Yuletide Music Roundup


Tony DeSare

(Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling
The Beautiful Day—Kurt Elling Sings Christmas

Kurt Elling, in an act of benevolence, gives listeners almost an hour of warm-hearted, classy and superior music that surely will be savored for years to come. Impeccably controlling the resonance of his supple baritone, the singer combines an appreciation of melody with his gift for storytelling on faith-based and non-religious Christmas songs that are far from predictable. Elling delves into the lyrics of two songs that originated with Leslie Bricusse’s score for the little-known 1970 British film Scrooge: “Sing A Christmas Carol” and “Christmas Children” suggest all manner of wintry wonderment. Without pretense, he taps the radiant humanity in “Star Of Wonder,” a song often identified with pop’s offbeat siblings The Roches. Also, he sings assuredly and pleasingly in examinations of choice songs by the late, great jazz carol composer Alfred Burt (“Some Children See Him”) and by unorthodox jazz-friendly poet-writer Kenneth Patchen (“The Snow Is Deep On The Ground”). Elling’s command of material extends to “Little Drummer Boy”—where he scats with aplomb as drummer Kendrick Scott generates a New Orleans street parade vibe—and to Donny Hathaway’s ever-charming “This Christmas.” On “The Michigan Farm,” the native Midwesterner matches his lyrics to music by classical composer Edvard Griegf for a musical depiction of nature at snowy Christmastime. But pop-folk singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” is definitely a misstep. Elling must be proud of how his young daughter Luiza sings Bricusse’s “The Beautiful Day” so prettily without sounding unctuous. —Frank-John Hadley

The Ventures

The Ventures
The Ventures’ Christmas Album
(Real Gone Music)

Rejoice and believe the record company hype (for once). The Ventures’ 1965 album certainly does live up to the claim of it being “the greatest instrumental rock ’n’ roll Xmas album ever made.” Reissued before but only now showcasing the monaural and stereo mixes on CD, this twanging guitar-driven fest at Santa’s Village has excellent lead guitarist Nokie Edwards and three fellow revelers quirkily and brilliantly grafting riffs from hits of the day onto Christmastime staples. The Searchers’ “When You Walk In The Room” pairs with “Blue Christmas,” Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs’ “Woolly Bully” teams up with “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” and the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” meets “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The reverb-drenched group’s sense of merry invention even extends to fusing their 1960 hit “Walk, Don’t Run” to “Sleigh Ride.” “Snow Flakes,” with its aural snow crystals reflecting sunshine, is really “Greensleeves.” The one original tune, rhythm guitarist Dick Wilson’s “Scrooge” (enhanced by a penny whistle and demented laughter), is just as entertaining as the rest. Many years after The Ventures’ Christmas Album debuted, another edition of the band made another holiday effort, Christmas Joy (Varèse Sarabande, 2002), but it paled next to this stone classic. —Frank-John Hadley

Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys Of Alabama
Go Tell It On The Mountain
One of the truly amazing stories in American roots music is the rise of this gospel singing group, who gradually moved from a niche market of African American churchgoers to the secular global stage. Despite making dozens of records since their start in 1948, the Blind Boys—founders Jimmy Carter, Clarence Fountain and George Scott (the last two now deceased)—only got around to making a Christmas album in 2003. The disc, now reissued, won a Grammy in the category Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. The program features the Boys with A-list sidemen like organ player John Medeski and string bassist Danny Thompson. Submitting a program of old standbys and lesser-known carols, the Boys sing about the blessed season with every fiber of their being. Jimmy Carter, in particular, emanates an ecstatic sort of grace in service to his Lord. The Blind Boys handle “Last Month Of The Year” and “Silent Night” all by themselves but turn to guests to help put across the sacred messages of most of the other carols. Those sharing their joy in the sanctity of the Christmas season include Mavis Staples (“Born In Bethlehem”), Solomon Burke (“I Pray On Christmas”), Aaron Neville (“Joy To The World”) and Tom Waits (the title track). Elsewhere, so-so cheer is furnished by Les McCann, Chrissie Hynde and Shelby Lynne. The bonus tracks—an a cappella “My Lord, What A Morning” and concert band performances of “Amazing Grace” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain”—are great gifts. —Frank-John Hadley

Latin Christmas

Various Artists
Latin Christmas

One noteworthy detail here is the absence of the word jazz in the album title. This collection offers plenty of clave and other rhythms from the world of Latin music, as well as some soft, lovely voices that are occasionally reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto. The talented vocalists include Erica Gonzaba (“Blanca Navidad”/“White Christmas”), Susie Arioli (“La Peregrinación”) and Norwegian Hanne Tveter, who delivers a Spanish-language version of “Silent Night.” There is some fine instrumentation, too, including from the U.S.-based band Roman Street, which performs a lively “Greensleeves.” Conguero Poncho Sanchez’s band offers a strong Latin jazz version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with the leader delivering a hot solo. Nossa Bossa Nova’s version of “Joy To The World” features excellent flute work, and trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez shines on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” as does Colombian guitarist Juan Carlos Quintéro on “Jingle Bells” and Welsh guitarist Dave Stephens on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” In sum, this is a highly satisfying album. —Bob Protzman

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On Sale Now
August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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