Just when I thought it was safe to go to my mailbox, that all the holiday CDs were present and accounted for, (and more importantly, that I could sit back and enjoy them with a hot toddy in front of the fireplace) what to my wondering eye should appear but a quartet of reasons to be merry this holiday season. Since all four are highly enjoyable and fill a different niche in one's holiday CD library, I guess I will have to put down the toddy (for the time being at least) and tell you about them.
The last column had me listing Jamie deRoy's 'Tis The Season as the best holiday compilation album of the season. Well, I'm afraid that while it still ranks high on the list of albums one should get this year, the number one slot has been taken over by Broadway Cares: Home For The Holidays. The album, which is put out by Centaur Entertainment (who have a slew of great dance compilation albums that would make great gifts as well), is a benefit album for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and features twenty Broadway performers singing fourteen numbers. Out of those, thirteen are holiday or at least seasonal in nature. (The lone oddity is Adam Pascal's "New York State Of Mind," which, while well sung, is more than a little jarring since it feels that it should be on another benefit album entirely). The rest of the numbers range from the camp (Jane Krakowski's sultry "Santa Baby" and Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming's "Baby It's Cold Outside," which makes the album veer into 'ham for the holidays' territory) to jazz (Lea DeLaria's "Sleigh Ride"), to light R&B (Sam Harris' "Merry Christmas Darling" and Billy Porter's "Christmas Time Is Here") to high Latin dance (Daphne Rubin-Vega, with a killer version of "Feliz Navidad," my favorite track on the CD).
Of course, there are lots of traditional, beautifully sung numbers like Lillias White's tender "Silent Night," Victor Garber's simple and haunting "I'll Be Home For Christmas" (which makes one wish he would return to the stage soon) and Davis Gaines' "The Christmas Song". Gary Beach and Roger Bart give a playful rendition of "Silver Bells," while Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway offer a subdued "O Holy Night." Anthony Rapp and Everett Bradley recreate the Bing Crosby/David Bowie classic duet of "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" (with mixed results, as Everett is undermiked in the number). And Patrick Wilson stirs things up a bit with "We Need A Little Christmas." The album ends with my least favorite track, Audra McDonald's "White Christmas," which features her humming the melody over Jason Robert Brown's delicate piano arrangement. This approach just doesn't work, turning the song into an exercise in frustration, making one wish she would just stop humming and start singing the words. While this approach might have worked on "Silent Night," as the number is almost a lullaby already, "White Christmas" is one of the most beautiful of holiday songs, both lyrically and musically, and needs both to be fully effective. That flaw aside, Home For The Holidays is a delightful mix of performers and styles and is the 'must buy' holiday album of the year.
Another benefit album for Broadway Cares is the 2001 edition of their Greatest Gifts: Carols For A Cure, which features company members of various Broadway shows singing holiday tunes. The album is a bit of a crap shoot; when it's good, it's wonderful, but when it's bad, it makes you wonder what the performers were thinking. The numbers are equally split between traditional carols, specialty numbers and novelty songs, the latter of which are the ones that rarely work. The casts of Aida and The Producers perform beautiful a cappella versions of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "O Tannenbaum" respectively. Kiss Me Kate's cast scores with a beautiful "Don't Let Christmas Pass You By." Joe Machota and Tina Maddigan from Mamma Mia! sing a surprisingly tender number from It's A Wonderful Life (not the Harnick/Raposo version) entitled "A Simple Christmas Memory" that is appealing in its imagery and simplicity. The Full Monty folk have fun with a country flavored "A Full Frontal Christmas" and Chicago's "Merry Kwaanz-ukah" is a cute concept (fusing all holidays into one number) that doesn't quite gel as it takes too long to make its point. The highlight of the album is, surprisingly, Urinetown'a "The Davey Dinckle Song," about a Rudolf-esque Christmas legend told in pure Urinetown taste and sensibility. Greatest Gifts: Carols For A Cure can be ordered through www.bcfea.org. NOTE: In addition to benefiting Broadway Cares, proceeds from this album also benefit the Twin Towers Fund.
For a jazzier Christmas, you can't go wrong with ...And A Songbird In A Pear Tree, which features six San Francisco Bay area vocalists. The album is a great laid-back holiday album as all six singers are delightful. The album starts with its most uptempo number, an Afro-Cuban version of "White Christmas," sung with great joy and gusto by Daria. Cathi Walkup wrote and performs "The Secret Of The Season," a simple ode to the true meaning of the holidays. Vibe player Gerry Grosz found a gem of a song for Elaine Lucia to sing, "Meet Me Under The Mistletoe," and Jennifer Lee sparkles on a number by Thelonius Monk and Dianne Reeves, "A Merrier Christmas." My favorite track, however, is Shanna Carlson's "Santa Is Coming Tonight," which evokes childlike wonder and excitement (NOTE: Shanna has a wonderful solo CD, Swing High, Swing Low, worth looking into for lovers of light jazz and those seeking new material, as her song, "Silences" is one that should be performed more). The album ends with a poignantly and simply arranged version of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," performed by Sharman Duran. Unfortunately, that wraps up the CD, which is a woefully short six songs and twenty-five minutes in length. However, the performances and the fact that it only costs $10 (and is a benefit album for a jazz vocal scholarship fund for Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco to boot), outweigh that deficiency.
For the last four years, Seattle's Intiman Theatre has featured Black Nativity, a gospel song play by Langston Hughes, as its holiday show. This year, Intiman Theatre, in association with Starbucks Coffee Company, has produced a CD inspired by the songs of Black Nativity. Like the show, the album features The Total Experience Gospel Choir, who perform sixteen songs that are performed in Black Nativity. The CD is a live studio recording, which captures the feel and spirit of the live theatrical show. While gospel music is a hard art form to capture on disc, relying as it does so heavily on audience participation and energy, the CD does an excellent job in capturing the performances and spirit of the piece. From the Caribbean flavored "Joy To The World" to the rousing finale, "Packing Up," the album is surprisingly stirring and energetic. As in the stage version, highlights include Stephanie Scott-Hatley's high octane rendition of "Get Away Jordan" (although I wish they had also recorded her thrilling "No Good Shepherd"), Jimi Ray Malary's tender "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney and Patrinell Wright's "Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody." If you are a lover of gospel music or want something to jump-start your holiday spirits, this album is for you and is available at select Starbucks stores and www.intiman.org.