This is one of those albums that's not really ideal for playing while opening gifts Christmas morningin a very good sense.
Christmas Time Is Here is an above-average and sometimes spectacular album that doesn't deserve to compete with screaming kids and tearing paper for the listener's ear. Reeves is on a tear lately with three straight Grammy-winning albums, and this release will undoubtedly win a place on the long-term holiday playlists of fans and new listeners. But just a shade too much restraint keeps it from being an all-time classic.
It's not that the album has a restrained feel. On the contrary, enough of the familiar songs feature such a tastefully intense modern jazz treatment that a handful of merely ordinary interpretations become a disappointment of lost potential.
Innovation that stands the test of time can be a tough balance on a holiday album, but Reeves nails it dead-center on the opening "Little Drummer Boy" and "Carol Of The Bells." She has a rich voice and has developed an exceptional sense of staying tastefully melodic while constantly exploring her substantial range. Drummer Greg Hutchison matches her playful intensity throughout "Little Drummer Boy" with a reggae/modern jazz beat that avoids the too-common habit of percussionists using the song as a personal opportunity to overindulge. Her rapid-fire swing version of "Carol Of The Bells" is shaken to the traditional song's corenot even a hint of that famous opening piano riffbut so well-performed even devotees normally offended by such liberties (i.e. me) can't help but be appreciative.
Thus it's a disappointment when there's nary a hint of adventure on the dreamy "Christmas Time Is Here" and Latin-tinged "This Time Of The Year." Both are solid and soothing on their own and would fit nicely in the background during the aforementioned gift-giving. But Reeves, having all but demanded the listener's attention with her first two songs, drops off a bit abruptly here.
The somewhat awkward cadence continues throughout the album, with the slow-burning heat of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and flat-out improvisational fire by Reeves and saxophonist Steve Wilson on "A Child Is Born" being doused by a mall-mood treatment of "The Christmas Song."
Reeves may see her Grammy streak end with this album, but there's more than enough material to remind listeners why she won the awards. She avoids the common pitfall of presenting material so modern it quickly becomes unfashionable, but takes things far enough that it's probably not a good choice for hard-core traditionalists. Still, truly intriguing holiday albums are a rarity, and this will almost certainly rank among the best such releases this year.
Personnel: Dianne Reeves, vocals; Peter Martin, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchison, drums; Romero
Lubambo, guitar; Steve Wilson, saxophone; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Munyungo Jackson, percussion