Christmas Past and Present Review (2016)
by Donovan Johnson
I was thrilled to review the most recent recording released by John Paris, “Christmas Past And Present.” As usual, John masterfully arranges the songs on the album to create a warm and welcoming mood. His jazzy approach to the piano has always been fun, inviting, relaxing, invigorating, and any combination thereof, but he really pulls out all of the stops on this one. Combining jazz and new age piano styles, you won’t be able to listen to these holiday songs the same way after John’s finished with them. I should also add that many of the songs on this recording are tunes that are heard less frequently around Christmas time. “Ode To Joy,” “Sing We Now Of Christmas” and “Ding Dong Merrily On High” all offer a refreshing change in listening to a Christmas album, along with many others. Several of the songs on the album were written by John himself as well, “A Waltz For Christmas,” “Christmas Bells,” and “The Santa Shuffle.”
Where to even start with this music? Sometimes it’s so difficult to choose my “top three” from an album because all of the songs are written, recorded, arranged, and mastered so beautifully that it’s nearly impossible to do so. This is one such album, but I think if I had to choose I’d begin with track five, “Sing We Now Of Christmas.” Here we have an energetic arrangement that moves along with an Irish jig sort of feel. The Celtic influence is very clear in this recording, and it’s done extremely well. This is a risky approach to arranging a piece, as it’s often easy to create something rather “cheesy” sounding when attempting to emulate this style. John Paris has nothing to worry about as he makes his way up and down the piano in a wave of sound that will take you to another land for the holidays. Bright and cheerful, this is a track that peaks perfectly in the middle, eventually bringing us to a quiet ending that doesn’t lose it’s powerful enthusiasm.
Track six takes us into a melting pot of chords and melodies that drip like butter from the piano keys. “I Heard The Bells” is John at his Jazzy best, layering a rich and musical theme on top of a variety of jazz chords and rhythms to melt even the coldest of temperatures. The playing on this piece is reminiscent of the styles of some the greats in piano jazz. Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi both come to mind in the approach and structure of the song, and it’s sure to be a favorite for those who enjoy the sounds of vintage piano jazz in it’s prime.
John points us in the direction of his strong Italian-American heritage through his arrangement of “Santa Lucia,” an Italian song that is often sung and played around Christmas time in Italian families worldwide. This happens to be one of my favorite songs as well, so John really struck the jackpot with this one! Here we have the sweet melody of Santa Lucia interwoven between the nostalgic progressions that John is known for, in an intimate and romantic piano setting. The left hand is particularly interesting in this recording, playing down various scale runs and alternating the progression while keeping the right hand melody intact. At about a minute in it alternates between two chords allowing the right hand to improvise over top, and it’s simply magic. The piece ends with build up to a chordal walk down to the final resolution of the piece. Listening to this makes you really want to sit and enjoy a bowl of pasta in a fine Italian establishment by candlelight with a loved one. I’d have to say that this is probably my favorite track on the album.
I’ll conclude by saying that if you’re not a fan of jazz music, this album probably isn’t for you. Jazz is where John’s passion is truly at, and over the years he has mastered it like nobody else I’ve had the pleasure of working with. That being said, “Christmas Past And Present” is a brilliant holiday album that I’ll be listening to for many years to come, and it displays craftsmanship at the piano that is rarely heard in today’s world. John has also announced that sadly, this will be his final holiday recording. I give it a five star rating and my highest possible praise, and I would recommend it to anyone who is may be looking for a unique addition to their musical holiday experience. Way to go John.