Yo-Yo Ma wanted to share with listeners, his extended friends and family, his feelings about peace and joy, which most often swell at the end of the year. The producers come in by retaining a broad variety of musical talent, some of it even from the realm of jazz, not only to fulfill Yo-Yo Mas wish, but also no doubt to cast a wider net for commercial appeal. The result is a holiday potpourri, ranging from Diana Krall’s singing about cuteness (though cleverly quoting "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") to an internationally diverse assemblage playing native instruments during the 2007 Special Olympics in Shanghai. In the case of the famous Assad family, ambitious production initiatives and sound engineering feats allowed Yo-Yo Ma to play cello over the singers’ and guitarists’ accompaniment, even though the seven Assads recorded in Brazil and Yo-Yo Ma recorded over their tape in a New York studio.
As can be expected, the clarity of the recordings is crisp and the musicianship for the most part is superb due to the high caliber of talent involved in completing the project. Inconsistency of styles may be jarring, though. How to reconcile the recognizably relaxed, twangy sound of James Taylor with the technically astounding work of widely admired, technically advanced musicians like Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma performing "The Wassail Song" and "All Through the Night"? Their thrilling dynamics and the cellist’s flawless execution of thirty-second notes contrast with mandolin player Chris Thile’s delicate picking of the melody. In some cases, the cello recedes into a minimalistic accompanying role, as Yo-Yo Ma joins violin, viola and bass to support Renée Fleming’s singing of Blossom Dearie’s "Touch the Hand of Live." Sometimes, he joins a chorus of multi-cultural instruments, as on "Kuai Le," to make clear the cello’s universality of expressiveness.
And so how does Songs of Joy & Peace quality as a jazz recording when its scope cannot be contained within a single category? Well, Yo-Yo Ma does include some jazz talent among that from other musical realms, but in some cases that talent comfortably crosses over into classical or folk music, as they have done for years. Clarinet virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera appears three times on the album, once with pianist Alon Yavnai on "Dona Nobis Pacum (Give Us Peace," a composition of such seasonal meaning to Yo-Yo Ma that he includes three other improvisations on the song. Dave Brubeck, whose imagination has never been contained within a single genre, contributes his own "Concordia," a variation of a Gregorian chant in a meter of three, and Yo-Yo Ma, percussionist Cyro Baptista and son Matt Brubeck on cello join in. Joshua Redman attains purity of sonority as he and Yo-Yo Ma trade poignant harmonic accompaniments on "My One and Only Love". And Chris Botti’s, whose burnished sound often is more comforting than explorative, fits appropriately within Billy Childs’ arrangement of "My Favorite Things," understated and declarative rather than imperative.
Yo-Yo Ma’s intentions for Songs of Joy & Peace encompass jazz but also expand beyond its boundaries as he searches for worldwide understanding and acceptance through music. In fact, he invites the public to join his "musical party of friendship" by contributing their own "Dona Nobis Pacem" recording to play-along tracks at www.indabamusic.com/yo-yomacontest.