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XMAS III: Al Jarreau, Tim Green and Trio Chambra, Lorenna McKennitt, Mariah Hortans and Mathias Sandberg

C. Michael Bailey By

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Stuck at home this Christmas? Here are three holiday collections to consider spinning with a fire in the fireplace and eggnog in the mug.

Al Jarreau
Rhino Records

Singer Al Jarreau's Christmas is one of those rare delights that over a 40-year career slip through the cracks, emerging when the artist is fully mature. Jarreau's Christmas vision is a smooth one. Technically smooth jazz, better defined as adult contemporary, Christmas is a perfect snapshot of jazz vocals circa 2008. Had it been made by any other artist (read: "lesser artist") than Jarreau, it would not age as well. But in the hands of Jarreau, it will remain his new testament to the holiday season.

With velvet arrangements and softened digital tone, Christmas updates both the religious and secular canons of holiday music, all tastefully. The most effective pieces are a swirling "Carol of the Bells" and a quasi a cappella "I'll Be Home for Christmas" performed with Take 6. "Gloria in Excelsis" sounds as if arranged by Andrew Craig for the Gospel Christmas Project. Based on the Catholic Mass' "Glory to God in the Highest," this Gloria is given a vibrant shine by Jarreau's band and background vocals.

While not homemade eggnog, Christmas is a rich holiday confection with just enough of a bit to get one's attention without overpowering the listening ambiance. Jarreau is in his perfectly elastic voice, little dimmed by his 40-plus year career. It might even be hoped that Jarreau does not release another holiday recording, making this fine one his Christmas Statement.

Visit Al Jarreau on the Web.

Tim Green and Trio Cambia
Change of Seasons
OA2 Records

Pianist Tim Green has been making compelling jazz noise since the turn of the millennium. Moving from Champaign to Chicago in 2000, Green received a call from local tenor saxophonist Von Freeman to round out his current quartet. Green subsequently released Catching Yourself Gracefully (OA2 Records, 2002) and later Jeannie's Song (OA2 Records, 2005). Green has returned with his Latin side project, Trio Cambia, with a most un-Latin holiday collection, Change of Seasons.

Change of Seasons is a holiday collection like several of its popular contemporaries—Melissa Etheridge's A New Thought for Christmas (Island, 2008) and Mary Chapin Carpenter's Come Darkness, Come Light (Zoe Records, 2008)—focusing less on traditional carols and the more on new additions to the Christmas canon, with newer music proposed as such. Green sports a single traditional tune, "So You Hear What I Hear," played in a breezy, post-modern contemporary fashion. And for the traditional fare, that is about it. Of the newest editions to the Christmas canon, Green provides Thad Jones' sublime "A Child is Born" and the most satisfying cover of Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" recorded to date.

In the music for consideration category, Green spins a keen "Everything's Alright" from Jesus Christ Superstar, a beautifully organic traditional, "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow," and an incredibly elegant and funky (if those two adjectives are not mutually exclusive) take on Rod Argent's "Time for the Seasons" (who would have thunk it!). Where such fearless music making can and often does end badly, particularly with holiday music, Change of Seasons proves itself a superior release and likely the best of this holiday season.

Visit Tim Green on the Web.

Loreena McKennitt
A Midwinter Night's Dream
Quinlan Road

Wispy Celtic overtones and plush instrumentation and orchestration: what is not to like? Singer and keyboards player Lorenna McKennitt has perfected the production of this type of music like Mozart perfected Haydn. A Midwinter Night's Dream fleshes out the previously released EP A Winter Garden: Five Songs for The Season (Quinlan Road, 1995). The songs are all well sung and the instruments well played but lack that very necessary ingredient to be completely successful: something to say.

It is the dusk of new age and this music, which will doubtlessly please its numerous fans, is cold ash after the fire. But having said this, McKinnett does what she does better than anyone else and her "Coventry Carol" and "Good King Wenceslas" are not without their charm. Christmas is the substance of myth and hope and for these roles, it requires the proper soundtrack. The etheral sound of Loreena McKinnett has served this popular purpose well. But the paradigm now must be updated. We are still in search of such a new soundtrack.

Visit Loreena McKennitt on the Web.

Mariah Hortans and Mathias Sandberg Duo
Christmas Jazz
Sandberg Music

Christmas Jazz has a decidedly Scandinavian flavor to it from the authentic Finnish carols to Mariah Hortans' lightly accented English. Hortans, with jazz guitarist Mathias Sandberg, debuts Christmas Jazz, a collection of Scandinavian and English Christmas carols that is far enough off the beaten path to be interesting. This fact alone makes the disc a worthwhile consideration.

What works on this disc? All of the Scandinavian pieces translate well to a light jazz treatment. This includes the hybrids like "Rekiretki (Sleigh Ride)" and "Ser du stjarnan i det bla (When You Wish Upon a Star)." Sandberg's guitar style is spare and inventive. He has a Joe Pass-like ability to provide his harmony and melody while playing a walking bass line. Of the English carols, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" comes off the best, with Sandberg playing some nifty guitar.

What does not work on this disc? A samba "Ave Maria." While many will doubtless find the piece accessible and entertaining, it might have benefited from a more straight-ahead reading. However, this is not to detract from the obvious sincerity of the performance. Overall, the Hortans/Sandberg Duo deserve much more attention. Next time, perhaps, the duo might consider a standards collection sprinkled with original compositions.

Visit Mariah Hortans and Mathias Sandberg Duo on the Web.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Winter Wonderland; Hark The Herald Angels Sing; White Christmas; Interlude: By My Christmas Tree; Carol Of The Bells; O Come All Ye Faithful; Christmas Song, The (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (featuring Take 6); I'll Be Home For Christmas (featuring Take 6); Gloria In Excelsis; Christmas Time Is Here; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; Some Children See Him; The Little Christmas Tree.

Personnel: Al Jarreau: vocals; Chris Walker: vocals, bass guitar, background vocals; Take 6: vocals; Ross Bolton: guitar; Michael O'Neill: guitars, electric guitar, nylon-string guitar; Michael Thompson: acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Ramon Stagnaro: nylon-string guitar; Dan Higgins: flute, wooden flute, pennywhistle, clarinet; Larry Williams: flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone, piano, Fender Rhodes piano, keyboards, synthesizer, bells, sleigh bell; Phil Ayling: oboe; Joe Turano: tenor saxophone, piano, sleigh bell, background vocals; Jerry Hey: flugelhorn; David Witham: Fender Rhodes piano; Larry Goldings; organ; Dave Carpenter: acoustic bass; Mark Simmons: drums; Lenny Castro: tambourine, percussion; Montina Cooper, Alyncia Mack background vocals.

Change of Seasons

Tracks: Do You Hear What I Hear; Everything's Alright; Little Alter Boy; Rise Up Shepherd and Follow; Meditation I: Winter; A Child is Born; Time for the Seasons; Linus and Lucy.

Personnel: Tim Green: bass, piano; Mark Maegdlin: piano, drums; Jake Vinsel: bass, drums.

A Midwinter Night's Dream

Tracks: The Holly & The Ivy; Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle; The Seven Rejoices Of Mary; Noel Nouvelet!; Good King Wenceslas; Coventry Carol; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen [Abdelli Version]; Snow; Breton Carol; Seeds Of Love; Gloucestershire Wassail; Emmanuel; In The Bleak Of Midwinter.

Personnel: Loreena McKennitt: vocals, harp, accordion, piano, keyboards; Abdelli: vocals, mandola; Eddie Upton, Philippa Toulson, Gill Berry, Ellen Robotham, Bob Berry: vocals; Brian Hughes: guitar, guitar synthesizer; Dan Ar Braz: guitar; Simon Edwards: acoustic guitar, marimbula, electric bass; Aidan Brennan: acoustic guitar; Ben Grossman: hurdy-gurdy; Stratis Psaradellis: lute; Hugh Marsh, Waiel Abo Baker Ali: violin; Donald Quan: viola, accordion, tabla; Caroline Lavelle: cello; Robert A. White: whistle, Uilleann pipe, shawm; George Koller: acoustic bass; Hossam Ramzy, Rick Lazar: percussion.

Christmas Jazz

Tracks: It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas; Giv Mig Ej Glans, Ej Guld, Ej Prakt; Kuului Laulu Enkelten; Christmas Time Is Here; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Ave Maria; Bereden Vag Far Herran; Ser Du Stjernan I Det Bla; Rekiretki; Sweet Little Jesus Boy.

Personnel: Mariah Hortans: vocals; Mathias Sandberg Duo.


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