Jeff Ball,
Songs of Winter
(Red Feather, 2003)

Are you getting sick of songs by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Burl Ives and countless other over-played singers that some radio stations start pumping out 24 hours a day right after Thanksgiving? Do you feel that holiday music has become so standardized that there's no feeling left to it? Or are you just the type that has never liked holiday music? Well, here's an album for you.

Jeff Ball's Songs of Winter has traditional holiday tunes ("Greensleeves," "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night"), yet they don't sound like traditional holiday tunes. First and foremost, this is a completely instrumental album. Second, Ball's band is led by his Native American wood flute, which is glorious.

So, you're free of voices to stick in your head, plus there's an instrument I've never connected with holiday music. (In fact, this type of wood flute typically has fewer notes than its metal European counterparts. Ball manages to hit the "extra" notes by playing half-hole and three-quarter-hole notes.) Add the Beatles tune "Across the Universe" to the list and you've got a thoroughly unique holiday album!

For instance, I never thought "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" could be re-imagined. Ever. I mean, isn't this forever linked to the street urchin in A Christmas Carol? Somehow, Ball has reworked a strictly metered English hymn into an amazing combination of calm and flourish. The tune begins with a haunting lone flute yet expands into a vast expanse of drums, keyboards and handbells. You know how in the last verse of most church hymns, the organist pulls out all the stops and lets the bellows blow? These guys do the same in a spine-tingling manner while interweaving a modified "Carol of the Bells." It's a very nice yet surprising effect.

The best work on the album, without a doubt, is "Auld Lang Syne." I've noticed that "Auld Lang Syne" is popping up on more and more holiday albums. While it's having a much-deserved renaissance of late, most versions simply rehash the tune and modify the vocal stylings. Well, Ball's version is so radically different from any other that I had to doublecheck the CD jacket. The piano intro is very dramatic and the tribal-esque quality of the percussion creates a ceremonious atmosphere. (Instead of the typical "gather 'round the piano" Jimmy Stewart/Pottersville feeling.)

The beauty of this album is that it appeals to nearly anyone. This is not a tiresome rehash of old standards. Also, there are no annoying vocals to stick in your head, just serene melodies that spark your first memories of Christmas. Or, if you're one of those hopeless sentimental types that love most Christmas music (like me), then you'll appreciate the original approaches to timeless classics. This album will definitely stand out among your droves of holiday CDs and tapes. Either way, the wood flute and original approach of Songs of Winter will warm your ears (and your soul) for the holidays.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 20 December 2003

Buy it from