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Special Entertaining Issue

Music to make merry by

Choosing the Right Sounds Is a Crucial Ingredient of Any Gathering. A Trio of Music Experts Offers Its Tips.

November 09, 2003|Robert Hilburn; Mark Swed; Chris Rubin

The biggest mistake in selecting CDs for a party is trying to show off your hip tastes. You're not auditioning to replace Nic Harcourt at KCRW. Like hors d'oeuvres, the music is an extra. It shouldn't draw attention to itself or be so anonymous that no one notices it. The goal should be music that is warm and instantly engaging. These CDs have proven to be unusually appealing in a party setting. They have vitality, charm and a touch of soul.

Paul Simon's "Graceland" (Warner Bros.) is a great icebreaker because the energetic music is so familiar and inviting that it puts everyone in a festive mood. Then there are two vibrant movie soundtracks: the reggae-infused "The Harder They Come" (Island), which maintains the exotic, international flavor of "Graceland"; and "The Big Easy" (Antilles), which is built around disarming New Orleans recordings by artists such as Professor Longhair and the Dixie Cups.

Don't feel you have to be a Grateful Dead fan to enjoy "The Music Never Stopped" (Shanachie), a marvelous compilation of songs by artists--Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Howlin' Wolf and others--whose tunes have been interpreted by the Dead.

By now, the party should be approaching the three-hour mark, which means it's time for more reflective discs, something as vintage as Sinatra (the Capitol period) or as recent as Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me" (Blue Note). To say good night, U2's "The Joshua Tree" (Island) can bring the energy level back up and fill everyone with a sense of optimism and belonging.

--ROBERT HILBURN

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

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Classical music

Beware: A music critic who has never gotten the hang of ignoring music is hardly a reliable source for recommending background sounds to set a party mood. Here's the problem: Classics are declasse when treated frivolously, and the junky background stuff, such as New Age, is junky background stuff. Although my first choice will always be a silent stereo at parties, some things really do work better than others.

If it's the Christmas spirit you're after, try the new selection of Celtic and British songs and carols "Wolcum Yule," by the vocal quartet Anonymous 4, with harpist Andrew Lawrence-King (Harmonia Mundi)--alluring, sort of familiar, yet just odd enough to catch you off guard. Avoid the Mozart temptation, but try "Dream of the Orient" (Archiv), in which an early music group joins a Turkish folk ensemble to explore Mozart and his contemporaries' delightful and occasionally hilarious call to the East.

"The Book of Abbeyozzud" (New Albion) finds the inspired California Minimalist Terry Riley turning his attention to Spanish popular music and coming up with something so tuneful and compelling that it puts a room in a terrific mood. Harold Budd's just-released "La Bella Vista" (Shout Factory) is the finest disc in years from the dreamy Los Angeles composer, who elevates New Age into the realm of interesting.

Finally, if you simply must have something more traditional, there is a new recording of the "Pelleas et Melisande--Suite" and other music by Claude Debussy performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon), recommended for the simple reason that it is drop-dead gorgeous.

--MARK SWED

Mark Swed is The Times' classical music critic.

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Live Music

Anyone hosting a party can throw a few CDs in the changer and leave it at that. But if you want to add something special to your holiday event, there's nothing that picks up a soiree like hiring live musicians--from a solo pianist or guitarist to a string quartet or a cappella ensemble.

How do you find a band? Do as David Abramis did. The Cal State Long Beach professor was strolling on the Third Street Promenade one evening and stopped to listen to a band. He liked what he heard, so he took their business card. A few months later, while planning a party to celebrate his full professorship, he hired the band and got good results.

Abramis, it turns out, also is a musician looking for gigs. As the bassist in Evolution, a jazz trio, he has played at Nic's Martini Lounge and other places around town, and he and his fellow musicians enjoy being approached for private gigs. "The sad truth is that most musicians are underemployed," Abramis says. "When you see a band you like, talk to them and ask if they play parties. Most do."

This way, you'll know what you're getting, with no unpleasant surprises. It's important to explain what kind of music you want. "It's OK to ask, 'Can you play Christmas music?' " says Sid Jacobs, a guitarist who booked live music at the Bel Age Hotel for 10 years. "They'll tell you if they do, and they can refer you to someone else if they don't."

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