Unlike the ice slowly melting beneath Santa’s North Pole digs, yuletide music enjoys a state of permanence. Each year there are talented artists who rummage through the musical chestnuts and craft albums that allow listeners to rediscover the goodwill and cheer in which the worthiest holiday music is grounded.
The Michael Treni Big Band
You Better Watch Out!
The swing-savvy 19-man band in northern New Jersey led by trombonist-arranger-composer Michael Treni (who’s played with Art Blakey, Tony Bennett and many others) approaches the title track and eight more roasted chestnuts with the awe of a 6-year-old opening his presents on the big day. Well, almost. Surprises come with the electric rock guitar outbreak in “The Carol Of The Bells” and with the program’s inclusion of an undervalued Appalachian carol, “I Wonder As I Wander,” featuring Frank Elmo on soprano saxophone. Treni and his talented musicians, always quick to rise above the pale of the routine, even spin some Hanukkah fun, nodding to the “The Dreidel Song” during the klezmer-flavored “Loco Latin Top.”
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The Eyal Vilner Big Band
The Eyal Vilner Big Band extracts spiritual joy from five songs that the saxophone- and clarinet-playing bandleader composed and arranged from blueprints of traditional Jewish holiday music. The Festival of Lights has rarely seen such resplendent jazz: Here, 16 musicians collectively swing from their heels at a recording session held in a landmark old New York synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. With Israeli flute soloist Itai Kriss added, “Sevivon” gets buoyed aloft by sections that reference Brazilian choro and Batucada music. “Oh Hanukkah!” makes for an invigorating return to the big band era of the 1930s; a trio of singers is reminiscent of both the Yiddish Barry Sisters and the gentile Boswell Sisters. There’s nary a dull moment anywhere, and certainly not at the start of “Mi Yemalel” when the astringent shrieks of a shofar horn jolt listeners.
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Holidays Rule, Vol. 2
This collection includes 16 tracks by revelers Paul McCartney, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots (who team up for “Wonderful Christmastime”), Norah Jones (a live rendition of Horace Silver’s “Peace”), Calum Scott (“It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas”), MUNA (interpreting McCartney’s “Pipes Of Peace”) and The Decemberists (covering Big Star’s “Jesus Christ”). Lake Street Dive offers nutty fun with “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas,” Grace Potter sings her original tune “Christmas Moon” and Kandace Springs reworks “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag.”
BUY IT NOW: Capitol Records
Christmas At Steinway Hall
(Steinway & Sons)
“Beautiful” is the apt word to describe Simon Mulligan’s solo piano playing, the two Spirio Steinways he used, the two recording sites in Manhattan and the state-of-the-art sound reproduction of this album. A virtuoso of mood and inventive technique with gifts for melody and harmony, this world-class British musician is on intimate terms with 11 perennial classics and with two refreshing, unusual selections: the Anglican carols “I Saw Three Ships” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” (Both are probably known to him from his stint as a church organist during his youth.) Subtlety may be the general tenor of Mulligan’s interpretations but his cool self-containment never makes for boring listening. He endows even the most shopworn sentiments with a compelling, quiet joy for the holiday season.
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It’s Christmas Time Again
One might expect Charles Billingsley, a well-known figure on the contemporary Christian music scene, to feature church-appropriate carols on his holiday album. But it turns out the San Diego-based singer is just as secure sledding the secular slopes. With his refined, wide-ranging voice, he fronts a swinging 18-piece Basie-ish band on trumpeter Tony Guerrero’s intelligent arrangements of “The Man With The Bag” and three more finger-snapping songs. Away from the jazz musicians, Billingsley spreads that velvety charm of his over old hearth warmers “White Christmas” and “December.” Unfortunately, a choir takes unwelcome grandiosity to “Silent Night” and three more tunes.
Leslie Odom Jr.
Simply Christmas–Deluxe Edition
Only the sourest of Scrooges will fail to appreciate the sweet fluidity of Grammy- and Tony-winner Leslie Odom Jr.’s tenor voice, which at times suggests that of Donny Hathaway. For the new “Deluxe Edition” of his 2016 holiday album, four more yule songs have been added to the original program. Conservative choices, for sure, except for the starkly titled, un-Christmassy “Christmas,” from the Who’s rock opera Tommy. Odom embraces a palatable pop-jazz r&b feeling without leaving the sturdy jazz foundation built by capable accompanists in duet, quartet and other settings. He’s usually believable in his dramatizations of lyrics and in his quiet passion for the holiday. Only one track—“Edelweiss,” which also features singer Nicolette Robinson—gave us too much of a candy-cane sugar high.
13 Days Of Xmas
There’s sly wit behind the voices of the assorted roots mavericks contributing to this 13-track label compilation. Australian-in-Nashville songbird Ruby Boots claims “I Slept Through Christmas,” Chicago’s modern jug band Devil In A Woodpile decides “The Pagans Had It Right” and countrified singer-songwriter Zach Schmidt admits “I’m Drunk Again This Christmas.” Others having their offbeat say about Dec. 25 include the Boston r&b demolitionists Barrence Whitfield & the Savages (“Papa Barrence’s Christmas”), the Australian folk group All Our Exes Live in Texas (“How To Make Gravy”), Chicago-based, Atlanta native Kelly Hogan (“Blue Snowfall”) and Indiana’s Murder By Death band (a stirring, sincere treatment of “O Holy Night.”
(Jazz At The Ballroom)
The San Francisco organization Jazz At The Ballroom, which supports music education in Bay Area schools, has a stake in benevolence. On its album Christmas, nine jazz artists soothe the souls of listeners with interpretations of mainly well-known songs. Singer-bassist Nicki Parrott and singer-pianist Champian Fulton convey warm, reserved demeanors. A sense of playfulness surfaces in Ken Peplowski’s clarinet work on “The Carol Of The Bells,” while vocalist Kathryn Crosby quietly savors the romance of “White Christmas,” the Irving Berlin classic made uber-famous by her late husband. Vocalist-pianist Tony DeSare works his charm and pulls “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” back from treacly sentimentality. Still, all’s not snug and cozy around this hearth: The venerable Freddie Cole has sung better in past Decembers, and Kitty Margolis isn’t exactly convincing.