Yuletide Music Roundup


Tony DeSare

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Once again it’s time to deck the halls with boughs of holly. That means it’s also time for DownBeat’s appraisals of albums that feature the special sounds of the season. New arrangements and variations of traditional favorites dominate, of course, but this year’s crop offers a dusting of original songs as well. Below are 19 great stocking stuffers. —Frank-John Hadley

Tony DeSare Christmas

Tony DeSare
Christmas Home
(AJD Entertainment)

From the opening bars of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to the close of “Silent Night,” singer and pianist Tony DeSare’s Christmas Home conveys the joy this talented artist feels for the season. His rich, full voice walks a fine line between heartfelt drama and bathos, but, we’re glad to say, it lands on the right side. DeSare is supported by a small orchestra that includes violins, viola, cello, harp, French horn and more. Think of him as a noble progenitor of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and other crooners. DeSare is a gifted pianist, getting just the right combination of delight and skillful touch on a solo version of “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy.” The two bonus tracks are hardly throwaways. The wickedly clever “18 Versions Of Jingle Bells” is a seven-minute concert performance in which DeSare mimics assorted singers and musical styles. His vocals on the captivating original tune “Christmas For You And Me” showcase an ease of delivery while communicating how deeply he cares about New York during the Christmas season. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Tony DeSare Website

Gallagher Christmas

Rick Gallagher
Christmas Tidings
(RiDGeTONE Music)

Many holiday favorites—both sacred and secular—are interpreted here by Pittsburgh pianist Rick Gallagher, who leads a quartet through 16 songs. His accompanists are fellow Burghers Paul Thompson (bass), Thomas Wendt (drums) and George Jones (percussion). Gallagher displays a keen melodic sense and a touch that produces a clear, bell-like sound, which is perfect for this project. Gallagher wrote all the arrangements, most of which are enchanting. The group demonstrates some nice blues feeling on “Good King Wenceslas,” swings on an uptempo arrangement of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and offers subtle ragtime, blues and boogie on “Jingle Bells.” The highlight is a soulful interpretation of “Silent Night,” featuring Gallagher at the low end of the keyboard and Thompson’s superb arco solo. However, the pop classic “White Christmas” misses the mark and sounds dreary. Additionally, Gallagher contributed the original song “Rainflakes,” played in high tinkling notes with a melody that will appeal to all ages. Overall, this album is mostly mellow, so even a rock oldies fan would enjoy it. —Bob Protzman

BUY IT NOW: Rick Gallagher Website

Laurence Juber

The Laurence Juber Trio
Holidays & Hollynights
(Hologram 1601)

One world-class guitarist decking the halls with composure and decorum this year is Laurence Juber, a former member of Paul McCartney’s band Wings. The Laurence Juber Trio’s Holidays & Hollynights may be pulled down a bit by threadbare material, but Juber scores high marks for the clarion precision of his playing and for his tasteful arrangements. The acoustic bass and drums are as inconspicuous as the buttons on Santa’s trousers. The bonus track “The Christmas Song,” featuring Juber alone with his Martin, ends the album on a note of quiet gaiety. This London native, who’s now based in California, also offers exquisite solo guitar work on his 1997 album Winter Guitar. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Laurence Juber Website

NOLA Players

The NOLA Players
Christmastime in New Orleans

Hoist a tankard of wassail punch in salute to music director-arranger-pianist Mike Esneault and the 16 members of his big band. Using acoustic-friendly Saenger Theatre as a recording studio, they’ve made one of the swingingest Santa-sponsored albums in recent memory. The Players knock the dust off of old keepsakes like “Joy To The World,” “Deck The Halls” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” all sporting arrangements that are models of informed clarity. Always projecting enthusiasm and expert musicianship, this Crescent City juggernaut—whose ranks include vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, trumpeter Bobby Campo and reedist Tony Dagradi—also shines when achieving a French Quarter parade vibe on “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” Esneault pares the orchestra down to an octet featuring flutist Rex Gregory to perform a lovely adaptation of the oft-overlooked English carol “The Holly And The Ivy,” and he leads a saxophone-piano-bass-drums combo through an r&b-syncopated version of “Away In A Manger.” Most stirring of all (and definitely too brief at 1:17), “Silent Night” features the empathic duo of Esneault on piano and Dagradi on tenor saxophone. (There is also a DVD version of this release.) —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: iTunes

Charles Xavier

Charles Xavier
Happy Note Records Sampler 2016
(Happy Note Records)

Throughout his long career in San Francisco, eclectic vibraphonist Charles “The Xman” Xavier has been adventurous, moving from his stylistic base in jazz into unusual pop, ambient rock, electronic music and, yes, a type of Christmas music. Happy Note Records Sampler 2016 chronicles his interesting journey with 15 tracks plucked from a half-dozen albums he’s released over the years. Holiday songs “Christmas Day Is Almost Here,” an original with plenty of heart, and “Silent Night” are sparkly lattices of acoustic and electronic sounds, as Xavier changes the mood from reverie to wonderment. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Charles Xavier Store

Xavier Christmas

Charles Xavier
Xmas Vibe
(Happy Note Records)

Xavier’s album Xmas Vibe shows his appreciation for the melodic sustenance of carols and holiday odds and ends. He specializes in mind-massaging dreamscapes made of sampled marimbas and xylophones, electronic keyboards, vibraphone, acoustic piano, bass, percussion and occasionally the relaxed vocals of Tina Marie Murray. Originally a Jack DeJohnette-instructed drummer, The Xman’s music scintillates like Christmas lights on a dozen thoughtfully chosen Xmas songs. The program includes the Burl Ives-identified “Holly Jolly Christmas,” Victor Herbert’s operetta song “Toyland” and John Lennon’s ageless “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Charles Xavier Store

Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel
Christmas Memories
(CGP Sounds)

Australian fingerstyle guitarist Tommy Emmanuel gracefully spreads mellow holiday cheer on Christmas Memories. His immaculate technique is equally matched by his lyricism and warmth. But Emmanuel isn’t the only excellent guitarist at his orderly Xmas party: Nashville pros Pat Bergeson and John Knowles know their way around the fretboard without grandstanding. The excellent singer Annie Sellick displays confidence in her ability to entertain. Seldom do these players surrender to sentimentality. As songwriters, Emmanuel is responsible for the instrumental title track, and Sellick and Bergeson offer “Let’s Make A Christmas Memory”—both pleasant jaunts. Elsewhere, Bergeson introduces blues harmonica to “Amazing Grace.” Despite the moss sticking to “White Christmas” and a few other safe picks, this program flows nicely. Also in Santa’s big bag: Emmanuel’s album All I Want For Christmas, first delivered in 2011. —Frank-John Hadley

Joyful Jazz

Various Artists
Joyful Jazz!—Christmas With Verve! Vol. 1: The Vocalists!

Two volumes of Joyful Jazz!—Christmas With Verve! compile gems from label’s extensive vault. The Vocalists! begins with Mel Tormé hooking his prize ornament “The Christmas Song” onto the company tree. Also decorating, with stellar renditions of seasonal songs, are herald angels Louis Armstrong (with his zany “’Zat You, Santa Claus?”), Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn and Betty Carter. Also in on the fun are modern upstarts Patti Austin, Diane Schuur, Diana Krall and Norah Jones, the latter showing a lapse in taste by teaming up with Willie Nelson for a corny version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Trumpet soloists, here and there, fare well stringing the multicolored lights. But instances of extreme sentimentality are like lumps of coal. —Frank-John Hadley

Joy of Jazz Vol. 2

Various Artists
Joyful Jazz!—Christmas With Verve! Vol. 2: The Instrumentals!

Verve’s compilation The Instrumentals! calls on John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Smith, Elaine Elias, the team of Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride and other luminaries—all recorded between 1957 and 1996—to promote messages of hope and peace. The highlight? It’s hard to beat Trane’s perpetually uplifting adaptation of the British folk song “Greensleeves” (aka “What Child Is This?”). Holiday jeer? Rotten chestnuts by smooth operators, such as saxophonist Nelson Rangell’s “Let It Snow,” evoking GRP sounds from the ’90s. Rarity? The previously unreleased “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” by the Oscar Peterson Quartet with Buddy Bregman’s orchestra. —Frank-John Hadley

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