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Album Review

Norah Jones: I Dream of Christmas

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Norah Jones: I Dream of Christmas
With Tony Bennett's retirement, the mantle of legitimate straight-ahead pop crooners is now firmly in the hands of subsequent generations: Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall and Norah Jones. Not pure jazz singers, of which there are numerous stellar examples, these singers are more in the Bennett-Sinatra-Fitzgerald mold, bringing a jazz sensibility to pop music.

It is in the area of seasonal Christmas music that the crooners have had perhaps their greatest influence. From Andy Williams to Connie Stevens, Nat King Cole to Perry Como, Peggy Lee to Al Jarreau, some of the most popular Christmas albums have come from artists whose background and training has provided them the ability to meld the elegance of jazz to a heartfelt holiday vibe.

Add Norah Jones to that roster, with her first all-Christmas album.

While she contributes six new originals here, it's likely that her interpretations of the standards will determine the sales and reception of this album.

"White Christmas" has been covered hundreds of times, by everyone from Otis Redding to Mahalia Jackson. Few of them have escaped the shadow of Bing Crosby's debut from the 1942 film "Holiday Inn." Jones' take is a refreshingly bright reinvention—it's as if Crosby's definitive version never even existed. In her hands, it's jaunty, up-tempo, and swings like crazy.

She then takes "Blue Christmas" and slows it down to a New Orleans-style dirge. Her vocals float just a touch behind the beat on her piano, and she keeps it fairly mellow—wisely and completely avoiding any comparisons to Elvis Presley's iconic reading.

Vince Guaraldi's plaintive "Christmas Time Is Here" is no less sentimental in Jones' hands, but is performed a touch lighter. Her thin yet expressive voice lends itself to the romanticized lyrics in a manner that conveys the tugging of heartstrings without veering into the maudlin.

"Run Rudolph Run," a hard-charging rocker Chuck Berry made his own, becomes a slick bit of dinner-club jazz here. The loping beat by drummer Brian Blade and percussionist Leon Michels maintains the rock 'n' roll feel of the original, albeit at about half the pace.

But by far the most original of the covers is her inside-out arrangement of "Christmas Don't Be Late"—better known as "The Chipmunk Song." Played straight with not a hint of the self-referential novelty of the original, Jones' interpretation uses a horn section to provide a bit of Crescent City feel. It has a vague familiarity to it—where you're pretty sure you've heard it before, but can't quite place it.

As for the originals, the albums kicks off with "Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)." It has an immediately accessible melodic theme with a nice hook. It's absolutely lovely, but doesn't sound like a Christmas song somehow. But that could also just be the newness of it—much of what "sounds" like Christmas only does so due to longstanding familiarity.

The same holds true for "Christmas Glow," "It's Only Christmas Once A Year" and "You're Not Alone." All are strong songs, definitively Norah Jones-ish. None, however, seem to invoke the smells of pine or nutmeg.

"A Holiday With You" is more evocatively seasonal—maybe it's just the subdued vocal and stripped-down instrumentation, but it seems to work better as a Christmas song than the above titles.

But on "Christmas Time!" Jones hits her groove as composer—the opening chord changes on piano, coupled to her expressive vocals, immediately stamp this as a Christmas song. It seems the most likely of the half-dozen originals to become a perennial chestnut.

In the tradition of many Christmas albums, this one closes out with a nod to New Year's—the end of the holiday season in the United States. Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" is the most straight-ahead cover on this album, with Jones allowing the song's gorgeous melody to shine through—the one distinctive touch being the pedal steel guitar of Russ Pahl adding a shimmer behind her vocals.

This is a lovely addition to the Christmas canon, with some wonderfully creative takes on old favorites coupled to some inspired new seasonal compositions.

Track Listing

Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones); Christmas Don't Be Late; Christmas Glow; White Christmas; Christmas Time!; Blue Christmas; It's Only Christmas Once A Year; You're Not Alone; Winter Wonderland; A Holiday With You; Run Run Rudolph; Christmas Time Is Here; What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

Personnel

Norah Jones: piano; Brian Blade: drums; Leon Michels : percussion; Tony Scherr: bass; Nick Movshon: bass, electric; Dave Guy: trumpet; Marika Hughes: cello; Russ Pahl: guitar; Raymond Mason: trombone.

Album information

Title: I Dream of Christmas | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Blue Note


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