a purely instrumental Christmas album, so that you could have thirty-four minutes of background accompaniment while you're doing your Christmas thang (not that thirty-four minutes is such a long time, particularly if your table is well set up), this would be a decent enough choice, I guess. At least we can tell that Booker T. Jones respects his traditional holidays, and is able to transmit feelings of joy, reverence, and even a bit of spiritual mysticism through his organ playing, such as would be required from an understanding musician during the Christmas season.

On second thought, we could also remark that once the main theme of ʽJingle Bellsʼ gives way to the improvisatory section, the song becomes a rather irreverent piece of Chuck Berry-stylized rock'n'roll, with Cropper taking over Booker T. for a while and ruminating on the possibilities of merging ʽJingle Bellsʼ with ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ. That's a good thing — a bit of experimental Christmas humour has never hurt anybody — but it is somewhat regrettable that they did not apply the same approach to everything else here. Pretty soon, it becomes obvious that Cropper's guitar will consistently be relegated to an auxiliary function: Santa Claus does not approve of too much rocking and rolling while being confined to sleigh duty, but he does enjoy some solemn church organ, or at least an electric simulation. One exception is a Chicago blues-style arrange­ment of ʽMerry Christmas Babyʼ, where Steve gets to be B. B. King for a little while, and which does not sound at all Christmasy, but then what's wrong with adding some classic electric blues to your Christmas experience?

That said, when it is Booker T.'s turn to have a track completely focused on a solo organ perfor­mance, this is as close as the album comes to emanating a bit of magic: ʽWe Three Kingsʼ, played completely straight and stern, at a low, ghostly volume, becomes almost as haunting as ʽSummer­timeʼ from their previous album. Booker T. may not have been a fantastic organ virtuoso, and his playing on the band's more dynamic-aggressive numbers may seem unnecessarily restrained and too overtly disciplined to generate top-level excitement, but he was a fine master of subtle atmo­sphere, and it is a pity that the band's R&B format prevented them from letting him explore that side of his personality more often. Here, though, ʽWe Three Kingsʼ, together with the preceding ʽSweet Little Jesus Boyʼ and ʽSilent Nightʼ, is like a concluding part of a special atmospheric tri­logy that, once you have had your fill of the turkey or the pumpkin pie, initiates you into the mys­tery spirit of the occasion. It's not amazingly amazing — reinventing these all-too familiar melo­dies in some radically new way is a feat of which The M.G.'s would hardly be capable — but it is touching and tasteful. Meaning that the record is not a complete waste of time, as much as the rational mind would suggest that it couldn't be anything but.

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