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Bethlehem, House of Bread
Artist: The Annie Moses Band
Label: manAlive records
Time: 10 tracks / 41:40 min.

As a rule, Christmas albums are destined for one of three categories: 

1 - Re-treads of variety-show song arrangements that have lurked in your subconscious mind since childhood (think: the clip-clop, clip-clop, & whinny at the end of “Sleigh Ride”) 

2 - Collections of Christmas songs performed, usually to excess, in a particular musical genre (A Heavy Metal Christmas, A Motown Christmas, a Jazz Christmas, A Grind-Core Christmas, An Hassidic Christmas.) 

3 - Interesting interpretations of classic Christmas themes, performed tastefully and with skill, combined with inspired new compositions. ...a rare category, indeed! 

Well, well, well! Do such CDs really exist, you ask? Just such a CD has slipped into my CD player on this hot August day, bringing thoughts of Christmas into our living room to help us forget about humidity and think about humanity - especially the introduction of God in a tent of human flesh, born in Bethlehem. The CD is called Bethlehem, House of Bread, by The Annie Moses Band, and it definitely belongs in category number 3 from the above list. 

There have been many family groups through the years, but probably few with the range of talents, and certainly few with the virtuosity, of the Wolaver family. Yes, I said, the Wolver family. There is no Annie Moses in The Annie Moses Band - the band is named in tribute to the great grandmother of the principal members of this group: 

Annie Wolaver, violin, lead vocals 
Alex Wolaver,  viola, background vocals 
Benjamin Wolaver, cello 
Camille Wolaver, harp, organ, background vocals 
Gretchen Wolaver, mandolin, background vocals 
Jeremiah Wolaver, banjo 
Bill Wolaver, piano, keyboards (Father of the six Wolaver children) 
Robin Wolaver, background vocals (Mother of the six Wolaver children) 

It should be pointed out that, aside from taking God’s command to go out and replenish the earth very seriously, Bill and Robin are also responsible for most of the original lyrics (Robin) and arrangements and composition (Bill) on this CD. At this point, most Christians who have ever had a singing family at their church are afraid - very afraid. No need here--these people can play. I mean, they can really, really play, as in Julliard meets David Grisman and Darol Anger. No over-statement here: this is a group of top-drawer musicians that can hold their own in a classical or jazz environment. 

A word of warning is in order at this point. If you're at all like me (and you are, after all, reading this at The Phantom Tollbooth), you don’t like your music to be too pretty. Certainly, Jazz is not  an environment where 'pretty' has much value, and if there’s one aspect of this project that I have problem with - as strange as this might sound - is that it does tend to get 'pretty' from time to time. Very much like The Second Chapter of Acts, another brother & sister band, the power of the music is occasionally diluted by a vocal style that is just a bit too trained, too sweet, too ethereal to really reach me. 

The jazz swing to an almost shocking degree. I had my reservations about this CD, but when the first track,”God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, started, all doubt about the musical integrity of this project was blown away. Bill Wolaver's masterful arrangement starts with a melancholy, haunting cello taking the melody, followed by the addition of a sweet solo vocal. Harmony vocals soon follow, introducing some interesting chords, and then things really start to swing. Drums kick the song into a jazz tempo as soaring violin phrases begin to spice up the mix, followed by a very articulate jazz piano section, then back to jazzy violin soloing reminiscent of the French/gypsy jazz of Stephane Grappelli and the contemporary folk/jazz style of recent David Grisman and Darol Anger projects. 

The second track is the title song, “Bethlehem, House of Bread,” which shows another side of this band's repertoire: this powerful, semi-classical, hymn-like song was written by Robin Wolaver and arranged by husband, Bill. The song is a worshipful addition to the Christmas tradition. With Annie doing the solo lead vocal (yes, its pretty!) over the sweeping strings, there's an awe-like quality that’s appropriate to the lyric - quite powerfully arranged and performed. 

The CD continues with an impressive, almost a cappella performance (guest vocal sextet, One Voice) of the traditional, “Mary Had a Baby,” skillfully arranged by Annie, with a percussion accompaniment by J. Javier Santiago. 

Track 4 treats us to more pleasant surprises with “Hark!” an excellent composition by the talented Mr. Wolaver, with a strong melody and occasional jazzy violin reference to other familiar musical Christmas themes. The lyrics are both familiar and new, and are compiled, according to the song credits. 

”Little Baby,” the fifth track, is the closest thing on the CD to what we'd call a main-line CCM music radio-ready song that's pleasant, competent, but lacking anything to really distinguish it from among other ready-made holiday songs that crop up from year-to-year. This is the first song of a weak three-track  section on the project, where it sounds as if the band has suddenly shifted gears to a 'let's give the people what they want' mode, as if this were the audience-friendly section of their live show. Track six, for example, is a rather safe medley: “Jingle Bells / Go Tell It On the Mountain” is an instrumental featuring that great virtuosity, but wastes that musical skill on an arrangement that is more corny than cool. This is followed by “Christmas on Cripple Creek,” which is sort-of a novelty song, a holiday hoe-down with vocals that sound too sanitized for the arrangement. 

The band gets serious again with the last three songs, all of which are excellent compositions, falling somewhere between pop-classical, jazz, and the hymnbook. Occasionally a song or two in this collection might sound too much like a spot from a Broadway show, or from a holiday cantata, but there’s often the spark of brilliance in the writing and arranging of Bill Wolaver. The closing song, for instance, “Holy Christmas Day” (A Christmas Communion Hymn), is a wonderful, introspective piece, certainly too sophisticated for the average church-goer to actually try to sing from a hymn-book, but totally appropriate for a stage presentation and yet, there’s a jazz quality about the structure of the melody that puts it into yet another, hard-to-define category. 

I would certainly look forward to more music from The Annie Moses Band especially, if the focus of the band becomes more involved in Bill Wolaver's fine jazz arrangements. I think that this unique family jazz/pop/classical group could easily become a national phenomenon by staying true to what they, as musicians, really want to do most: to these ears, there’s an unmistakable joy and fire in the jazz and jazzy classical side to the band's repertoire. Who needs pretty when you can have stunning instead? 

Add half a tock if pretty voices don’t bother you. Add half a tock when we hit December. 

...either way, you might want to buy this CD Bill Wolaver's six kids need Christmas presents. 

Bert Saraco
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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