Merry: A Holiday Journey is an apt title, as it is a journey through a variety of styles, musical gestures, and players in an offering of traditional holiday music. Head chef Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has put together a Christmas gumbo, which she describes as sort of a "collage," that features the talents of a wide range of people, such as arranger and singer Clarice Assad and her brothers, guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad, cellist Fred Sherry, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, trumpeter Raymond Mase, and many other notable figures. All of these people can really play, and this project does well to stretch everyone's talents.
Sometimes the music is a little nervous and busy, as in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, where the only musician is Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, overdubbed four times. Nonetheless, all of Merry: A Holiday Journey is extremely musical and very diverse in conception, even if not every bit of it will make one warm and fuzzy inside like Bing Crosby's album Merry Christmas. Salerno-Sonnenberg does succeed in putting together an album that belies conventional notions of genre, going well beyond the usual kind of "Various Artists" Christmas compilations where performers from different disciplines realize Christmas selections from within the limits of their given disciplines. The music and performers in Merry: A Holiday Journey are all fused into a gathering that suggests a community of artists working together rather than individual showcases by established stars. Merry: A Holiday Journey contains some very remarkable arrangements, particularly that for Silent Night, which consists only of Clarice Assad's triple-tracked voice and Salerno-Sonnenberg's violin. In a sense, too, the occasionally nervy and often high-strung nature of Merry: A Holiday Journey does seem to fit with the twenty first century notion of the holiday spirit, something that brings with it some stress and uncertainty, but ultimately settles into a time that is relaxing and enjoyable, spent with one's family. As something intended in the spirit of a gift, Salerno-Sonnenberg comes up with a winning combination of elements, and yet manages to completely sidestep the usual commercial all-star gala that is the norm for this sort of collection in the classical music realm. Merry: A Holiday Journey is festive and fun, but also intriguing, intelligent, challenging, and emotionally moving as well.