Yuletide Music Roundup 2018

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

(Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Austin City Limits)

Lisa Donahey
Christmas In Our Soul

(In Tempo Productions)

Lisa Donahey, working in Los Angeles, applies concentration and commitment to the happy task of winning over listeners with her first Christmas album. Gladdened by her “favorite time of the year,” she impresses with an attractive and limber voice that has the ability to glide bountifully across the borders of jazz, musical theater and adult pop. Complemented by vigilant jazz pros such as James Danderfer on reeds and Brad Turner on trumpet, Donahey takes a warm, considered approach to holiday evergreens and to appealing, surprising numbers as “We Need A Little Christmas” (from the Broadway musical Mame), Steve Allen’s foot-tapping “Cool Yule” and the 1941 Bobby Troup song “Daddy!” (now known as “Hey Santa”), spurred by Danderfer’s clarinet. But she succumbs to pop pretensions on the title track and two more vacuities composed by Grammy nominee Allan Rich and his collaborators.

Jake Ehrenreich
A Treasury Of
Jewish Christmas Songs
(Self-Release)

Though perhaps better known as a playwright, New Yorker Jake Ehrenreich is a classy, even-tempered jazz singer who projects pure tones and pleasantries. A Treasury Of Jewish Christmas Songs is his “cool jazz tribute to the Jewish songwriters” responsible for “The Christmas Song” (Mel Tormé), “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin), “Silver Bells” (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), “Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard) and nine more. Making sure that Ehrenreich doesn’t drift into soft sentimentality are esteemed pianist-arranger Roger Kellaway and his warmly serious yet sometimes playful trio.

The King’s Brass
Christmas Joy

(Summit)

With personnel drawn from all over the United States, The King’s Brass—three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, keyboards and percussion, plus guests, including organist Samuel Metzger—brings stately poise to the jazz-classical-pop holiday spirit displayed on Christmas Joy. Trumpeter-bandleader Tim Zimmerman and the ensemble (now 40 years old) mine the spirituality in age-old carols and the fun in secular tunes. The band gives dramatic animation to pleasing arrangements of Bizet’s “Farandole—The March Of The Kings” and Paul Dukas’ “Fanfare,” from his ballet La Péri.

Nils Landgren
Christmas With My Friends VI

(ACT)

Considering that he has recorded six holiday albums during the past dozen years, one might think Nils Landgren has overstayed his welcome at Santa’s workshop. Not so. Christmas With My Friends VI proves the Swede still has lots of vitality left as a trombone soloist of expressive intelligence, a skilled singer and a specialist in adaptations of fairly uncommon material, such as John Rutter’s choral composition “Christmas Lullaby” or “I’d Like You For Christmas” (popularized by sultry Julie London in 1957). Although Landgren dips into blues and funk on two tracks, he favors laid-back jazz moods, where cheer and gladness intersect. The beautiful singing of Jessica Pilnäs, Jeanette Köhn, Ida Sand and Sharon Dyall are important to the allure of this glad-hearted music. However, oversweet feeling clogs Pilnäs’ “When This Night Is Over” and a version of the ABBA tune “I Have A Dream.”

John Legend
A Legendary Christmas

(Columbia)

Few performers today can master all the soulful nuances needed for a transcendent version of a Christmas song. John Legend is one of the elect, delivering the classics and new songs of his first holiday album with smooth assurance, clear tone and impeccable timing. Totally engaged with lyrics, the r&b singer/pianist makes a favorable impression throughout, whether he’s swinging “Merry Christmas Baby” (featuring Rickey Woodard soloing on tenor saxophone) or investing “Purple Snowflakes”—a tune popularized by Marvin Gaye—with fresh wonderment. Moreover, Legend shares a gift for empathy with harmonica magician Stevie Wonder on “What Christmas Means To Me” and teams with singer Esperanza Spalding for an excellent rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s hard to think of a better arranger and producer for this project than Raphael Saadiq, who has no time for pretense and insincerity. A Legendary Christmas may be the most enjoyable r&b album to get pulled out of Santa’s bag since Anthony Hamilton’s Home For The Holidays (RCA), in 2014.

The Mavericks
Hey! Merry Christmas!
(Mono Mundo)

One of the don’t-miss releases of 2018 is Hey! Merry Christmas! by The Mavericks. A limitless supply of infectious Yuletide spirit informs the smooth, superb lead vocals of Raul Malo and his eclectic Americana band, which is based in Nashville. Malo has a gift for composing melodious, high-quality songs, none better than “Christmas Time Is (Coming ’Round Again),” an unstoppable rush of sublime 1960s-flavored pop. With multiple spins, even a couple of songs that initially sound slightly over-groomed in their emotion will reveal unforced charm. Disparate elements animate the Mavericks’ compelling sound: Tex-Mex, country twang, Roy Orbison, ’50s r&b, jazz, Elvis’ Christmas Album and A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector.

Les McCann
A Time Les Christmas
(The Abrahams Company )

Les McCann says he’s always wanted to record a Yule album. Now, six decades into his estimable career, the 83-year-old crosses this wish off his “bucket list” while staying rooted in the territory where jazz converges with soul music. As a vocalist, he sounds as if he really feels in his heart the meaning of the words to “This Christmas,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (with vocalist Maxayn Lewis) and eight more favorites; his voice has accrued layers of husky warmth over time. Dearest of all to him, though, is his composition titled “The Gift.” In a genuinely touching performance, McCann reveals how much he cherishes life and appreciates God’s generosity. With McCann only featured as pianist on the instrumental “My Christmas Heart,” expert musicians like pianist Michael Wolff and tenor saxophonist Alex Foster step out as soloists. Bobby Sparks’s Hammond B3 organ on “Merry Christmas Baby” is a particularly nice touch.

Memphis Ukulele Band
Holidays Ain’t The Same
(Memphis International)

The current lineup of the Memphis Ukelele Band, which recorded this Americana EP at the famous Sam Phillips Recording studio, stamps seven holiday treats with strong, personable vocals and the quiet strength of ukuleles and a guitalele (plus occasional kazoo and harmonica). Kyndle McMahan is the star, showcasing a freshness of tone and diction whenever she raises her voice in song, whether it’s a stirring makeover of Memphis soul great Carla Thomas’s 1963 prize ornament “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas” or, to name one more, “Mele Kalikimaka,” a nod to the ukulele’s Hawaiian origin. Two of the four gents in the band handle vocal duties pretty well when McMahan takes a breather, one sounding something like Willie Nelson. MUB only break a sweat in merriment near the close of “When The River Meets The Sea.”

Diana Ross
Wonderful Christmas Time

(Ross Records/UMe)

In 1994, diva Diana Ross lent her pretty voice to two holiday albums: Making Spirits Bright, featuring five tracks pairing her with the London Symphony Orchestra (the other tracks were by the King’s Singers and the Modern Jazz Quartet), and A Very Special Season. The former was a discount release distributed through Hallmark and the latter was a European release—more than a few American consumers missed out on both. Well, here they are at long last. The 20-track Wonderful Christmas Time serves up all that Cinderella sweet-and-nice music. It’s the sound of snowflakes sparkling in the sunlight. Motown fans might want to spin this album alongside Diana Ross & The Supremes’ fun 1965 release Merry Christmas.

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