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Classic Christmas: George Winston's December

Over the holidays, we're looking back at some classic Christmas albums taking some track by track and just digging on others.

It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while, a record or artist outside the mainstream will make a blip on the pop culture radar, like Norah Jones' sudden ascendance to platinum and Grammy winning success with her 2002 debut Come Away With Me. That image of her juggling an armful of Grammy statues backstage at the awards ceremony is still pretty striking.

When it comes to holiday music, there is a fairly well prescribed set of parameters that make for a successful release. Stick to the classics. Include lots of sleigh bells. Choose traditional arrangements. Repeat as necessary. Dozens of holiday-themed records come out every year with that same formula, which is what makes George Winston's December both an anomaly and a wonder.

The incredibly spare album of new age solo piano pieces put Wyndam Hill on the map as the go-to new age recording in the 1980's and managed to help people realize that quiet recordings don't have to be church organs or chamber orchestras. This is still one of the most peaceful records we've ever heard. It was one of Oprah's Favorite Things for Christ sake!

Unlike many great Christmas records before and after it, December is not solely about Christmas as the name alone would denote. Rather, this is an ode to the quiet, cold winter that descends upon the northern hemisphere in the twelfth month of the year.

While Winston does touch on a few traditional holiday carols including "Carol of the Bells," and "The Holly and the Ivy," much of the record swings back and forth between subtle renditions of classical compositions like Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" (here simply titled "Joy") and "Variations on the Kanon by Johann Pachelbel" -- a song you probably know from umpteen million weddings -- and sparse original compositions for piano.

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The music on December is the very definition of what musicians mean when they talk about "the space between the notes." Winston leaves long gaps in between notes, allowing the reverb of the room to slowly decay while still keeping one hand on the composition for balance. He alternates between blustery performances of the songs' hearty melodies and subtle keystrokes that sound as if a snowflake touched the piano wire.

This is not a record for entertaining or for playing at parties. This is an album for relaxing and reflecting. We are hard pressed to think of a record more aptly titled and more evocative of a time and feeling than December. Even the cover, with its barren trees and snow covered glade could not be more appropriate. It's one of the season's most gentle and honest, along with being damn beautiful.

Check out previous classic Christmas album recaps:

Mel Torme - Christmas Songs Various Artists - A Very Special Christmas

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