If Christmas ever gave you a great big gorgeous warm and fuzzy chestnuts roasting over an open fire Family all around you hug, it would sound a lot like India Arie’s Christmas album, Christmas With Friends.
Released in 2015, this is a lush, masterfully-arranged album thta captures the intangible sound and feel of Christmas, roping in all the cosy, big band tropes we have to love while sounding beautifully and utterly unique.
It is, in other words, one of those delicious Christmas albums that puts you in the mood, that feels like the season whose many warm and welcoming praises it is, quite literally, singing, the short of musical experience that adds immeasurably to that sense of contentment and peace that accompanies Christmas its best.
The delightful part about reviewing the album in the Australian winter – let’s hear for Christmas in July as a thing! – is that it actually feels like the kind of festive season that singer India Arie and celebrated pianist Joe Sample are bringing so evocatively to life.
Granted, if you’re Australian, Christmas is indelibly imprinted, experientially at least, with summer, a feast of seafood, cold meats, salads, days at the beach and warm weather where the idea of dashing through the snow sounds ludicrous at best.
But we live in a culture where Christmas has been defined, in all the very best ways, as a winter festival where snow is falling, chestnuts are roasting on a opne fire and everyone is snug and warm in their homes or walking the brightly lit and decorated streets and so Indie Arie kicking off the album with “Let It Snow” makes sense.
The beauty of listening to it as I walk through the park in 3 degree celsius weather is that the song, indeed the whole feel of the album, moves from being something I know and assent to in my head to something which feels real and tangible in a way that I have yet to experience.
It’s a wholly lovely, transportive experience, one that is amplified immeasurably by India Arie’s gift for just-so delivery, sparklingly one-of-a-kind arrangements and an ear for ticking all the right kind Christmas musical boxes without once sounding she’s phoning it in and overly-relying on well-loved cliches.
That last element is quite a remarkable achievement given that of the ten tracks, nine are standards with only one an original which Arie co-wrote with her mother (“Favorite Time of Year” feat. Tori Kelly.
As you breeze through the jazz-infused, R&B-rich tracks, which include “Silent Night” (featuring Brandy), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (featuring Kem) and one of my all-time favourites, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (featuring Khristian Dentley), it feels you’ve stmbled, rather happily, into a festive party of old friends who have been given one of those keenly-judged makeovers that noticeable enough to make a difference and be remarked upon but not so much of a departure that you feel off-kilter.
After all, Christmas music is something that comes with expectations and even daring souls such as yours truly, who like to push the musical envelope, and applauds artists who attempt it at Christmastime such as the gloriously-good Sia, love to fall back into the certainty of the sound of an album that channels like some sort of tangible being, the aural essence of the season.
The truly rewarding thing about India Arie’s contribution to a very crowded genre of music is that she manages to sound like Christmas in every way that makes the heart glad and the world sound brighter and happier, while stamping her own artistic imprint on music that rebuffs all but the most talented’s attempts to shape it in their image.
While Christmas With Friends isn’t necessarily the greatest Christmas album of all time, it is a beautiful, heartfelt and smooth addition to the festive canon, the sort of album that makes an already bright and buoyant season, even when it’s transplanted to July, feel even more vividly-realised which is, as festive gifts go, is pretty wonderful.