Yuletide Music Roundup For 2020


Jamie Cullum’s new holiday album, The Pianoman At Christmas, features 10 original compositions.

(Photo: Courtesy Blue Note Records)

Luke McMaster

Christmas Present

(Green Hill Productions)

Blue-eyed soul man Luke McMaster, long in the thick of Canadian pop-r&b action—and best known in the States for “Good Morning, Beautiful,” a 2013 hit with pianist Jim Brickman—is in ebullient vocal form for the dozen famous and not-so-famous songs on Christmas Present. Capturing a bit of Donny Hathaway’s or Steve Wonder’s Yuletide spirit, he ramps up the soulful properties he finds in “What Christmas Means To Me” (from Wonder’s 1967 album Someday At Christmas) and makes a clever, unexpected choice with Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” (from the soundtrack to the 1988 film Scrooged).

Another recast soundtrack gem here is “Christmas Vacation” (sung by Mavis Staples on the soundtrack to the cable-TV staple National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation). McMaster co-wrote the title track, which features punchy horns, chiming bells and his own Motown-spiced vocals.

McMaster and Arun Chaturvedi’s production aesthetic makes these songs gleam, but occasionally the singer seems more motivated by contrivance than naturalness. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Luke McMaster

Ben Sutin Quartet

Hard Bop Hanukkah

(MEII Enterprises)

New York-based violinist Ben Sutin, whose formative years were spent playing jazz and r&b in Philadelphia, has the ability to project a strong presence in a number of styles, from salsa and Latin jazz (notably with Bobby Sanabria) to free-jazz and contemporary klezmer (with his band Klazz-Ma-Taaz). But what really sends Sutin’s star shooting upward is his fusion of hard bop and Jewish music in a quartet that’s captured here at Manhattan’s Rockwood Music Hall. Deftly arranging Hanukkah classics to fit the mold of bebop’s “funky” offspring, Sutin checks the right boxes: long improvised lines; dark tone colors; intense, relentless swinging; and a blues sensibility.

Thriving at the intersection of tradition and experimentation, he catches the spirit of the hard-bop masters. “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” nods to Horace Silver’s interest in Latin, blues and Cape Verdean music, while “Hanukkah, Chag Yafeh” has a mix of swing and Afro-Cuban Bembé that suits a Jazz Messengers arrangement. Other new-fashioned, old Hanukkah classics nod to the influence of John Coltrane (“Nerot Dolkim”), Dexter Gordon (“Have A Little Dreidel”) and Hank Mobley (“Sevivon, Sov, Sov, Sov”). Throughout the program, the violinist impresses with his steady-handed leadership and his take-no-prisoners drive.

Remnants of the styles of John Blake Jr. (his beloved teacher), Stuff Smith, Jean-Luc Ponty, Papa John Creach and Don “Sugarcane” Harris blaze in his creative, uplifting work. The other musicians—pianist Sam Javitch, bassist Cole Davis and drummer Evan Sherman—display a similar peppery resolve … and convey palpable joy in observing the Festival of Lights. —Frank-John Hadley

BUY IT NOW: Ben Sutin Quartet

Amber Weekes

The Gathering

(Amber Inn Productions)

From Ray Charles to Prince to the pop artists of today, there is a long history of mixing sacred and secular concepts within a musical program. Jazz vocalist Amber Weekes continues that approach with The Gathering, which includes romantic and religious numbers—both of which she handles with aplomb.

At the conclusion of “The Christmas Waltz,” accompanied by Andrew Carney’s muted trumpet, she slides into a sultry whisper to coo, “Why don’t you bring me something from Tiffany’s/ Fill my stocking.” Weekes also uses a breathy recitation to describe a romantic dinner with champagne during the closing moments of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” On this 10-track album, she takes a detour from the Yuletide canon for “My Romance,” the Rodgers & Hart showtune that has been recorded by pianists Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans, as well as numerous vocalists, including Carly Simon (who made it the title track for her 1990 album of standards).

Elsewhere, Weekes celebrates the sacred themes of the season with a string-sweetened reading of “Silent Night”—featuring fine work on piano and Fender Rhodes by Josh Nelson—and with her powerful version of Alfred Burt’s modern carol “Some Children See Him.” The latter tune, which features tender bagpipe tones from Ernie Fields Jr., is the album’s highlight, a song that intertwines a religious message with an implied call for racial unity in 2020.

Weekes wrote the lyrics for the title track, featuring children’s voices—an element that will be cloying to some listeners, pure catnip to others—but the second verse contains a message that everyone can embrace: “Have you turned your back on someone/ And left them without dignity?/ Now’s the time to gather courage/ And help them to be free/ Have you seen another suffer/ And given to her no sign of care?/ Gather up your deep compassion … .” Producer and violinist Mark Cargill’s compelling solo reinforces the impact of this heartfelt message. —Bobby Reed

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Various Artists

Justin Time For Christmas, Six

(Justin Time)

Montreal-based label Justin Time Records released the inaugural edition of its “For Christmas” sampler series in 1995, with contributions from pianist Oliver Jones, singer Ranee Lee and several other artists. Jones and Lee—both considered national treasures in Canada—are back for the series’ sixth installment. This nicely paced compilation offers a fine introduction to the work of the participating artists, including pianist Matt Herskowitz, whose improvisational flair enlivens his solo renditions of “White Christmas” and “O Holy Night.” The latter tune is rarely subject to such a progressive treatment.

Eleven of the 12 tracks here are previously unreleased, with female singers providing numerous highlights. Emma Frank’s multi-tracked vocals turn her rendition of John Jacob Niles’ Depression-era hymn “I Wonder As I Wander” into a haunting earworm. Susie Arioli draws inspiration from even further back in U.S. history, melding blues and swing on “At The Christmas Ball” (recorded by DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee Bessie Smith in 1925).

Ascending jazz artist Ariel Pocock demonstrates her distinctive vocal phrasing and improvisational pianism with a brisk reading of “We Three Kings” and a lovely version of Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s “Christmas Time Is Here.” The goofy, pun-filled lyrics to “Santa Claws”—describing a feline St. Nick who will scratch your couch—won’t distract listeners from the fact that Barbra Lica is a dynamic vocalist with impressive range. Angela Galuppo’s take on “The Christmas Waltz,” featuring a muscular bass solo by Morgan Moore, will satisfy listeners seeking new renditions of familiar Yuletide melodies refracted through a jazz lens. —Bobby Reed

BUY IT NOW: Justin Time For Christmas, Six

Various Artists

Verve Wishes You A Swinging Christmas


If you’re getting a turntable as a holiday gift and you want to begin building a library of great holiday music on vinyl, a good place to start would be the box set Verve Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. The set contains four vintage, freshly pressed LPs: vocalist Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas (1960), pianist Ramsey Lewis’ trio outing Sound Of Christmas (1961), guitarist Kenny Burrell’s Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas (1966) and organist Jimmy Smith’s Christmas ’64. The latter was originally released in 1964 and reissued in 1966 under the title Christmas Cookin’, with the original abstract cover art replaced with a photo of Smith wearing a Santa suit, seated behind the wheel of a spiffy red convertible.

Fitzgerald was in top form in the summer 1960, when she recorded Wishes You. Working with Russ Garcia & His Orchestra, she delivers a rendition of “The Christmas Song” that rivals Nat “King” Cole’s evergreen version. She swings hard throughout the program, and the lyrics to her interpretations of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Frosty The Snowman” include introductory segments not found on more famous renditions. On “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she injects a quote from “Tom Dooley,” the folk song that the Kingston Trio had taken to the top of the pop charts two years earlier. Fitzgerald belts out Count Basie’s “Good Morning Blues” with grace and authority, especially these lines: “It’s Christmastime, and I wanna see Santa Claus/ Gonna ask him for my baby/ Ain’t that a real good cause.”

Produced by Creed Taylor, with Rudy Van Gelder serving as the recording engineer, the LP Christmas ’64 finds Smith working in various quartet settings that are augmented with harp, French horn, tuba, bass trombone and other instruments. But Smith’s brilliant, wildly energetic mastery of the Hammond B-3 organ is front and center—and the key reason this is a landmark release. Under his fingers, even a hymn like “Silent Night” positively smokes—and here it’s boosted with horns.

Burrell plays guitar on five of the tracks on the organist’s album, and on Soulful Little Christmas, his cool reading of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” offers a different type of drama than the greasy rendition he plays with Smith (who actually includes two versions of the tune on his LP). Burrell sets the fretboard aflame with his solo on “The Little Drummer Boy,” and he switches to acoustic guitar for a calypso-flavored version of the song often called “Mary’s Boy Child.” Burrell returns to the land of electric pyrotechnics for “My Favorite Things,” crafting a hypnotic piece that sounds like a cross between the soundtracks of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music and a mid-’60s James Bond flick.

For Sound Of Christmas, Lewis went into the studio with good company: bassist Eldee Young, drummer Isaac “Red” Holt and string arranger Riley Hampton. Fans who only know Lewis from his late-period work might be surprised by the depth of blues feeling and aching tempo he brings to his version of the r&b tune “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Likewise, his slow, bluesy rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” makes it sound like Ol’ St. Nick is in no hurry to get there. On “Winter Wonderland,” however, the trio whips up the kind of accessible, infectious groove that would fuel Ramsey’s big hits just a few years later (“The
‘In’ Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade In The Water”).

Lewis’ version of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” opens with what sounds like real church bells, and Hampton adds sweeping strings to the trio’s version of “The Christmas Song.”

Part of the joy of owning this set lies in comparing the various renditions of familiar Yuletide tunes, as the four LPs offer a type of instructional crash course on interpretive and improvisational techniques. Listening to this set would be a fine way to celebrate the season while marveling at the musical nuances of four jazz icons. —Bobby Reed

BUY IT NOW: Verve Wishes You A Swinging Christmas

Other Albums

Many other artists—representing a variety of genres—released holiday albums this year, including the 3D Jazz Trio, Christmas In 3D (Diva Jazz); Brian Bromberg, Celebrate Me Home: The Holiday Sessions (Artistry); Keedron Bryant, The Best Time Of Year (Warner); Tori Kelly, A Tori Kelly Christmas (Capitol/Schoolboy); Stacey Kent, Christmas In The Rockies (Candid); Simone Kopmajer, Christmas (Lucky Mojo); Leslie Odom Jr., The Christmas Album (S-Curve/BMG); and Dolly Parton, A Holly Dolly Christmas (Butterfly).

Other holiday releases are out by Mike Renzi with Jim Porcella, Christmas Is: December Duets (Whaling City Sound); Meghan Trainor, A Very Trainor Christmas (Epic); Carrie Underwood, My Gift (Capitol Nashville); Mars Williams, An Ayler Xmas, Vol. 4 (Soul What/Astral Spirits); and Warren Wolf, Christmas Vibes (Mack Avenue). DB

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