Rahsaan Patterson - The Ultimate Gift (2008)

Rahsaan Patterson
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Christmas albums should not be taken for granted. The reality, however, is that most are played only two months out of the year, then disappear faster than a melting icicle. Considering this inevitability, there are a couple of challenges facing an artist who records a Christmas album. Taking a song that has been interpreted an infinite number of ways and creating something unique from it is one hurdle. The other challenge is to write an original song that has a distinct Christmas motif and is compelling enough to become a holiday standard. On very rare occasions, songs with a Christmas backdrop lend themselves to the other ten or eleven months out of the year: Joni Mitchell's "River" (Blue, 1971) or "2000 Miles" (Learning to Crawl, 1984) by Pretenders are such examples. How, then, do Christmas albums manage to become more than a footnote in an artist's discography?

Christmas albums should not be taken for granted. The reality, however, is that most are played only two months out of the year, then disappear faster than a melting icicle. Considering this inevitability, there are a couple of challenges facing an artist who records a Christmas album. Taking a song that has been interpreted an infinite number of ways and creating something unique from it is one hurdle. The other challenge is to write an original song that has a distinct Christmas motif and is compelling enough to become a holiday standard. On very rare occasions, songs with a Christmas backdrop lend themselves to the other ten or eleven months out of the year: Joni Mitchell's "River" (Blue, 1971) or "2000 Miles" (Learning to Crawl, 1984) by Pretenders are such examples. How, then, do Christmas albums manage to become more than a footnote in an artist's discography?

Listen to Rahsaan Patterson's The Ultimate Gift for the answer. He sees these challenges through, adding an indispensable offering to the holiday music spread while sustaining the excellence of his previous four albums. With producers Jamey Jaz, Keith Crouch and Derrick "D*Loc" Walker, he has fashioned a Christmas album that is varied in scope, musically and thematically. Each of the six original songs (the other four are covers) is imbued with Patterson's distinct melodic sense and vocal stylizations. They are as likely to stir memories as to create new ones.

Of course, those memories are very subjective and Patterson knows that not everyone is bundled up around an open fire roasting chestnuts on Christmas Eve. The temperate December weather of Los Angeles might be an unlikely source to summon holiday cheer but "Holiday," the infectious album opener, does just that. Even without snow on the ground, the Christmas spirit is discernable in children's laughter and the rays of the shining sun. "The snow don't fall down in L.A./Yet they jingle," Patterson croons cozily during the song's bridge. "This Is the Season," however, is steeped in a snowier enclave somewhere north and/or east of L.A. With the delicacy of a music box, Jamey Jaz finesses the piano-based melody while images of sleigh bells, snowmen, gingerbread, and mistletoe glow inside Patterson's sweet and snug vocal performance.

A batch of Christmas classics, including "Little Drummer Boy," Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means to Me," and a re-imagining of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," illustrate Patterson's gift for interpretation. A delightful cover of "Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney is embellished with horns, a sax solo, and synth-claps straight out of Paisley Park, circa 1985. Patterson keeps the conviviality quotient high, retaining the chimes and sleigh bells of the original. Few have tackled the 1979 radio hit, which has brightened up holiday play lists for the past 30 years, but Crouch and Patterson faithfully re-model the tune for 2008.

Looking past elaborately designed wrapping paper and ornate ribbons, Rahsaan Patterson meditates on what the "ultimate" Christmas gift would be on the title track. Healing the earth, living without war and racism, and rejoicing in one another's diversity are just a few of the wishes he has for the holiday. Patterson also shifts away from the merriment of Christmas to communicate the experience that so many individuals endure at least once in their life - the loss of a loved one. Whether that loss is the death of a friend or family member or represents a romantic relationship's demise, "That First Christmas" conveys sadness and the longing to share the holiday with someone who is no longer there. Patterson should be commended for imparting the reality of those people for whom 2008 will be a blue Christmas.

Christmas at my house, however, will henceforth be incomplete without "Christmas at My House." Written with frequent collaborator Van Hunt, Patterson fronts a funk-infused Latin rhythm that is ripe for club play. Imagine Santa and his reindeer stopping by Paradise Garage (the famed NYC dance hall) 30 years ago and you have a close approximation of the sound. "Christmas at My House" is so hot that I might even spin it in July.

Minus tracks that induce that kind of euphoria, the lifespan to absorb a Christmas album is short. Choose your accompanying soundtrack deliberately. If you crave an album that reflects all kinds of Christmas experiences and trades in unrivaled musicality then Rahsaan Patterson had you just in mind. The Ultimate Gift is just waiting to be unwrapped.

by Christian John Wikane

 
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