Yo-Yo Ma & Friends
Songs of Joy & Peace
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2008, Volume 15, #12
Written by John Metzger
Mon December 1, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
Songs of Joy & Peace functions so well outside its political framework that no matter how one views the endeavor, it must be considered an artistic triumph. Strange as it may seem, however, it also is impossible not to think that the American public actually did a huge favor for famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma when it chose to make Barack Obama the most powerful man in the world. Had events turned out differently, the mood of Songs of Joy & Peace would have been altered dramatically. After all, Obamaís election made two things clear: The war in Iraq is likely to be over sooner rather than later, and some long overdue changes to the countryís direction are now inevitable. This first point is overtly a part of Songs of Joy & Peaceís composition, while the latter concept is woven subtly into its sonic tapestry.
Ma began recording Songs of Joy & Peace more than a year ago, but the bulk of the work was accomplished this past June, after Obama had sealed his bid as the Democratic presidential nominee. Obamaís ultimate election was never a sure thing, of course ó nothing in politics ever is ó but Maís gamble to create an album that indirectly celebrated his victory before the process was completed wasnít a long shot either. Still, the boost in spirit that Songs of Joy & Peace received had a transformative effect on the set. Consequently, where the outing could have sounded like the last gasps of a prayer that had crept from the depths of darkness, it instead burns brightly with the twin flames of optimism and hope.
Most albums that take nearly 80 minutes to traverse tend to be stuffed to the brim with excess material, but the shifting textures of Songs of Joy & Peace allow Ma to defy conventional wisdom. The set is neatly divided into a series of distinctive acts that simultaneously stand on their own while also feeding into the endeavorís overall ebb and flow. It helps, of course, that Maís interests have always reached wider than the realm of classical music typically has allowed, and he uses this to his advantage. He joins Dave and Matt Brubeck along with Paquito DíRivera for a magnificently jazzy rendition of Joy to the World, for example. He also supports James Taylor on a lovely interpretation of George Harrisonís Here Comes the Sun and unites with trumpeter Chris Botti for a playful romp through Rodgers & Hammersteinís My Favorite Things.
Ma isnít content, however, simply with placing a fresh spin upon a series of familiar tunes or styles. Instead, he and his collaborators ó which also include Natalie MacMaster, the Assad Family, and Wu Tong ó circle the globe, moving from Irish jigs to Latin American dances to a recent composition that pays homage to Chinaís cultural heritage. Better still, Ma binds Songs of Joy & Peace together with a series of improvisations that are centered around the traditional Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace), the theme with which he opens the album.
During its final moments, Songs of Joy & Peace winds through a West Africa-meets-New Orleans-inspired rendition of This Little Light of Mine, a delicate duet with Jake Shimabukuro on John Lennonís Happy Xmas (War Is Over), and a pensive reading of Auld Lang Syne ó which Botti plays as Ma reprises the setís overarching musical theme. The effect that this has on the outing is to make Maís intent quite clear. While most holiday-oriented endeavors tend to be throwaway collections with songs that either reach novelty status or fade into oblivion, Songs of Joy & Peace contains a message that will never grow old. Neither will its music.
52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Classical Crossover Album
Of Further Interest...
Songs of Joy & Peace is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box