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