Cellist Yo-Yo Ma's musical career has spanned 48 of his 53 years and earned him more than a dozen Grammys, the music industry's highest awards. His renowned virtuosity extends far beyond the classical repertoire to genres as diverse as jazz, folk, pop and world music, which he has been showcasing for the past 11 years in his ambitious Silk Road Project. Ma's latest CD, Songs of Joy and Peace, follows this tradition of celebration and sharing.
Ma adapted a melody for the cello titled, "Dona Nobis Pacem," (click link to listen to excerpt) which is Latin for "give us peace." It's a phrase he says perfectly sums up the spirit of the holiday season and his hopes for the New Year.
It is the first of 22 tracks on Songs of Joy and Peace, a collaborative effort between Ma and some of his many friends - who also happen to be some of the world's most admired musicians. Ma says the inspiration for this album came from his own family's annual holiday tradition.
"We get together, friends, extended family and play music," he says. "And I plunk the keys on the piano really badly… and we sing, we play, and we do all kinds of things. And it's a very joyful coming together. It's non-caloric [fattening]…"
Ma says he conceived of Songs of Joy and Peace as a "musical party" with his extended - and very international - musical family.
Many, such as Wu Tong, can be heard singing and playing the Chinese sheng instrument, accompanied by Ma on the cello and other members of the Silk Road Ensemble, which has been showcasing and combining the musical cultures of Central Asia, Europe and the Americas for more than a decade.
"And I asked my friend Sergio and Odair Assad, the Brazilian guitar duo," Ma says. "I had done Brazilian and Argentinean music with them. They came up with one of the great pieces that everybody knows during Carnival."
When Ma asked the bluegrass and country music singer Alison Krauss to sing the seasonal song that gives her the most joy, she chose "The Wexford Carol" (click link to view video) from 12th-century Ireland.
In her turn at Ma's musical party, the chanteuse Diana Krall strikes a pure all-American note as she sings the 1938 hit "You Couldn't Be Cuter…" (click link to view video)
Ma seems especially proud to have the legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck on the disc, along with his son, jazz cellist Matt Brubeck. Together, they chose the traditional Christmas carol "Joy to the World."
But Ma says tradition was merely a point of departure for more collaboration.
"… Paquito D'Rivera, a great jazz saxophone[ist], [and] classical clarinet[ist] originally from Cuba, said, 'Hey, Jo Jo! I want to play with Dave!' And so when we got on the phone call together, Dave sings it on the phone, and Paquito says, 'Jazz! Jazz! I get it! Let's do it.'"
Ma says newer classics also found a home on this album, including one by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
"Jake Shimaukuro, who plays the ukulele from Hawaii, said, 'You know, how about 'Happy Christmas: War is Over'?' And when he came into the studio, it was so amazing to hear the wispy magical sound of the ukulele."
For many listeners, a highlight of Songs of Joy and Peace will be Ma's accompaniment of the great singer-songwriter James Taylor in a rendition of George Harrison's classic Beatles song, "Here Comes the Sun." Its theme of hope sums up the essence of the new CD.
"I think that is the way we thought of this album…," Ma says, "hoping that in the next year, we'll all have a little more joy and a little more peace..."
More: Click link to view video of Yo-Yo Ma performing "My Favorite Things" featuring Chris Botti.