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)

Doc Severinsen & The Tonight Show Orchestra
Merry Christmas From Doc Severinsen
& The Tonight Show Orchestra
(Amherst)

Not long before Johnny Carson retired from his late-night talk show in 1992, its 19-piece house band went in the studio and recorded Merry Christmas From Doc Severinsen & The Tonight Show Orchestra. There’s a marked nonchalant quality to the swinging jazz from trumpeter Severinsen and his merry men on 16 obvious tunes, like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” all expertly arranged by saxophonists Tommy Newsom or John Bambridge. Alas, the producers, reaching out to mainstream America, sometimes intrude on the ace studio musicians with icky strings, handbells and a children’s chorus.

Dub Spencer & Trance Hill
Christmas In Dub

(Echo Beach)

Swiss band Dub Spencer & Trance Hill buck Yuletide conventions by delivering dub syncretized with rock and electronic music. “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” and the nine other tracks of Christmas In Dub offer plenty of spacey innovation. A melodica, in the spirit of Augustus Pablo, conspires with guitar and organ in bringing an organic presence to the stylized dub. Be forewarned: Several famous melodies are obscured or unrecognizable till the listener teases them out.

The Stylistics
Christmas

(Amherst)

It’s a shame that Philadelphia-based vocal group The Stylistics didn’t make a holiday record when it was at its artistic peak in the 1970s, produced by the estimable Thom Bell. Instead, fans must settle for the return of the modestly enjoyable 1991 pop-r&b album, Christmas. The usual diet of Santa’s songs, along with producer Jeff Tyzik’s appealing “When I’ve Got You, It’s Christmas All Year Long,” are inscribed with fresh feelings by the three vocalists. Russell Thompkins Jr.’s wonderful falsetto even makes you believe all’s well in the world, at least for the minute-and-a-half of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

The Temple Rockers
Festival Of Lights

(Fresh Roots)

David “Solid” Gould ensures that there is stirring new Hanukkah music for fans to add to their collections. The bassist and his band, The Temple Rockers, cleverly fuse traditional Jewish melodies and rich reggae rhythms on the measuredly joyous Festival Of Lights. Gould—who has worked with the U.S. reggae band John Brown’s Body—made a smart move by recruiting Jamaican vocalists Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett and Ansel Meditation as guests: All three are reggae veterans with impressive backgrounds. Listeners can light the menorah candles to the syncopated bounce of “Almighty Light,” “Rock Of Ages” and other trance-like tracks.

CeCe Winans
Something’s Happening!

(Pure Springs Gospel)

Gospel superstar CeCe Winans, rejoicing with her first Christmas outing, Something’s Happening!, squares the sweeping beauty of her powerful voice with an earnest sense of conviction over the sacredness of her Lord’s birth. Whether introducing passable songs written by her son, Alvin, or giving immediacy to a carol like “Silent Night,” she wrests every shred of meaning from lyrics—even as strings and production bombast clamors, rather than supports.

Various Artists
The
Merriest Christmas Album
(Dynamic)

Anyone the least bit interested in Yule-themed pop of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s should seek out the triple-disc compilation The Merriest Christmas Album. The sentiments may be simple, but Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr, Margaret Whiting and Fats Waller sing with such genuine feeling and interpretive charm that triteness is held at bay. No singing is necessary on pianist-orchestra leader Claude Thornhill’s ageless and exquisite “Snowfall.” This is a generous set, but with 75 tracks by a platoon of recording artists, there are bound to be pockets of unctuous slop, so keep clear of tracks by Gracie Fields, Jimmy Boyd and Hugo Winterhalter.

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