Special Features

16 Christmas Discs for the 2011 Holidays


Published on November 16, 2011

16 Christmas Discs for the 2011 Holidays

It’s that time of year again and the Christmas discs are crossing my desk, whether requested on not. Here’s our annual survey of what we auditioned, and it will start off with two SACDs:

Fiona Joy Hawkins – Christmas Joy – Little Hartley Music multichannel SACD FJH013 *****:

This excellent disc—more than your usual Christmas album—is identified as in the New Age genre, but actually partakes of many world music influences, including Gaelic, Digeridoo, Paraquayan harp, and a variety of ethnic rhythms. Soprano sax and strings are also part of the backing of the piano of Fiona Joy Hawkins. Her SACD was produced by Corin Nelsen and Will Ackerman, who did many Windham Hill albums and also Hawkins’ previous Blue Dream SACD.

Starting out as a classically-trained pianist, Hawkins likes to create music evoking images, and mixes world influences with classical and jazz, and New Age mysticism. Among the backing musicians on the date are Will Ackerman on guitar, Eugene Friesen on cello, Tony Levin on bass guitar, and Philip Aaberg did the orchestral arrangements.

The disc opens with “Walking in the Air,” a striking tune by Howard Blake which is far from hackneyed and whose haunting melody will take your breath away. The second verse has Hawkin’s singing in Gaelic, though most of the tracks are instrumental.  “Gliding on a Sleigh” features a violin and soprano sax duo, and you haven’t lived if you have never heard “Jingle Bells” played on a digeridoo!  Some of the 11 tunes are done a bit slower than we normally hear them, but with the lovely arrangements tempi seem just right. “Christmas Joy” cuts loose with many different instruments, and the closing “Away in a Manger” is done as a tender lullaby.

—John Sunier

 

The Christmas Story – Theatre of Voices/ Ars Nova Copenhagen/ Paul Hillier – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD 807565, 65:20 *****:

It’s getting really tough to come up with good Christmas compilations—just about everything that can be done has been done, and the legacy of great recordings is a long one indeed that travels back about 80 years. So when a company like Harmonia mundi releases a recording of Christmas music featuring the indefatigable Paul Hillier, and in spectacular state-the-art surround sound, you simply have to look up and take notice.

This one is a little strange though; Hillier, who has lived for ten years in Denmark, waxed nostalgic for the relatively “late” tradition of the Nine Lessons and Carols, first devised in 1877 and later adopted by King’s College Cambridge, and first broadcast to the world in 1928. Since then it has become one of the most frequently heard international broadcasts available. But Hillier has tried something a little new here. We do get the traditional progression of the Christmas story, Advent, Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, The Holy Innocents, and an Epilogue, but the narration of the gospel narratives is instead given in three 17th-century Italian dialogues (instructive pieces for small groups of voices and instruments) and some brief chant to move the story along. It does not work—part of the very raison d’etre for the readings to begin with is comprehensibility, and Italian is simply not going to do the trick for that particular bullet point. It might have made more sense to do it in Danish, but then again since we are talking about carols, a form that the English invented, and the presentation of a decidedly Anglican service, English really should have been used in some form or the other.

But the selections, artfully presented by superbly-gifted singers under one of the leading choral directors in the world, are simply stunning. The variety of material seems endless, with even a nod to the hometowners with the delightful “The baby Jesus lay in a manger” by Niels Gade, to the sterling “O magnum mysterium” by Byrd, and even completing with a rousing “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. It simply—and rarely—doesn’t get any better than this, and if you love Christmas music this is one of the two or three I can recommend unreservedly as essential acquisitions for this year’s hearth-fire stocking.

TrackList:

Traditional: Rorate coeli desuper
Traditional: Veni veni Emanuel
Anonymous: Eis ist ein Ros entsprungen
Tomasi, B: Dum deambularet Dominus in Paradisum
Skempton: Adam lay y-bounden
Traditional: In dulci iubilo
Grandi: Missus est Gabriel
Traditional: Puer natus est
Byrd, W: O magnum mysterium
Anerio: Voi ch’ai notturni rai
Traditional: Dormi, dormi, o bel bambin
Traditional: Liebe Hirten
Traditional: Andachtsjodler
We Three Kings
Traditional: Videntes stellam
Traditional: Personent hodie
Traditional: Herodes iratus
Traditional: Vox in Rama
Eccard, J: Uebers Gebirg
Eccard, J: Maria wallt zum Heiligtum
Traditional: The Holly and the Ivy
Gade, N: Barn Jesus i en krybbe lå
Traditional: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

—Steven Ritter

 

Kerstmis Noel Christmas Weihnachten – The Netherlands Bach Society/ Jos van Veldhoven – Channel Classics CD CCS SEL 6111 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The 17 tracks on this CD are selections taken from the group’s six previous albums for Channel Classics. They included many holiday-time works of J.S. Bach, including his Christmas Oratorio and Mass in b, plus an album titled Angels & Shepherds. While most of the tracks originate with Bach, there is also music of Sweelinck, Schein, Crüger, Hammerschmidt, Praetorius and good ol’ Anon. The vocal blend of this to-rated choir is superb, and it is always captured in elegant sonics by Channel Classics.

 

A Steinway Christmas Album = Piano Music for the Season – Jeffrey Biegel, piano – Steinway and Sons 30005, 62:41 ***1/2:

Go figure—I had no idea Steinway had its own label; live and learn! And just in time for Christmas we get this album of piano carols in all kinds of arrangements by all kinds of people, complete with excellent booklet notes and a gift of a Christmas tree ornament inside as well. That’s a nice touch, as is that of pianist Jeffrey Biegel, currently serving on the faculties of Brooklyn Conservatory at Brooklyn College as well as the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a frequent performer of new music. Many will like this, but I must maintain an age-old prejudice against carols on the piano—somehow to me the two just don’t mix very well. Stan Kenton was able to get away with it in his scintillating and delicately-nuanced piano licks for his big band Christmas albums, and those were in a class all their own. And of course many have tried it; not least any number of jazz artists and probably somewhere around 20 other pianists who have also recorded in this arena, with most of those currently available. We have mostly old carols, some Nutcracker selections (which baffle me—why in the world do you want to hear those on a piano?), some new selections, some pop, some traditional, and a couple of hybrids that don’t work really well for me, though the Reger piece and Biegel’s own arrangements are the best things on the disc. The sound is clear as a bell and quite warm, so no complaints there, recorded on a Steinway Model D  9-foot concert grand, often referred to as the “king of pianos”, this particular one residing at the Concert Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York.

My advice: go out to Amazon and listen to the samples first. If you like this sort of thing I can guarantee this is as good as most of them—maybe better, and those people should add another one and a half stars to this review. If not, well then this release is not going to convince you.

I’m keeping that “musical lyre” ornament though…nice touch.

TrackList:

Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride                                                                        Percy Graingerer: The Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol                Christmas Traditional: Ding Dong! Merrily on High                              Gregory Sullivan Isaacs: Quiet Night                                                            Mel Tormé: The Christmas Song                                                                   Sergey Lyapunov: Chanteurs de noëls, Op. 41/3                                     Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker, suite, Op. 71a; The Seasons  (December), Op. 37
Max Reger: Aus der Jugendzeit, pieces for piano, Op. 17                     Vladimir Rebikov: Waltz from “Yolka”, Op. 21                                         Christmas Traditional: In the Bleak Midwinter                                       Franz Gruber: Stille Nacht                                                                               Frank Luther: Christmas is A-Comin’                                                         Felix Mendelssohn: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing                                 Franz Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum, S. 186; The Shepherds at the    Manger (In dulce jubilo)
Christmas Traditional: Bring a Torch / I Saw Three Ships                    Ann Hampton Callaway: Christmas Lullaby                                              David Foster/ Linda Foster: My Grown-Up Christmas List                Scottish Traditional: Auld Lang Syne

—Steven Ritter

 

As It Fell On A Holie Eve: Music for an Elizabethan Christmas – Julianne Baird, soprano/ Parthenia – MSR Classics 1365, 57:00 [Distr. by Albany] *****:

Parthenia is a viol consort that has been making quite a critical splash and with good reason. They play brilliantly, create wonderfully apt and interesting programs, and seem to avoid a sameness of tonal qualities that shoot down similar groups. Just to give names to the four members, they are Beverly Au, Lawrence Lipnik, Rosamund Morley, and Lisa Terry. Besides their recording and concert activities, they make an honest living in residence at Corpus Christi Church in New York, and Beatrice Diener Early Music Ensemble-in-Residence at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York.

This beautifully done album contains music by composers active in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who was forced to straddle—for obviously political reasons—the fine line that separated the newly-fused Anglican Protestant religion with elements of quite loyal subjects who still maintained an allegiance to Roman Catholicism. These composers, most famously perhaps William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, walked carefully in their abilities to create music for both religious sides while keeping loyalty with Rome. It seemed to work—Elizabeth may have been fervently devoted to the founded faith of her father Henry VIII but was wise enough to show tolerance for those whom she needed and who were willing to keep a low profile in terms of challenging her.

Needless to say most of this music is arranged for the consort, a common practice that all of the composers represented here would have approved, and it is nicely done. The addition of the masterly skills of Julianne Baird, who sings with a rare and considered radiance that is as good as I have ever heard her do, really makes this album. All of the selections are jewels in the crown of Christmas, and this easily ranks as the best Christmas release I have heard this year, and one of the best of the past ten. Get it—you’ll feel much better for it.

TrackList:

WILLIAM BYRD (1543-1623): Prelude and Voluntary
THOMAS RAVENSCROFT (c.1582-1635): Remember, O Thou Man
WILLIAM BYRD: From Virgin’s Womb this Day did Spring
ANTHONY HOLBORNE (c.1550-1602): As it fell on a Holie Eve; The Cradle; The Night Watch
WILLIAM BYRD: O magnum mysterium; Vidimus stellam; Puer natus est
ANONYMOUS (c.1600): Gentil Madonna
ANONYMOUS (c.1600): Sweet was the Song the Virgin Sung
JOHN BULL (c.1562-1628): A Gigge: Dr. Bull’s My Selfe
THOMAS MORLEY (1557-1602): Fantasia La sampogna
WILLIAM BYRD: Out of the Orient Crystal Skies
ANONYMOUS (c.1600): Elizabethan Dance Suite – Pavan of Albarti; Gallyard; Allemana d’Amor
WILLIAM BYRD: Fantasy a4
SHEARMEN & TAILORS CAROL (1591): Lully, Lulla
TOBIAS HUME (c.1569-1645): Harke, Harke
TOBIAS HUME: A Mery Conceit: The Queens delight
ANONYMOUS (mid 17th century): Divisions on Greensleeves
TRADITIONAL WAITS’ CAROL (1642): The Old Year Now Away is Fled

—Steven Ritter

 

Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack – A Very Gypsy Christmas – Got Music Records GMR-002, 55:25 *****:

As cynical as I may occasionally get at this time of year with the stack of new Christmas discs coming in over the transom, this one caught my ear immediately. Here’s 15 of anyone’s favorite Christmas songs all played in the bouncy gypsy jazz style of Django Reinhardt and the Quintette of the Hot Club of France, my personal favorite sort of jazz. Doug Munro is the lead guitar, and Ken Peplowski’s clarinet brings back the wonderful sound of Hubert Rostaing—the original clarinetist with Django. The group is rounded out with Howie Bujese on violin, Michael Goetz on bass and Ernie Pugliese on second guitar. The session was recording live before an audience and is great fun.  What more can I say?

TrackList: Sleigh Ride, Little Town of Bethlehem, The Christmas Song, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Let It Snow, We Three Kings, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Greensleeves, Oh Tannenbaum, Winter Wonderland, Christmas Time is Here, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Oh Come Emmanuel, Silent Night.

—John Henry

 

Chris Standring & Kathrin Shorr – Send Me Some Snow – Ultimate Vibe UVR004, 33:58 *****: 

Christmas albums, it they are looking for a sure hit, usually trot out the tried and true classics that listeners will already be able to sing along with, but sometimes an artist or artists will come up with something original for the holiday season, and that’s what Chris Standring and Kathrin Shorr have done with Send Me Some Snow. These are all original songs written with the holiday theme in mind.

The concept behind this CD is to create songs that sound like they could have been written in the 40s or 50s, complete with “lush string arrangements, old school type vocal sounds, organic drum sounds and upright bass.” And in fact, some of them have the feeling about them that they could have come from a Hollywood holiday musical from that time, like “Christmas Ain’t Christmas,” which captures a sense of delicious longing for loved ones far away. The other songs manage a fair amount of wit and sass, thanks mainly to the lyrics and vocals of Kathrin Shorr that make them positively endearing, like the funky, charming and blues-infused “Naughty Or Nice.” In fact, it was this song that made me stop and really listen to this CD. As soon as it started, it grabbed me and said, “Hey, listen to this!” As soon as that track stopped playing, I restarted the CD and listened to it all over again.

Chris Standring, an accomplished jazz guitarist, wrote the music for these songs and solos several times on the CD. His electric guitar solo on “Dear Santa” is the model of restraint and good taste, as is his acoustic guitar solo on “Christmas In Tinseltown.” Like the era that it emulates, the songs on Send Me Some Snow place a high value on melody, and this creates several memorable and sophisticated songs. Considering what they were trying to accomplish, Standring and Shorr have succeeded in creating a recording of new classics that stand the chance of becoming true classics. Or at least, they provide a welcome respite to the normal holiday dregs. Without a doubt, Send Me Some Snow will become a regular part of my holiday traditions.

TrackList: Send Me Some Snow; Someone’s Gonna Get Something (For Christmas); I’ve Got A Thing For Jack; Christmas Ain’t Christmas; Naughty Or Nice; Dear Santa; Mistletoe Moon; Christmas In Tinseltown; There’s No Time Like Christmastime; Through The Holidays

—Hermon Joyner

Ellis Marsalis – A New Orleans Christmas Carol – ELM Records ELM 19790, 63:36 – ****: 

In these days, there are few names connected with New Orleans with the cachet of Marsalis. Ellis Marsalis is the patriarch of this multi-generational musical dynasty and in this CD, A New Orleans Christmas Carol, he shows his own chops on the piano and offers his takes on the classics of Christmas music.

Along for the ride are stellar musicians like Bill Huntington and Peter Harris on bass, Roman Skakum on vibraphone, and Jason Marsalis on drums. Cynthia Liggins sings on one song, “A Child is Born” (the Thad Jones version, not the more familiar one), and Johnaye Kendrick sings an Ellis Marsalis original, “Christmas Joy.” The rest of the tracks on the CD are instrumentals and there are a lot of tunes with 20 in all.

This CD starts out a wistfully straightforward and slightly melancholy version of “O Tannenbaum” and immediately follows it up with a driving, funky, drum-filled version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” On nearly all of the tracks, Marsalis follows a standard jazz treatment of the tunes, in that he will play the standard melody through the first time and then offer up improvisations of that melody with turns taken by the other players. This CD is the recorded version of the Christmas jazz concerts that Marsalis and his crew have been giving at the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans for the past nine years.

While there is little earth-shakingly original about this CD, it does its best to give a novel take on much-loved traditional tunes. This is a careful line that Marsalis walks here. If you hew too close to the original tunes, you’re in danger of coming off as boring. If you are too “out there” with the material, then you risk offending people. Being the seasoned pro that he is, Ellis Marsalis brings just the right amount of tradition and innovation to this project. A New Orleans Christmas Carol is just right and mixing jazz with Christmas tunes is always a good idea. Listening to this late at night by the glow of the Christmas tree will be just about perfect.

TrackList: O Tannenbaum; The Little Drummer Boy; We Three Kings; A Child is Born; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear; O Holy Night; Winter Wonderland; Christmas Time is Here; Silent Night; O Little Town of Bethlehem; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas; Christmas Joy; Sleigh Ride; Greensleeves; The Christmas Song; We Wish You a Merry Christmas; Winter Wonderland (Remix); Hark! The Herald Angel Sings; The Little Drummer Boy (Remix)

—Hermon Joyner

 

Geri Allen – A Child Is Born – Motema Music MTM-69, 50:39 ****½:

(Geri Allen – piano, concert celeste, Fender Rhodes, Farfisa; Hohner clavinet; Connaitre Miller – vocals Barbara Roney – vocals ; Carolyn Brewer – vocals Farah Jasmine Griffin – spoken word ; Jaimeo Brown – vocal soundscape engineering and design)

Jazz pianist, Geri Allen is multi-faceted. An accomplished composer and performer, she is an Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation in the School Of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan. Her career boasts a vast array of musical styles and projects. Some of her earliest influences include, Betty Carter, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane and mentor Dr. Billy Taylor.

Her career began with Mary Wilson and The Supremes. The immersion into the jazz scene included contributions to various Steve Coleman’s albums. Her debut, The Printmakers revealed an affinity for avant-garde. Later releases included Etudes, a cooperative venture with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. On subsequent albums, she collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Jack Dejohnette and Ron Carter to name a few. More than just music, Allen is immersed in the cultural mosaic, exploring social, political and religious themes. In 2008, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and performed at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Unveiling Concert.

A Child Is Born, Allen’s third release for Motema is a predominately solo album that delves into spirituality, family and global issues within the context of Christmas songs. The opening track, “Angels We Have Heard On High” is crisp in delivery with melody, counters and key improvisation. This juxtaposition of percussion and melody is prevalent on “Christmas Medley (Away In A Manger/What Child Is This/Silent Night)”. Another pulsating rhythm inhabits “Little Drummer Boy”.  A steady pounding left hand is meshed with a soaring harmonious lead. In a more subdued arrangement, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” has a traditional jazz feel with lyrical delicate chords. The title track is atmospheric, with many of the qualities associated with pianists like George Winston.

There are some interesting departures. A celeste accent on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel I” (which also includes electronic vocalization by Jaimeo Brown) delivers an ethereal mood. The number is also reprised as the final cut. Two Ethiopian songs (“Imagining Gena At Sunrise” and “Imagining Gena At Sunset”) are interpreted in brief interludes with funky Fender Rhodes and Farfisa organ riffs (on the latter). “Journey To Bethlehem”, inspired by a prayer experience utilizes spoken word (Farah Jasmine Griffin) and vocals (Carolyn Brewer) and produces a modern sound landscape. Allen’s cover of “Amazing Grace” is complex and moving, and features her most inspirational performance.

A Child Is Born transcends holiday musical fare. Geri Allen is a musical talent with vision, and a vanguard of Motema Music’s emerging prestige.

TrackList: Angels We Have Heard On High; A Child Is Born; Imagining Gena At Sunrise; O Come, O Come, Emmanuel I; Journey To Bethlehem; We Three Kings; Little Drummer Boy; God Is With Us; Amazing Grace; Christmas Medley (Away In A Manger/What Child Is This/Silent Night); Imagining Gena At Sunset; Let Us Break Bread Together; It Came upon A Midnight Clear; O Come, O Come Emmanuel II

—Robbie Gerson

 

Harry Connick, Jr. Trio – The Happy Elf – Marsalis Music  MARS 0017 *****:

(Harry Connick, Jr. – piano; Neal Caine – bass; Arthur Latin – drums)

Arriving just in the nick of time to get included herewith, this becomes a new holiday classic due mainly from it being entirely new tunes, with no hackneyed , artificially jazzed-up arrangements of familiar carols. It’s also a CD for holiday get-togethers that include young ones, because it opens with a ten-minute narration by Harry of his story of The Happy Elf.  It’s a companion CD to Harry’s children’s picture book of the same name, published by Harper Collins. Employing two mainstays from his big band, Connick does trio versions of some of the tunes he originally wrote for his stage musical The Happy Elf. They constitute a variety of new takes on the tunes, and I especially liked that they’re all instrumental—no vocals. The children’s story follows Eubie, who longs to be a part of Santa’s sleigh team, but he’s stuck with compiling the naughty-or-nice lists. But then one Christmas Eve he sees that the whole town of Bluesville has not a single person having been nice, and he’s off to Bluesville to turn a whole town of naughty children nice in a day.  Eubie’s story unfolds against a swinging background of the piano trio. The story has also inspired an animated Christmas TV special. A merry addition to the mostly Christmas dreck. Recorded at the studios of WGBH in Cambridge, where I once worked.

TrackList:
The Happy Elf Read-Along, The Happy Elf, Santarrific, Naugthty Children of Bluesville, Bluesville, The What Song, The PH Song, Two Scoops of Christmas, The Magic Hat, Operation Yule Tide Turning, Christmas Day, What a Night, Gotta Be On My Way.

—John Henry

 

Chris Bauer – In a Yuletide Groove – Harmonica Jazz for the Holidays – Chris Bauer Music.com ****:

(Chris Bauer, harmonica; Glenn McClelland, keyboards; Chris Ziemer, guitar; Matt Parrish, bass; Dave Mohn, drums; guests: Rob Paparozzi, vocals & blues harp on “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”; Patty Bauer, keyboards on “Ave Maria”)

This CD is exactly what it says.  The harmonica seems to be either loved or hated by many jazz fans. It’s just the thing for this original take on the usual Christmas CD. Chris never gets overly bluesy, and it’s a most enjoyable harmonica romp thru the usual Christmas favorites.

TrackList: Winter Wonderland, Feliz Navidad, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Christmastime is Here, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Home for the Holidays, We Three Kings, The Christmas Song, Let It Snow, White Christmas, O Tannenbaum, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Ave Maria.

—John Henry

 

Elisabeth Lohninger Band featuring Axel & Walter Fischbacher – Christmas in July – Jazz Sick Records 5048JS ***:

(Elizabeth Lohninger, voice; Axel Fishbacher, guitar; Walter Rischbacker, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass; Ulf Stricker, drums)

A rather strange German Christmas offering in the world music genre. There are special arrangements of tunes from Mexico, Brazil, France, Sweden, Japan, Denmark etc.  Vocalist Lohninger is versatile but not always perfectly on key.  The arrangements tend toward “swinging the classics” — sometimes stringently so.  A couple of the tracks really wig out with heavy rock guitar licks. The “Christmas Eve” track from Japan is very strange, with repeated names of Western Christmas carols without anything else.  Certainly a variety of Christmas tunes, though. The very name of the label illustrates the problems of subtleties that often get missed in translations— especially in English.

TrackList:  Giant Chestnutz/Christmas Song, Os Meninos Da Mangueira, In Notte Placida, Potpourri De Navidad, Mary’s Boy Child, Petit Pap Noel, Clans Over Sjo Och Strand, Advent, Christmas Eve, Den Yndigste Rose, Vom Himmel Hoch, Silent Night.

—John Henry

 

David Ian – Vintage Christmas – Prescott Records PR 0001 ****:

(David Ian – piano, guitar, bells; Jon Estes – bass & cello; Brian Fitch – drums; Andre Miguel Mayo & Acacia – vocals)

Familiar Christmas classics in easy-going and relaxed arrangements capturing the season’s spirit in a jazz style. Mainly instrumentals, but six of 11 tracks have vocals, with the closing “Christmastime With You” by Ian feature a duet.

TrackList: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Let It Snow, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Christmas Waltz, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, The Christmas Song, Home for the Holidays, Christmas Time With You, I’ll be Home for Christmas, Silent Night, Christmas Time with You.

—John Henry

 

Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir – A Celebration in Time – (founded and directed by Trevor W. Payne; featuring the Duphnée Singers) – Justin Time Records, Montreal JUST 234-2 ****:

A nice gospel slant on the familiar Christmas tunes, with a rich-sounding choir in Montreal. The gospel choir won a JUNO award in 1994 for a Christmas album, and this is their first since that one. They found a scarcity of Christmas gospel music because the majority of the black religious repertory centered around the crucifixion instead of Jesus’ birth. The Daphnée Louis Singers come from Haiti, and their agreeing to participate in this recording gave it a special edge. One of the tracks is just solo piano, while many of the others involve a large ensemble of singers and instrumental musicians.  Another is a medley of two French Canadian carols. Oliver Jones and his trio do an impressive version of “We Three Kings,” which has long been my personal favorite Christmas carol on which to do improvisations. And they actually made “Little Drummer Boy” enjoyable instead of annoying.

TrackList: Home for the Holidays, We Three Kings of Orient Are, Silent Night, Christmas Medley (solo piano), Gras Bondye/Seigneur J’eleve Ton Nom, What Child Is This?, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The Christmas Waltz, Little Drummer Boy, Hymn to Freedom.

—John Henry

 

Beantown Swing Orchestra – A Beantown Christmas – 854801 00301 8 ***:

Obviously, a Boston-based band, involving several vocalists, big band, strings all the holiday trimmings. The tunes sound just like what a large band would be playing this holiday season. Some of the vocalist are good; others are questionable, such as one of the male voices.  The vocals were all recorded at different times and locations—that may be part of the problem.

TrackList: Dancing in the Snow, I See Christmas, The Christmas Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, White Christmas, Let It Snow, Santa Clause is Coming to Town, Christmas Memories, Frosty the Snowman, Snowflackes, O Holy Night, Winter Wonderland, Santa Baby, Christmas Land, Auld Lang Syne.

—John Henry

 

Lisa Bernstein – Christmas Time Is Here (and Chanukah and the Solstice) – Piece of Pie Records POP-3809 **:

Lisa B, as she calls herself, is a poet/singer/songwriter in the SF Bay Area.  This is her fifth CD—a mix of jazz, jazz-soul and orchestral versions of familiar Christmas standards, Jewish music,/// and it opens with her original “Christmas Time Is Here.”  For some of the tunes she wrote new lyrics, as for “My Favorite Things.” She’s lived in Oakland, California for 30 years and in ‘Holiday in Oakland” comes up with probably the first song about Christmas in Oakland ever.  In the middle of it she lauds some of the musical greats who started out in Oakland. A couple of the other tracks also feature her spoken word or rap contributions, especially “Winter Solstice,” which is entirely spoken with no music.  She’s a versatile performer and blends the spoken word portions well with the music, but there’s something about her voice I don’t find attractive. You might, however.

TrackList: Christmas Time Is Here, Hine Ma Tov, Let it Snow, My Favorite Things, Miracle, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, This Christmas, Holiday in Oakland, The Flame, Winter Solstice, Christmas Time Is Here (instrumental version).

—John Henry

 

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