One never knows what to expect from a Michael Smith project. His last several albums have included the music from an award-winning play based on the childhood memories of Michael and his sisters (Michael Margaret Pat & Kate), an album of original songs that in many ways is his Sergeant Pepper (There), a tribute to the Weavers (Weaver Mania) and a recording of a live show that reveals him as a consummate performer (Such Things Are Finely Done). Each project is so extraordinary and so radically different from the one before that it takes a couple of listens to each new disc to stop pining for the previous one. The Gift of the Magi continues this trend.
It is actually the score of a ballet adaptation of the O. Henry Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi, in which a woman cuts off her beautiful long hair and sells it to buy a gold chain for her husband's gold watch, while he sells his prized watch to buy combs for his wife's hair. This story has been told in many ways (including in a Disney animation), yet Smith has managed to add another dimension to the tale by casting a songwriter's eye on the emotions of the characters.
The mood is set with a brilliantly understated solo guitar rendition of We Three Kings and Michael Smith's selected readings from the beginning of O. Henry's story. Then Smith expands the narrative with original songs setting the scene (1900s New York City) and revealing the sweet-natured courtship of Jim and Della. Smith sings the men's parts and Jamie O'Reilly sings the women's. The orchestra for this show is a string band anchored by Smith's swinging guitar work that is often punctuated by deftly melodic overtone playing. The dance beats are established by Smith's guitar, the double bass and piano, while Miriam Sturm's violin is particularly fiery on several tracks.
Long-haired Woman may be the most typically "Michael Smith" song in the show, as Jim asks Dr. Freud, "What does it mean when you dream of a long-haired woman?" (Of course, with a talent as varied as his, what is a typical Michael Smith song?) The haunting Madame Sofronie is the song of the shopkeeper who buys hair. Her wistful story recalls her life in a castle and sleigh riding on the Russian steppes only to find herself gazing from a dreary shop window. In Pawnbroker's Lullaby the pawnbroker who buys Jim's watch is portrayed with a Western Swing tune and sideshow spiel vocals.
By the time Jim and Della sing their final song and the show ends with Silent Night and a Christmas ballad, you realize that Michael Smith has managed to leave powerful icons of this already familiar story in your head. He also shares the gift of the songwriter — the ability to illuminate characters from the inside. It becomes a truth one can feel when Smith sums it all up in The Magi , "It's the love he gives to her that's gold and frankincense and myrrh."
The narrator reads from the end of The Gift of the Magi. "Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest." Of all who give and receive stories, those such as Michael Smith are the best!
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