Yuletide Music Roundup 2018


Gospel star CeCe Winans’ new holiday album is titled Something’s Happening!

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Austin City Limits)

Of the thousands of holiday albums that have hitched rides on Santa’s sleigh, just a couple are embedded in our cultural landscape. Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas and Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite are two of these long-playing monuments of goodwill. Others came from Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, James Brown and Vince Guaraldi.

Down a ways from those rarefied heights are loads of memorable holiday records by mere mortals. Evergreen entries include Dave McKenna’s swinging solo piano outing Christmas Party (Concord) and Kenny Burrell’s good ol’ Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas (Verve).

Raise a glass to toast Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues (Bullseye). Dig Hipsters’ Holiday: Vocal Jazz & R&B Classics (Rhino), featuring revelers like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Don’t miss The Klezmer Conservatory Band’s timeless Oy Chanukah! (Rounder).

Also competing for listeners’ attention in 2018 is a stream of new albums and reissues, which are reviewed below.

Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers
All I Got For Christmas Is
The Blues
(Pretty Good For A Girl)

Mindi Abair, tapping into the urgency of holiday festivities, uses her light, cool voice as a foil to the r&b firepower of her saxophone and the blues-rock muscularity of the Boneshakers band (featuring guitarist Randy Jacobs). The band threatens to overwhelm Abair’s compositions “I Can’t Wait For Christmas” and “All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues” with the same live-wire emotional effect that breathes new life into Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song“ and the Chuck Berry-identified “Run Run Rudolph.” In a different mode than the one she shares in concerts with pop-jazz’s Dave Koz and Jonathan Butler, the Grammy-nominated Abair extends the aesthetic from the shouting, dirtied-up school of saxophone bar walkers. She’s certainly earned a few minutes of winning sentimentality on her original ballad “The Best Part Of Christmas.”

BUY IT NOW: Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers

Joey Alexander
A Joey Alexander Christmas


Now 15, the still evolving prodigy Joey Alexander enjoys wide acceptance as one of the premier pianists in jazz. He now has five releases, he’s made videos and TV appearances, played at the White House, performed well in the DownBeat Readers Poll and earned three Grammy nominations. Given Alexander’s Christian faith, he has the incentive to make a Yule EP of thoughtfulness and substance. As expected, the four tracks here are considerably satisfying: “My Favorite Things” (a duet with bassist Larry Grenadier, taken from Alexander’s first album and now remastered); the carol “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the hymn “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” (both new trio recordings, with Alexander joined by Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland); and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” (a previously unreleased solo track from the sessions for 2017 album Countdown). True to form, Alexander sounds the notes of depth, maturity, warm feeling, poignant subtlety and high pedigree imagination.

BUY IT NOW: Joey Alexander

Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers
The Christmas Swing

(VizzTone/Juicy Juju)

Singer and guitarist Erin Harpe spans the gap between historic blues and rockabilly, satisfying a roots music fan’s thirst for a sound that is both comforting and edgy. Not content to put up with even a nanosecond of complacency, she and The Delta Swingers inject skewed fun into originals—including the title track, a jingle-bells version of their old tune “The Delta Twist”—and tinsel-strung renditions of gems written or popularized by Lead Belly (“Christmas Is A-Comin’”), Bessie Smith (“At The Christmas Ball”), Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Merry Christmas”) and Chuck Berry (the evergreen “Run Run Rudolph”). Too many visits to the wassail bowl: “Drink And Get Drunk,” a kazoo-driven revival of a Bo Carter country-blues number.

BUY IT NOW: Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers

Martina McBride
It’s The Holiday Season

(BBR Music Group)

Country music star Martina McBride continues with her instinctive understanding of the joy of Christmas music on her second Nöel album. While 1998’s White Christmas included sacred material, such as “O Holy Night,” this time she focuses on secular favorites. She also stifles her country instincts so she can respond to the stimulus of a swinging Basie-ish big band that would have been suitable decades ago for an Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra session. McBride is gifted with a beautiful voice, and there’s an ease of delivery to her vocal style. She has a genuine feel for material like “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “Home For The Holidays.” This album was one of the final projects for the Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer/arranger Patrick Williams, who passed away July 25. Here, Williams’ smart arrangements are a great fit for the talented jazz musicians, string section and choir. Only one track, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” has the strings and vocalists compromising the cheerfulness with gooey sentiment.

BUY IT NOW: Martina McBride

Robyn Spangler
Christmas Is …
(o.p. records)

Los Angeles-based Robyn Spangler maintains a thriving multifaceted career. She’s a film, stage and TV actor as well as a singer whose primary allegiances are to musical cabaret and theatrical productions. Offering a polished delivery and communicating with clarity, she seems as comfortable crooning Yuletide classics as she is singing “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” in a supper club or paying homage in concert to the late Billy Barnes (aka “The Revue Master of Hollywood”). Spangler’s first holiday album features pleasant renditions of unsurprising tunes—such as “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” (sung as a duet with actor-vocalist Don Most) and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—but her heart seems truer when she sizes up less worn material. Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss” glow with fresh bonhomie; contemporary songwriter Kevin Fisher’s “Christmas Is” and Canadian Steven Hardy’s “I’m Still Waiting For Christmas” are also quite appealing. Spangler teams with fine producer-arranger-keyboardist Todd Schroeder, who’s as averse to gaudiness and insincerity as the chanteuse is. Alas, jazz saxophonist Robert Kyle is underutilized, appearing on just two of the 10 tracks.

BUY IT NOW: Robyn Spangler

Mars Williams
An Ayler Xmas, Volume 2

Soul What/ESP-Disk)

It wouldn’t be a jazz Christmas without saxophonist Mars Williams hosting concerts of boldly reimagined Christmas songs in praise of both the special season and free-jazz titan Albert Ayler (1936–’70). It’s a tradition that began on Chicago’s improv scene in 2008 and has since spread, with performances throughout the States and Europe; two Xmas volumes document parts of a few recent concerts. (Williams got the idea for Ayler-Xmas mashups when he heard the saxophonist inject a quote from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” into “Heavenly Home,” found on Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings.) On Volume 2, Williams not only displays a distinct personality with his expressive playing in the questing spirit of Ayler but also in the manner he arranges and rabidly stokes bonfires kindled with his fine Witches & Devils band. The program includes three tracks recorded with that band at The Hungry Brain in Chicago, and two tracks recorded with Austrian musicians at the venue Porgy & Bess in Vienna. “Christmas Wrapping,” grafted onto Ayler’s “Love Cry,” is a tune Williams has played while touring with rock band The Waitresses. For a change of pace, Christof Kurzmann sings the lyrics to “O Tannenbaum” in a medley that also includes Ayler’s “Spirits” and “The Twelve Days Of Christmas.”

BUY IT NOW: Mars Williams

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