Christmas CDs: Tim Warfield, New York Voices, Jonathan Butler, Karrin Allyson

December 4, 2013

Of Spirits Bright

 By Brian Arsenault

The feast of Holiday music this year is as abundant as Tiny Tim’s Christmas table. After Scrooge woke up and saw the light, of course. Here are four shining stars to guide us home to Christmas.

Tim Warfield

Tim Warfield’s Jazzy Christmas (Undaunted Music)

Tim and a whole bunch of great musicians’ (most to be named as we go along) undaunted music

To begin with, this is a terrific jazz album as well as Christmas music to delight the heart. You could play it with relish in June — it was actually recorded during summer months — but you might find yourself suddenly wanting to trim a tree.

From the start, on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” you first dig the playing: Warfield’s sax alternating with Terrell Stafford’s trumpet. Stefon Harris comes in on vibraphone, Neil Podgurski’s piano rounds things. This is a fine band playing fine jazz with Christmas “feeling.”

Warfield says “You have to believe in feeling, because that is the top of the hill in all of the arts.” Yeah. And on “Oh Christmas Tree” Podgurski’s piano intro wraps around you like a warm fire in the living room, Christmas tree in the corner. A fine vocal by Jamie Davis. Warfield’s tenor sax.

Caroling Caroling” is just joyous, all the instruments contributing. And drummer Clarence Penn sets a rollicking pace on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Tim has reminded us that “Relating to the African diaspora,… Music begins with the drum…”

So naturally there’s a fine rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” And “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” well, it’s not restful, it’s exuberant. Heck, the whole album is.

 New York Voices

 Let It Snow (12th Street Records)

If you have warm Christmas memories of childhood, this album may transport you there.

Bach’s Sleeper’s Wake (Ah, Bach) is the universal mother figure arousing a young sleepyhead on the big morning. It might also be a summons for sinners but that’s for another time.

Silent Night” is God’s a capella chorus.

We wish you a Merry Christmas” is all your friends who like that sort of thing gathered around a piano, caroling. Of course, your friends may not sing or play the piano as well, but in fond memories or with lots of good cheer they can.

The four New York Voices are those of Kim Nazarian, Darmon Meader, Lauren Kinhan and Peter Eldridge. Individually pleasing, over a quarter century they have come to blend them in a manner that seems to be of one mind. And soul.

On Christmas music, the effect is magical whether a capella or big band, whether jolly jumping or quietly meditative.

The “Silent Night” done here is angels on high. Four voices fill the room in a nearly orchestral manner. Send your troubles miles away.

Jonathan Butler

Merry Christmas to You (Artistry Music)

Soul seems especially appropriate for Christmas, which at its core is about soul in the big sense.

Jonathan Butler is about soul in the musical sense and comes right out of the gate with Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” somehow with more of a Stevie Wonder quality than Hathaway. Good enough either way.

Damn, or rather, Bless, this guy can sing. He also can compose and his “Merry Christmas to You” — a Christmas love song and there should be more of those — shows off both talents. He also plays guitar and most of the other instruments on the album.

His rich full voice on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” may draw a tear. Dreams matter too.

Nobody ever sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” like Judy Garland. She was always close to the pain implicit in the song and clung to its hopefulness in her battered but brave life. Yet Butler comes close.

He knew pain too growing up under apartheid in South Africa but he never lost hope either. Maybe you have to have some of the faith most of us have lost or decided is irrelevant in the modern world.

His is still a personal God. Of all the albums here, only his includes “The First Noel,” which is perhaps the most faith-based of the traditional carols. To hear him sing it is to go to the Church you may wish you had.

Oh, and for the big population control advocates among you, consider that Jonathan is the youngest of 17 children. Seems maybe miracles can come at any time.

Karrin Allyson

 Yuletide Hideaway (Kasrecords)

I think I may have heard a new addition to the Christmas songbook.

Karrin Allyson’s album opens with the title song which isn’t really about a physical place. It’s rather about where we hope to go: where reindeers blow a trumpet and there are skaters on a mirror pond. It’s a song that hopes for Christmas for grownups. And I think it will be heard by her and others for many future Christmases.

The second song, “Winter Oasis,” has that same quality. The search for a “place” called Christmas that the child in us embraces. Where we hope to stay for just a little while.

This whole album seems an effort at seeking that world. Ms Allyson has such a rich, expressive voice that we are happy to journey with her.

Arriving at “Winter Wonderland” we find it can be done in a restrained and soft manner when it is often done so brassy. Yet “Let It Snow” has all the bounce normally associated with the song.

Inventive and traditional. Nicely blended.

Her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has the gentle touch she brings to so much in the album. The band is especially strong here: Rod Fleeman’s guitar, Todd Strait on drums and sleigh bells, Gerald Spaits on acoustic bass.

There’s also a nice little tribute to Vince Guaraldi on “Christmas Time Is Here,” inseparable from the Holiday for all who have grown up, or are growing up, with Charlie Brown and the gang.

Warm as Nana’s quilt.

* * * * * * * *

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Holiday CD Reviews: Some Golden (Not So) Oldies

December 14, 2011

By Faith Frenz

Winter celebrations are upon us.  And aren’t we all digging deeply into our saved treasures,  surrounding ourselves with the holiday memories tucked away in our homes and our hearts, enriching and sharing the love and warmth we all need and crave?

As always, holiday time is arriving in the darkest of days and the wonder of the full moon.  Time to think about who we are, our heritage, our spiritual beliefs, our loved ones here and gone.  Time to rejoice in that spirit, and share in the wonder of the gift of life which is all too transient.

For me, Christmas is redolent with fragrant memories:  The search to find the perfect fir tree on a snowy evening.  The incomparable transcendence of  singing the Messiah in  a choir.  The poignant remembrance of sitting at the piano next to my grandfather, Peter Frenz, while he taught me to sing “Silent Night” in his native language… “Stille Nacht.”

Music and fragrance hold those memories for us all, which is why I want to share a few of my favorite holiday CDs — accumulated over the past few years, but all still readily available at Amazon and elsewhere.

The Canadian Tenors

The Perfect Gift (Decca 2010)

 Currently on tour before sold out audiences, the ravishing sound of the voices of the four Canadian Tenors — each uniquely different – is an intensely emotional experience to hear. On this year old holiday CD, they bring their exceptional blend of vocal talent to songs of worship and inspiration. One of the most moving songs is “Instrument of Peace”, a Christian prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi,  and not often heard.

All the songs are supported by lush orchestrations with choral backgrounds, and it’s almost impossible to select any one of the selections as more outstanding than the others.  But I do have my personal favorites: “O Holy Night”,” Silent Night”, “Ave Maria” , “Oviens Emmanuel.”  And, especially, a really memorable melody, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  My advice is this — do not just buy one or two Mp3s of this CD.  The album needs to be experienced in its entirety.

Chris Botti

December (Columbia 2006)

 First recorded in 2002, December was reissued in 2006.  And now, almost a decade after its initial release, it has become a classic. Botti is that rarity — a trumpet player who plays his instrument as a vocal expression, as though he were singing through his horn.  And it’s not surprising that he is the number one selling jazz instrumentalist, continually touring the world, his albums produced by veteran hit-maker Bobby Colomby, his trumpet featured on several widely seen PBS fund-raising specials.

The album is chockful of classic Christmas carols along with a few popular holiday tunes. Among the highlights: rich, emotional renderings of “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night,” recorded in London.  And, here, as well as on the Canadian Tenors’ CD,  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which — played without the original words, in Botti’s expressive style — perfectly suits the season

Diana Krall

Christmas Songs (Verve 2005)

 Diana Krall, aided by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, takes the opportunity to display her diverse talents with this collection of holiday golden oldies, done with a jazz twist.  The result is a program of familiar items overflowing with playfulness, sentiment, and humor. From the stirring, Clayton-Hamilton big band textures (“Let It Snow”), to lush orchestral sounds (“Have Yourself a Merry Christmas”), to Krall’s familiar small, swinging group backing (“White Christmas”).  Add to that her lovely  interpretation of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” and “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas,” in touching versions arranged and produced by Johnny Mandel.

Christmas Songs concludes with a moving rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings, Instead Of Sheep.”  It’s not a  traditional holiday song, but how appropriate it is — not just  for the holiday season, but for every season. A charming personal footnote to this very special album.

Sting

If On a Winter’s Night (Deutsche Grammophon 2009)

 The album notes call this “a compelling and personal journey with music spanning over five centuries.”

It was introduced with this video in 2009 and utterly captivated me.

And with good reason.  Take a look:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFAleFnbRgw

When I received the CD, I listened to it every day for at least a month. The journey is drawn from traditional music of the British Isles, and the music was performed and recorded on Sting’s estate in Tuscany. Although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure there are those, like me, who will love the gentle, traditional folk style medieval madrigals, played on authentic string instruments such as the lute and harp. For those individuals I say take the journey.  It’s mesmerizing.

Apparently many others have had similar reactions.  In 2010, If On A Winter’s Night won the award for best music at the “Time for Peace” humanitarian film and music awards in Paris.

Take 6

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Heads Up 2010)

 An irresistibly happy and bouncy collection of holiday songs by this award-winning a capella group Take 6 is a collection of amazing singers who combine jazz, gospel, r&b and doo-wop into a truly unique sound.  “Sugarplum Dance” from The Nutcracker, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from Dr Seuss, and “I Saw Three Ships” stand out for their unique interpretations of familiar holiday music.

But the simple truth is that virtually every piece, traditional or otherwise, becomes something new and special when Take 6 take the song – and you — for a musical ride.

Yo-Yo Ma & Friends

Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical 2008)

Any musical event featuring Yo -Yo Ma is a treasure, since his  classical roots and joyful spirit shine through everything he touches. The intentions of this production, which was a TV show in 2008, are stated here:  “Imagine a musical party inspired by the holiday season.  A party that celebrates the universal hopes, dreams and joy animating seasonal festivals the world over  That is what brought Yo-Yo Ma together with a remarkable group of friends – some new, some old – to create Songs of Joy & Peace.

The recording is star-studded with musical vignettes from the Brubecks, the Assad family, Chris Botti, Diana Krall, James Taylor, Joshua Redman, the Silk Road Ensemble, and many more.  Despite the eclectic variety and lack of continuity between the numbers, the cello of Yo-Yo Ma is the glue that brings cohesion to this ambitious event packed with such diverse talent.

My personal favorites are  a few gems: James Taylor’s sweet version of “Here Comes the Sun,” the gorgeous duets with Chris Botti on “My Favorite Things”,and “Old Land Syne,” and the Lennon/Ono song “Happy Xmas”, performed by Jake Shimabukuro on the ukulele  There are many more, but you’ll need to hear the album at close contact to choose yours.


CD Reviews: Music of the Holiday Season

December 8, 2011

By Faith Frenz

Carole King

A Holiday Carole (Hear Music)

A delightful gift for the season, with Carole’s bubbly personality breathing new life into some old chestnuts — “Sleigh Ride” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” among them. A Holiday Carole was recorded in Los Angeles as a collaboration with family and friends and is enhanced with the personal touch of a collection of family pictures on the insert.  In an additional family connection, the album was produced by her daughter, Louise Goffin, who also contributed four original songs. The singing is vintage 70′s Carole King. Even though she plays the piano on only three numbers — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, and “New Year’s Day” — her delightful exuberance is something we can always welcome a little more of in these troubled days.

Elf: The Broadway Musical

Original Broadway Cast Recording (Ghostlight Records)

Based on the New Line Cinema film Elf, the Broadway musical of the same title is faithful to the sweet and sentimental story of a human baby who is raised by Santa’s elves.  Until he grows to maturity and gets Santa’s permission to return home to New York to find his parents and teach them the true meaning of Christmas.

Although not presently running on Broadway, the album (just released) could be considered a return engagement for the original cast. With song titles like “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” “Nobody Cares About Santa Claus,” “There is a Santa Claus,” and “Never Fall in Love with an Elf,” I think one can get the general idea of the book and the score. All bounce and cheer, if you are a Broadway Musical fan, this album is worth adding to your collection. The insert contains all the credits and lyrics for the entire libretto. And it also has tons of holiday cheer.

Tony Bennett

The Classic Christmas Album (RPM Records/Columbia Legacy)

A 40-year legacy of Christmas songs produced over the years in a catalog of five holiday albums is the source of all but one of the 18 chestnuts selected for this 2011 Classic Christmas Album. You can either purchase this budget priced album if you want to hear a whole lot of Tony Bennett, or go online to purchase indiviual MP3s of just your favs, of which there are no doubt quite a few.

As you can imagine, 40 years will provide a broad spectrum of style and orchestration, with something for everyone, from big swing orchestra to small jazz combo. The selections are balanced between  traditional Christmas Carols such as “The First Noel” and sentimental holiday classics like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”.  This is really an album which has something for everyone, especially Tony Bennett fans.

Various Artists

Putumayo Presents A Celtic Christmas (Putumayo)

A warm and inspiring collection of Christmas themed music derived from traditional solstice carols with Celtic roots (Scotch, Irish, English and French) that are hundreds of years old, performed with accordians, harps, pennywhistles and fiddles. The music creates an ambiance of nostalgic Christmas carollng in a cold winter’s night — a community setting to put aside ones troubles and rejoice in the season of celebration.

The pagan roots of the season show through as well,  especially in songs such as Noel Nouvelet, which is a 15th Century French New Year’s carol. The album’s pamphlet, rich with historical background for this most engaging collection of  winter holiday music, helps to enhance the listening experience, with its refreshing orchestrations and comfortable balance of diverse vocals. Especially notable are the Dougie MacLean rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” and a Gaelic translation of “White Christmas.” A refreshing change from the old chestnuts and highly recommended for folks (like me) who program their winter holidays with music 24/7.


CDs: More Songs of the Holidays

December 23, 2009

By Don Heckman

Blackmore’s Night

“Winter Carols” (Minstrelhall Music)

Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple, along with his partner, singer Candice Night, have created a rich, colorful holiday portrait, using electric guitar, period instruments, soaring vocals and multi-layered instrumental textures.  The songs range from classic carols to a new song, “Christmas Eve,” and the Rednex’ “Wish You Were Here.”

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, The Partyka Brass Quintet

“Carla’s Christmas Carols”  (WATT)

Leave it to Carla Bley to find an utterly unique way to blend jazz and Christmas.  And before the first few bars of “O Tannenbaum” are finished, it is clear that her vision is both humorous and loving.  Swallow’s mobile bass often takes the lead, and the Partyka Quintet find both the composed and the improvised aspects of Bley’s idiosyncratic arrangements.  Among the many highlights in this memorable collection is a lovely rendering of Bley’s own, “Jesus Maria.”

The Glenn Mohr Chorale

“A Star Still Shines: The Christmas Album”  (Spencertown Records)

The Mohr Chorale’s first Christmas album features the ensemble’s rich, often diverse, vocal sounds in atmospheric renderings of, among others, “Silent Night,” “The First Noel” and a lovely Christmas hymn medley reaching from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “Angels We Have Heard On High.”

The Hot Club of San Francisco

“Hot Club Cool Yule”  (Azica Records)

The San Francisco gypsy jazz ensemble apply the irresistible rhythms of Django Reinhardt-styled jazz to the sounds of Christmas.  And the results, appropriately, are both cool and hot.  Among the many immediately engaging items are a Latin jazz take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (re-titled “Don Rodolfo”) and the accurately re-named “Djingle Bells.”

Jerry Douglas

“Jerry Christmas” (E1 Entertainment)

Here’s one of the more unusual entries in this year’s list of Christmas songs.  Dobro master Jerry Douglas applies his superb country/bluegrass technique to a collection of classics – “The First Noel,” “O Holy Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” among them in a largely instrumental program.  Aside, that is, from Maura O’Connell’s “New Year’s Eve” and Douglas’ whimsical “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”  Good stuff, all of it.

Various

“A Family Christmas”  (Putumayo)

Putumayo never fails to assemble an engaging collection of material for their theme-oriented albums.  And this entertaining Christmas line-up is no exception.  The many stand-outs include Martin Sexton’s sleigh bell-accompanied “Holly Jolly Christmas,” Leon Redbone’s typically laconic “Let It Snow,” British folky Kate Rusby doing “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “Is Zat You Santa Claus?”

Various

“Gift Wrapped” (Warner Bros.)

Another all-star Christmas collection, this time from the Warner Brothers stable – which is filled with musical thoroughbreds.  There’s a lot from which to pick, but here are some of my highlights:  Micheal Buble (“Let It Snow”), Randy Travis (“Winter Wonderland”), Regina Spektor (“My Dear Acquaintance”), The Brian Setzer Orchestra (“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) and R.E.M. (“Deck the Halls”).  But there’s a lot more.

Various

“Hope For the Holidays: Rockin’ Christmas For A Cure” (JDRF)

This impressive collection of Christmas songs is dedicated to spreading awareness and support for Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes via contributions to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).  The long list of artists includes Weezer (“O Come All Ye Faithful”), Creedence Clearwater Revisited (“Run Rudolph Run”), Mike Love (“Santa’s Going To Kokomo”), Shanti Shanti (“Wassailing Rose”) and much more.

Orla Fallon

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

It’s just a single, but it features the lusciously lovely voice of Fallon, a former star of the “Celtic Woman” show.  Hearing her airy, effortless soprano voice, arching through this familiar Christmas melody is surely one of the blessings of the season.

To read about more Songs of the Holidays click here.


CD Songs of the Holidays: The Jackson 5, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Ultimate Motown

December 18, 2009

By Don Heckman

The Jackson 5

“Jackson 5 Ultimate Christmas Collection” (Motown)

What a great soundtrack for the holidays. The Jackson 5 with little Michael Jackson singing the lead on, among others, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Up on the Housetop,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And there’s a lot more – “The Christmas Song,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” among them. The first 11 tracks were originally released in 1970 as “Jackson 5 Christmas album.” Additional tracks include Michael Jackson’s  “Little Christmas Tree,” released in 1970. Four other tracks are re-mixes created for this collection, along with a Christmas medley combining excerpts from some of the original tracks. And, as a final bonus, there are spoken Christmas greetings from Michael, Tito, Jackie and Germaine. For Jackson 5 fans it’s the ultimate holiday gift, especially valuable in this year of Michael Jackson’s passing..

Frank Sinatra

“Christmas with Sinatra and Friends” (Concord)

Old Blue Eyes did a number of impressive albums during his long career. This one, however, is a current compilation, assembled and remastered in first rate fashion, featuring some unusual Sinatra performances as well as added tracks from his “Friends.” Among the Sinatra highlights: his lovely renderings of the too rarely heard “Christmas Memories” and “The Christmas Waltz”; a dramatic “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”; and an atmospheric version – with chorus – of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The off-beat items include Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened To Christmas” as well as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and Sinatra’s own “Mistletoe and Holly” from a 1957 TV special “Happy Holidays with Bing & Frank.” The “Friends” are well-chosen, especially Mel Torme singing his unique version of his own classic, “The Christmas Song.” Betty Carter and Ray Charles add a soulfully swinging duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” Rosemary Clooney finds the heart of “White Christmas” and Tony Bennett teams with pianist Bill Evans on Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born.”

Ray Charles

“The Spirit of Christmas” (Concord)

It may be Charles’ only Christmas album, but this 1985 release was done so well that there was no need for a follow up. For this version, Concord has added the duet with Betty Carter on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – also featured on the above Sinatra album – as a bonus track.

The opening number, “What Child Is This?” sets the stage for the imaginative approach to the material created by Charles and his arrangers. Starting with a slow, dramatic opening backed by rich horn chords, it suddenly shifts into big band swing, with driving solos from tenor saxophonist Rudy Johnson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Although some other tracks add different timbres – the chorus on “The Little Drummer Boy,” the voices and strings on “Christmas in My Heart,” – the charts essentially position Charles in a rhythmically upbeat, richly timbred big band setting. The result is an irresistibly appealing set of heartfelt performances by Charles at his best.

Various Artists

“The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection” (Motown)

“Ultimate” is the right descriptive word for this two-CD assemblage of Motown’s biggest stars having a go at the classic Christmas repertoire – in addition to spoken holiday greetings from the likes of the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Thelma Houston and many others. With three dozen music tracks, there’s a lot from which to choose, all of it celebrating the season in the uniquely soulful, grooving Motown style.

Among the most intriguing items: Stevie Wonder singing “Ave Maria,” Smokey Robinson and the Temptations doing “Noel” and “The Christmas Song,” the Supremes applying their magic to “My Favorite Things” and “White Christmas” and the Four Tops getting together with Aretha Franklin on ”Christmas Here With You.” But that’s just a brief sampling from a collection that belongs in the holiday music collection of every fan of classic American music.

To read about more Songs of the Holidays click here.


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