Taking another slight detour, this isn't remotely an unknown Christmas song from a musical, nor an unknown Christmas song at all, though it's not a known recording, I'm sure, and it's wonderful.
For several years, Butch Thompson was the music director of A Prairie Home Companion, and fans of the show no doubt remember fondly his Dixieland playing, using what's known in piano circles as "stride" style.
I have one friend who wasn't a particular fan of Butch Thompson's work on the show, hearing too many flubs in his performances. I always tried to suggest that when people hear musicians, in this case pianists, it's on recordings that have likely done many takes, used the best ones, and fixed any mistakes in the mixing. On A Prairie Home Companion, Thompson was performing live each week, and it shouldn't be surprising that there'd be flubs. Years ago, I was at a concert where the legendary Van Cliburn was the piano soloist, and I remember hearing a few flubs. But it was a great performance.
Anyway, a few years back, I was in a DVD store, and my eye was caught be a recording in the remainder bin of the name "Butch Thompson." It was a recording of Christmas songs, done in his stride style, called, Yulestride, so I snapped it up immediately.
And on first listening it became one of my favorite Christmas albums. And put to rest any question of whether Butch Thompson was a terrific or shoddy piano player. This is great work.
What I most like about the recording is its freshness. It's a tricky thing with Christmas recordings. Most are just pretty straight-forward arrangements that are familiar and comfortable. Stray too far off that path, and you risk the artistic sin of drawing attention to yourself and away from the work. The "I'm being different for the sake of being different" syndrome. The new arrangements aren't inherently valid for the music, but just because the artist didn't want to be The Same. I find this arrangements by Butch Thompson, though, to be vibrant and thoroughly joyful interpretations of the familiar, that bring out different sides to the music.
This is one of my favorites, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Not just for the interpretation, but to put to bed any question of how good a musician Butch Thompson is. It's flawless work, and at times you can swear his fingers are flying off the keyboard. Everything on the CD isn't just like this, but it's all with this sensibility and flavor.
By the way, though he left A Prairie Home Companion eventually, and Richard Dworskin took over the musical director chores, when they made the PHC movie a few years ago, they thoughtfully brought back Butch Thompson to appear in it -- if not in a featured role, at least sitting in.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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