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November 2022: Novel Noël: A Jingle Jazz Celebration


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Lyn Stanley
Novel Noël: A Jingle Jazz Celebration
A. T. Music

Vocalist Lyn Stanley ironically calls her ensemble the Big Band Jazz Maverick when it is she who is the maverick, the evidence being how seamlessly she expands the holiday canon on Novel Noël: A Jingle Jazz Celebration. Over the past decade, Stanley has done two significant things: one, she has methodically and with carefully considered concepts addressed in the Great American Songbook, and, two, she has become a foremost audiophile, sweating all of the small stuff. This added attention and effort pays off in her superb holiday offering. Originally intended for release in 2021, personal and global circumstances changed the project's trajectory. Six of the 13 selections were released under the same title. The entire package was worth the wait. Stanley spikes the eggnog with vintage, 100-proof nostalgia, recalling the swinging 1950s. The opening track, "Zat You Santa Claus" sets the tone for the entire release, with Stanley echoing Pops before launching into the most sophisticated and swinging updates of the song. Eartha Kitt may own "Santa, Baby," but Stanley one-ups that performance with this playful and festive steal from Satchmo. "Little Drummer Boy" is mashed up with "Take Five" and "Mary Did You Know" receives a stark and plaintive reading. Stanley deftly slides into the playlist standards made for the holidays: "Come Dance With Me," "It's Magic," and "The Way You Look Tonight" sound as if they have been in the holiday canon all along; what Stanley shows us is that they have been. It is fitting that this recording is the best the singer has imagined and recorded. This is what Christmas is about.

Key Selection: "The Way You Look Tonight."

Corinne Mamanna
Christmas In The City
Corrine Music

Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter Corinne Mamanna follows her 2020 release, Yes, No, Next (Self Produced) with a thoughtfully cultivated extended-play holiday release In The Christmas City. Opting for a smaller package, Mamanna efficiently derives from five selections a quietly creative and contemporarily reverent celebration of the Christmas season. On four of the five songs, Mamanna, whose beautifully balanced voice empathically melds with pianist Sean Gough, lends a certain fragility to the songs. The ensemble piece, "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen," presented as a light bossa nova, features guitarist Tom Kozic leading a trio. But, front and center is Mamanna's durably well-balanced voice, expertly navigating "Carol Of The Bells" (which deftly incorporates "We Three Kings" to sweeten the festive spirit of the recording). "In The Bleak Midwinter" is reharmonized into a New World pastoral suitable for a movie soundtrack, featuring a haunting cello interlude by Missy Salvadeo. On her lone original composition, Mamanna honors her Philadelphia as "In The Christmas City" with a piano trio and lyrics that recall Christmases of the past. There is much to endorse EPs for taxed attention spans. This is a perfect, easily consumed and enjoyable holiday collection.

Key Selection: "In The Christmas City."

Into The LIght
Signum Records

Into The Light is not Cantus's first Christmas rodeo. The all-male vocal octet has previously released All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Cantus Records, 2008) and Christmas With Cantus (Cantus Records, 2011), as well as, Comfort and Joy, Volumes 1 & 2 (Cantus Records, 2005). Into The Light presents the Christmas canon reimagined and updated by contemporary composers. Six of the selections were composed specifically for Cantus, including Christopher H. Harris's setting of "Silent Night" and Reginald Bowen's take on "I Saw Three Ships." Having previously been assimilated into the seasonal songbook, Joni Mitchell's "River" is given a full-throated treatment. "Angels We Have Heard On High" (arranged by Saunder Choi) and "O Magnum Mysterium" (arranged by E. E. Boykin), the former reharmonized into an anxious acknowledgment, while the latter is an updated setting of the original Latin text, both bearing a brilliant new shine. The invention is the message here: how durable is the seasonal fare when reimagined and presented with comfort and joy.

Key Selection: "Silent Night."

In Winter's House
Signum Records

Cantus's labelmate, Tenebrae, curiously releases a holiday recording similar to Into The Light in spirit, if not direction. In Winter's House embarks on the road less taken, presenting, as album centerpiece, Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols." Surrounding the plushly rendered performance of Britten's masterpiece are the new (Bob Chilcott's serene "The Shepard's Carol" and Joanna Marsh's dissonant "In Winter's House") and the old (the Medieval Franciscan carol "Angelus ad virginem") and the old given a new setting (Owain Park's setting of "O magnum mysterium"). Tenebrae's mixed choir enables both a creamy texture and a chilly environment to be achieved from one song to the next. "A Ceremony of Carols" is presented warmly, at a slight distance. The group's sopranos and altos exhibit well here. Director Nigel Short pulls a tight rein on the ensemble, producing precise and atmospheric sonics. The recording bookends well with the Cantus offering above, giving us a fully realized and modern holiday recording.

Key Selection: "The Shepard's Carol."

Jane Monheit
The Merriest
Club44 Records

Jane Monheit follows up Come What May (Club44 Records, 2021) with the holiday offering, The Merriest. This is the singer's second (third, if counting her appearance with David Benoit on his Believe (Concord Records, 2015)) recording of seasonal music after her well-received The Season (Epic Records, 2005). The Merriest is a sleekly sophisticated collection of nine holiday songs, including the rarely heard 1961 Pearce and Miller title piece and the 1964 Jacob/Guercio/Jacob "That Holiday Feeling" (an alternative to "Baby, It's Cold Outside," sung here with John Pizzarelli) both arranged by Neal Miner. A strolling "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and a march-like "Winter Wonderland" shake up the canon with their inventive arrangements. With a band and strings conducted by arranger Wayne Haun, Monheit's voice is captured as playful and bright. It is obvious the singer enjoyed making this recording.

Key Selection: "That Holiday Feeling."

Louis Armstrong
Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule
Verve Records

It is a quandary that Louis Armstrong recorded and released, "'Zat You Santa Claus?" "Cool Yule," and "Christmas Night in Harlem" while never releasing a single LP dedicated to the seasonal music. Verve Records/UMe is releasing what they call "Armstrong's holiday recordings [issued] as a cohesive body of work, marking [Armstrong's] first-ever official Christmas album." This makes me wonder exactly what 2021's White Christmas (Deluxe Edition) (Verve) was. This small issue does not prevent Verve from releasing Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule and presenting it as Armstrong's first-ever official Christmas album. The recording features nearly the entirety of Armstrong's holiday output: six Decca singles from the 1950s, including "Cool Yule," "Christmas Night in Harlem," and the swinging "'Zat You Santa Claus?." The 11-track album also features duets with two of Pops's favorite vocal partners, Velma Middleton ("Baby, It's Cold Outside") and Ella Fitzgerald ("I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"). The sonics are improved on this reissue.

Key Selection: "Christmas Night in Harlem."

Amanda Shires
For Christmas
Silver Knofe Records

Amanda Shires is redefining the folk/alt-country/Americana genre, or perhaps creating a brand new one in her own image. Her holiday offering, For Christmas, was recorded during the unrelenting summer of 2021. The ambiance of the music swoons from the heat, becoming unstitched and revealing that sometimes the holidays are not all eggnog and mistletoe. These songs are a disturbing alternative to the standard seasonal fare heard this time of year. "Silent Night" is recast in a mood more suitable to Halloween than Christmas; you get the idea. Central to the recording, besides Shires's surgically sharp songwriting, is the piano of Peter Levin, who co-wrote "A Real Tree This Year." The McCrary Sisters, supplying background vocals, add a soulful dollop of strong spirits to Shires's brand of R&B on "Magic Ooooooh" and "Gone For Christmas." Shires sounds more than a little like Dolly Parton, a stylistic element that adds a tincture of hipness alongside the imaginative arrangements. This is not the soundtrack for a typical cocktail and singalong holiday party. It is an inventive, immersive, edgy, and throwing-elbows bold statement from an artist in ascent, intended to be consumed with cocktails and combustibles.

Key Selection: "Silent Night."

Jonathan Karrant
Christmas Wish
Self Produced

Sophisticated and urbane, singer Jonathan Karrant fashions himself as a "Song Stylist." As much a cabaret singer as a jazz singer, Karrant proves that he is equally at home with both on his holiday release, Christmas Wish. His previous recordings have been devoted to jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Karrant favors Nelson Riddle / Billy May orchestration and arrangements updated with a twentieth-century swagger. His swagger is not overt; he has too much style and grace for that. The command and dedication with which Karrant approaches singing are funneled through a filter of sophistication and style that allow him to take artistic chances. The album includes contemporary holiday songs like George Michael's "Last Christmas" and Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" (which was released early as a single). Karrant shares "Grown Up Christmas List" with Diane Schuur in a robust and entertaining duet that reveals a deep empathy shared by the singers. Secular holiday selections dominate the recording with the exception of "I Wonder As I Wander/We Three Kings" and "Silent Night" both performed with a hip reverence and joy. Karrant has a robust and durable voice tailor-made for this brand of singing. He deserves to be more widely known.

Key Selection: "Grown Up Christmas List."

Noël Akchoté
Jingle All The Way
Self Produced

Noël Akchoté's iconoclastic and mercurial acoustic guitar style as evidenced on Jingle All The Way is a grand musical example of the deconstructionism advocated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his sprawling cultural vision. Akchoté likes to play all of the notes, typically at once, forcing the listener to tease out the melody, a curiously delightful exercise with this well-worn music. In some cases, this is near impossible, as in the blank density of "Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy" or the circuitously introduced "Here Comes Santa Claus." In other cases, the guitarist is fragmentary, barely catching the muse to express the fractured melody, as on "Angels We Have Heard On High" and "Ding Dong! Merrily On High!" "Go Tell It On The Mountian" reports a near-agrarian backbeat that would sound just as good as part of the score of Oklahoma!. "Hark! The Herald Angles Sing" soars among its fits and starts, while "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" staggers in its drunkenness from the Christmas office party. Bach's "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring" is simply beautiful, before disintegrating into its separate, subatomic elements. Edgy and thoroughly colored outside the lines, Jingle All The Way is a sly, postmodern smile.

Key Selection: "Go Tell It On The Mountian."

Noël Akchoté
Santa Ina Dubba
Self Produced

"Colored outside the lines?" If Jingle All The Way is the guitarist's well-behaved and festive-forward collection, then, Akchoté's other holiday recording, Santa Ina Dubba, is a brutal beatdown in Trenchtown and still part of a crime scene. This is not merely dub, it is dub heated to boiling and allowed to vaporize, the vapor being the music we hear. Ruthless and jarring Santa Ina Dubba is a head-trip romp through the holidays, Christmas Eve in the Tenderloin, and a tab of Orange Barrel before Midnight Mass. "Silent Night" propels the listener through the door of a mad seaside arcade where the soundtrack ("We Wish You A Merry Christmas") melds into the strange reality being experienced. Akchoté creates an abrasive and anxious dreamscape where "Jingle Bells" sounds like Dick Dale on the gaunga and "Blue Christmas" exhumes the spirit of the King in situ. A confused "O Holy Night" is mistaken for "Silent Night," while "O Tannenbaum" is a damaged Tiger Tank shooting fulminating mercury at an acid alt-country "Go Tell It On The Mountain." You get the idea: this is exciting, irreverent, tradition-smashing music to be celebrated with the pious respect of the season. Bravo! Bravo!

Key Selection: "Jingle Bells."

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