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Holiday Roundup 2017


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Here are this year's holiday albums I received for review. They are an exceptionally varied lot, ranging from contemporary pop to mainstream jazz—there's even one big band Hanukkah album! I wanted to make special mention of an exceptionally beautiful album that I reviewed late last year, after I had published the 2016 Roundup: Olga Konkova & Jens Thoresen: December Songs. An extraordinary guitar/piano duo performance, highly recommended.

Various Artists
Holidays Rule Volume 2
Capitol Records

The collection begins with Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," performed a cappella by McCartney, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots on The Tonight Show in December, 2016. Fortunately it's mostly uphill from there. Along with chestnuts like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (Barns Courtney featuring Lennon Stella), Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" (Albin Lee Meldau) and "It's Beginning To Look Like Christmas" (aka "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas") (Calum Scott), there are some unexpected choices. Vocalist/pianist Norah Jones contributes a live acoustic trio version of a song I would love to see become a holiday standard, Horace Silver's "Peace;" Grace Potter offers a new song called "Christmas Moon;" Rosanne Cash covers Louis Jordan's swinging "May Ev'ry Day Be Christmas;" The Decemberists cover Big Star's "Jesus Christ;" Lake Street Dive does a version of the novelty song "I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas;" and the New York female mariachi band Mariachi Flor de Toloache do a spirited version of Nancy Wilson's "That's What I Want For Christmas."

Chris Pasin and friends
Baby It's Cold Outside
Planet Arts Records

Trumpet/flugelhorn player Chris Pasin presents a wide range of jazz treatments of holiday favorites. As the title implies many are popular standards, with a few traditional carols for variety. There are two core bands: one with pianist Armen Donelian, bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Jeff Siegel; the other with guitarist Peter Einhorn, bassist Rich Syracuse and Siegel on drums. Vocalist (and Producer) Patricia Dalton Fennell graces a few tracks. The arrangements have just enough creative touches to take them out of the ordinary without departing too much from the comforting familiarity of holiday music. "We Three Kings of Orient Are" is built on a McCoy Tyner-like vamp from pianist Donelian; "Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel" is presented as a gentle trumpet/piano duet. Guitarist Einhorn gives "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" a bluesy tinge, while "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" has a Latin feel. Vocalist Dalton Fennell gets the spotlight on "Greensleeves," a duet with piano (Pasin lays out). Even the cliched seductive play of the title tune is given a sly twist, as Pasin (on vocals) plays the part of the one being convinced to stay. An altogether enjoyable program, with a freshness rarely achieved in holiday albums.

Jason Paul Curtis
These Christmas Days
Self Produced

Singer/songwriter Jason Paul Curtis really loves the Christmas season. His eight original songs (bracketed by "(Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man With the Bag" and "The Way You Look Tonight") are celebrations of family holidays. "Christmas Breakfast" is illustrated by the pancakes that adorn the CD label. "December Again" documents his daughter Isabella growing up, year by year—until she makes her vocal entry after the song hits the teenage years. She guests again on "I Want Snow," the album's alternative to "White Christmas." "Came Winter" opens with a melody so reminiscent of "Cry Me a River" that I had to check the credits. But like Curtis's vocals it is warm and inviting, as are the small group Swinglab and the big band Swing Shift that provide the accompaniment. "The Way You Look Tonight" ends the set with a languid Bossa Nova arrangement, which somehow seems appropriate to this set of mostly new songs on traditional Christmas themes. Even without any changes to the lyrics, it feels like Christmas Eve.

The U.S. Army Blues
Swinging in the Holidays
Self Produced

Exactly what the title says: swinging versions of a wide variety of holiday favorites. Traditional tunes ("Sleigh Ride," "Jingle Bells," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"); carols ("Oh Holy Night," "Silent Night"); and modern classics ("Christmas Time is Here," "Blue Christmas") are presented along with unusual selections like "Five Sided Dreidel" and "My Favorite Things" (which I don't think of as a holiday song, but it fits in well). Vocalist Christal Rheams is especially notable on the swinging version of "Oh Holy Night" and a bluesy waltz version of "Silent Night" (which also features pianist Tony Nalker). "Five Sided Dreidel" employs Antonio Orta's soprano saxophone in place of the usual clarinet, and an overdriven guitar solo from Michael Kramer. The traditional jazz subgroup "Swamp Romp" plays two selections: "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (lustily sung by the whole group as "on the bayou for Christmas") and "Christmas in New Orleans." "Big Bad Drummin' Dude" (aka "Little Drummer Boy") of course features the titular dude, drummer Steve Fidyk. I give the band bonus points for playing "Santa Baby" as an instrumental (and for the "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" quote at the beginning). How about doing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that way next time?

Eyal Vilner Big Band
Self Produced

Israeli wind player/composer/arranger Eyal Vilner leads his big band in New York. After two albums of new arrangements of jazz standards and original compositions this EP presents joyous arrangements of traditional Hanukkah songs. The source material alone would make this stand out from more conventional holiday releases. But Vilner's arrangements go into unexpected areas as well. "Prelude" opens the album with a brass chorale, a formal beginning to a generally swinging program. "Sevivon" (The Dreidel Song) inspired Vilner to incorporate Brazilian elements, including samba, Choro and Batucada music. The two traditions combine in a surprisingly natural way. "Oh Hanukkah!" takes things back into the roaring 20s, its swing augmented by a vocal trio reminiscent of the Boswell Sisters. "Mi Yemalel" (Who Can Retell?) is a colorful program piece telling the story of a great war from 200 BC. Vilner's shofar call (a horn dating back to biblical times) sets up the longest piece here, which brings together Middle Eastern rhythms, an Ethiopian scale, swing and blues. The digital bonus track "These Candles" takes the holiday's traditional song into pure swing territory, a jubilant ending to the program.

Andromeda Turre
Christmas Live!
Self Produced

Vocalist Andromeda Turre brings her sweet, high voice to two Christmas tunes. So short it would have to be described as a mini-EP or a digital single, it's offered as a free download on her website. Her original song "Christmas in the Air" is a fine take on the traditional holiday theme, and she does a good version of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here" from the "A Charlie Brown Christmas" TV special. Accompanied by a trio of pianist Taber Gable (who plays a couple of effective short solos), bassist Endea Owens, and brother Orion Turre on drums.




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