Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Santa, Snow, Stocking Stuffers, Sacred & Seasonal Songs
Reviews by Rob Lester


Ring out the bells and ring in the season because it's time for new releases of holiday songs to get or to give. So let's give consideration to these:

BILLY STRITCH, JIM CARUSO & KLEA BLACKHURST
CHRISTMAS AT BIRDLAND

Club44 Records

Joy to the world: Christmas at Birdland is a zingy party! Consisting almost exclusively of effervescent singing, this new recording is a mega-merry and bright collection. There's no blue Christmas in sight, no sobbing about not getting to home or faraway loved ones in this gala of goodwill, grins and glee. Billy Stritch, Klea Blackhurst, and Jim Caruso spread cheer with their vocals—solos, duets, and trios—with Stritch strongly presiding at the piano throughout and serving as arranger for all tracks except one, and as co-producer (with Wayne Haun), with Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums. These folks are all longtime regulars at Birdland, the Manhattan nightclub where their annual holiday show that inspired this second such souvenir recording returns for another fun run later this month. (This follow-up has a few of the same items from the earlier release, A Swingin' Birdland Christmas!, with the team, which was recorded live.)

All is blithe and carefree in a place of winter wonderfulness, such as "Manhattan in December" where "You Meet the Nicest People" or know that the guest of honor with the red suit will show up bearing gifts—"Mister Santa" (the special lyric set to what had originally been a request for a dreamboat of the human sort addressed to "Mr. Sandman"). And it's no cause for real alarm if "He's Stuck in the Chimney Again." Klea amiably bounces through this novelty by Cy Coleman and Floyd Huddleston discovered only a few years ago, stuck presumably not in a chimney, but in an old music file for decades.

Nothing much else ruffles the feathers of these festive folks, unless you count a pesky cold snap with a certain blamed fictional sprite directly disinvited with "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost" wherein the two guys sound more cheerful than chagrined. With most selections simply surveying the signs of seasonal serenity or celebration, nothing much is presented as being very deep, unless you count the "Snow" described by Irving Berlin that the three delight in. Guest Donny Osmond drops by, once, to chime in with panache, making our three singing musketeers a foursome for the "whoop-de-doo" promised in "It's the Holiday Season" by Kay Thompson.

Here and there things slow down somewhat into a warm comfort zone, like Billy's radiant vocal solo on "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") which, as a little but appreciated Christmas treat, includes the rarely recorded brief introductory verse. Also in the sincere department is Klea's atypically tender turn for the wonder witnessed when "A Child Is Born." Alto sax player Dave Koz guests on these two pieces, presenting "Silent Night" as a partner to the latter (violin on the earlier recording) to more than suggest that that the baby we should have in mind, not named in Alec Wilder's lyric that he set to a pre-existing jazz melody by Thad Jones, is the holy one meant to be at the center of Christmas. (But, with no other religious reference on this plentiful pack, it's a cameo appearance.)

Christmas at Birdland is the sunniest kind of winter win-win situation with good vibes and good music-making all around.

RANDY RAINBOW
HEY GURL, IT'S CHRISTMAS!

Broadway Records

Comic capers are the major attraction with entertainer Randy Rainbow's Hey Gurl, It's Christmas. Although he puts on his sentimental hat for a medley of gentler things heard in films and proffers the prioritized life goal to "Make Someone Happy" (from the Broadway musical Do Re Mi), it's the strutting humorous stuff that makes his recording a clever "keeper" and a hoot. Turn to those selections when you need some spice to balance the musical sugar and sentimentality that one often can overdose on at this time of year.

The glib guy has sly, expert timing and chutzpah strutting through spoken dialogue and witty, sarcastic lyrics of his own mischievous making on the title song (melody and arrangement by Marc Shaiman) and the well-rhymed "My Favorite Things" parody—presidential poison darts with expert aim to name "Trump's Favorite Things" (which include "tyrants and traitors and climate-deniers" and "KGB play-dates"). It's not all "G"-related. With a cheeky repurposing, the once-innocent song about mistaken identity from a surprised child's viewpoint, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" has Randy relating the witnessed event as traumatic, sharing dialogue with guests Kathy Griffin and Alan Cumming as two inattentive psychiatrists (the latter joins him in singing).

On other tracks, Mr. Rainbow is joined by stars revisiting material from their own Christmases past. With Broadway's Norm Lewis, it's a likably robust reprise from his own holiday recording (Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"). Going back more than 50 years, Lorna Luft refreshes her experience bouncing through "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," her featured solo as a child on the Christmas edition of the TV series of her mother, Judy Garland. This time, they opt for the stylization Bruce Springsteen recorded. And speaking of Garland, Randy's movie song medley presenting his soft side includes two immortal favorites that legend introduced: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Over the Rainbow."

While the more sincere side presented on famous fare can't hope to rival the talents evidenced in the LOL creations so sassy and saucy, Hey Girl ... is worth a listen, even with its quite short playing time (only 28 minutes) being just one reason it leaves one wanting more.

ACCENT
CHRISTMAS ALL THE WAY

Accent Entertainment

In the decades of an ever-accumulating avalanche of Christmas recordings, so many of which tend to favor many of the same old songs (or rarer and newer ones with lyrics that draw on lots of the same images and rhymes), it's thrilling when something is chock full of dazzling surprises. Such a collection is Christmas All the Way, which is exactly that—all the way through. It's the latest achievement by the prodigiously skillful close-harmony vocal group called Accent. The six men whose voices blend, bend notes and make a simple song a marvelously multi-faceted mosaic. On their sublime holiday album, they make heady stuff of fluff like "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and bring intricate inventiveness to carols and secular pieces, whether with a large, sweeping instrumental ensemble (with some solo players featured) or choosing the a capella path they have often taken in their prior work. Either way, it's stunning stuff that commands attention and respectful appreciation. Simply put, I'm happily and hopelessly hooked.

Trademarks of approach are crisp precision and not shying away from ambitious arrangements where it's one novel combination after another, the aural equivalent of a tour de force athletic dance troupe. The gifted fellows—four tenors, a baritone and a bass—first connected and collaborated long distance, through technology; they come from five different countries! Two of those don't have English as their native language and there's a nod to each of those in the repertoire here: from Sweden, dating back about 100 years, the carol "Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul" that tells of a glorious Christmas and, very famous in France, the kid-friendly "Petit papa Noël." The very eclectic mix only totals 10 tracks, with some being well-known American fare, such as: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"

On initial listenings, it may be difficult to focus on anything other than the impact of the technique: sometimes seemingly a giddy and hyperactive barrage of twists and turns. That's especially true when they're treating familiar melodies like clay to be molded into a fresh shape every couple of seconds. It doesn't become inaccessible, and one doesn't lose track of the essence of the overall mood of a song, but there's so much to take in and the next hearing will likely bring different rewards or bring out things missed the previous time. What a rare treat that is! Accent's work is, therefore, the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

KEVIN DOZIER
CHRISTMAS EVE

Brannock Productions

There's an attractive touch of tremulousness in Kevin Dozier's voice that imbues a most appropriate sense of awe to songs that stay on the sacred side of Christmas. On the numbers that are non-religious, there's a loving appreciation for all things related to the annual celebrations. His sweetly sung holiday hopes—to be with loved ones or the many times he wishes the listener a merry you-know-what—feel genuine and in the moment. Thus, even the very, very oft-recorded standbys stand up to scrutiny that automatically suspects a copycat. However, it should be noted that what we might call wokefulness comes not as a result of major renovations or innovations. Indeed, much of Christmas Eve feels quite conservative, with a "trust the material"/back-to-basics agenda.

There are 20 titles in all, with three of 17 tracks being song pairings. In 2013, Kevin released an EP that had five songs also included here, plus two cuts that didn't make the cut for this very full package. In addition to the title song he wrote with the late Carol Hall, Alex Rybeck provides some blessedly unfussy arrangements and stately piano playing suitable to the dignity of the pieces about the birth of Jesus and allows no drek for the secular selections. Producer Paul Rolnick participates with some harmony vocals and plays a few instruments in the band.

It's a tasteful recital, avoiding the bombastic and only briefly allowing in a peppy moment. Because the pop picks are low-key and not heavy on the cheery and chirpy, the genre mixing is never jarring, and even a medley that has the reverent "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" giving way to Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "The Christmas Waltz" doesn't feel out of place. (The brisk "Caroling, Caroling" lasts less than a minute.) The dulcet Dozier tones soothe especially effectively in lullabye mode for "Sleep Well, Little Children." On December 17 at The Green Room 42 in Manhattan the vocalist will do his Christmas crooning in person.

REBECCA ANGEL
SANTA BABY

Timeless Groove Records

The 66-year-old novelty listing pricey Christmas gift demands coyly addressing "Santa Baby," first brought to fame and shamelessness seductively by Eartha Kitt, lives on. Latter-day material girls (and the occasional guy) have their fun winking their way through the wish list for jewels and a fur coat, etc. As a single track, the song has been taken on by the fresh-voiced singer Rebecca Angel. (Her surname conveniently is part of the original lyric—"Been an angel all year.") Happily, the young performer makes it more light-hearted and playful, rather than sultry or vixen-like. Things are taken at a comfortable medium pace, with a quintet of musicians that includes her father Dennis Angel on flugelhorn and producer Jason Miles on keyboards. The buttery vocals charm, with minimal shtick, in a manner that may make even Mr. Claus pause to pay attention. However, it might be too much to expect that there is room in the sleigh for a car or yacht. Settle for that "one little thing—a ring"; good things come in small packages, like this one-song CD.




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