Various Artists: The Very Best of Christmas (2009)
Christmas albums are the Valentine's Day and Halloween cards of the recording industry: a simple and short-term product that is featured for public consumption for a limited time and then put away until next year. There's no rule that says you can't listen to and enjoy an album of holiday-themed music whenever the urge strikes. It just tends to provoke a double take from passersby and motorists when you pull up to the red light blasting "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" during the dog days of summer.
The Very Best of Christmas, by various artists from the Trippin' n' Rhythm Records roster of smooth jazz artists, could be the holiday album that justifies repeated listening long after Santa Claus is out of town. Accomplished pros such as Gregg Karukas and Paul Hardcastle are joined in the merrymaking music along with up-and-comers Tim Bowman, U-Nam, Jaared, Cindy Bradley and Oli Silk.
Most holiday albums follow a familiar blueprint: take a bunch of well-known Christmas chestnuts like "The Christmas Song," don't deviate too far from the standard arrangement, play things pretty straight and play the music competently, if without inspiration, wrap it up in a bow and serve it up to the music-buying public as an obligatory nod to the season.
These guys didn't read the blueprint. Karukas, an underrated talent on keyboards, delivers a moody "Greensleeves" and a spot-on "The Christmas Song" that would sound pretty good on a cold morning with a cup of hot chocolate as the kids tear through the wrapping paper. Guitarists Bowman and U-Nam contrast their differing approaches to guitar with Bowman's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a cool groove, and U-Nam spraying notes like a machine gun as he blasts through Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."
Jaared provides an airy and ethereal solo on the EWI (electronic wind instrument) on "Christmas Time is Here" and switches to saxophone on "Winter Wonderland" and "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," where he's joined in the jamming with Karukas, Silk and U-Nam.
Cindy Bradley's flugelhorn is aptly supported by Michael Broening on keyboards on an appropriately mellow "Do You Hear What I Hear," and Silk tinkles the 88s on a duet with Gary Honor's flute on a bopping "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." The only lump of coal in the stocking is Hardcastle's non-original, "Come Home for Christmas," which gets laid-back, confused with lethargic.
Rare is the holiday album that deserves repeated plays long after the Christmas tree has been hauled outside and the first crummy gift gets returned, but The Very Best of Christmas is the exception to the rule. Yes Virginia, it's really that good.
Track Listing: Greensleeves; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Christmas Time Is Here; Santa Claus Is Coming to Town; Do You Hear What I Hear; Coming Home for Christmas; This Christmas; The Christmas Song; The Most Wonderful Time of the Year; Winter Wonderland.
Personnel: Gregg Karukas: keyboards, drum and bass programming (1, 8), Rhodes and organ (9); Michael O' Neill: guitars (1); Pat Kelley: guitars (8); Tim Bowman: guitars (2); Michael Broening: keyboards and programming (2, 5); Jaared: Electric wind instrument (3), tenor saxophone (9); alto saxophone and sax solo (10); Gary Grainger; bass and bass solo (3, 10); Greg Grainger: drums (3, 10); Dan Reynolds: piano, keyboards and keyboard solo (3, 10); Eli Staples: strings, keyboards (3); Robert "WaWa" LeGrand: guitar (3, 10); Oli Silk; keyboards, programming (4), synth solo (9); Gary Honor: flute (4); Cindy Bradley: flugelhorn (5); Thano Sahnas: guitar (5); Paul Hardcastle: keyboards, programming (6); Beki Biggins: vocals (6); Maxine Hardcastle: backing vocals (6); Paul Hardcastle Jr.: saxophone (6); U-Nam: guitars, bass, keyboards and editing (7, 9); Franck Sitbon: Fender Rhodes, B3 organ, background vocals (7); Michael White: drums (7); Denis Benarrosh: percussion.