Holiday Albums Part Three
KEVIN DOZIER (VOCALS)
This little seven-track album is like a favorite knitted scarf or a cup of the very finest hot chocolate. But the holiday comfort food served up by up by the singing Master of Cozy Kevin Dozier and class-act pianist/arranger Alex Rybeck is not "easy listening" feel-good fluff. No automatic pilot is guiding this recital. It's a thinking person's Christmas album. There's discretion and the kind of intimacy and direct heart-to-heart communication that cabaret, at its best, epitomizes. Self-indulgent excess is taboo with Dozier and Rybeck, a simpatico duo. A very noticeable yet unforced sincerity and unashamed, non-self-conscious vulnerability reign. Sweetness and the sacred joy of the season are both comfortably embraced. The uber-tender touch finds its expression gently on the ballads, shines with proud earnestness and respect on the sacred numbers (non-showy, consistently direct renditions of "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night," with nice variety in dynamics, pulling back when others might go for "big"). "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" is taken at a lovingly lazy pace, the slower snuggle bringing out the romanticism of the longing and lingering lost in peppy versions by others. Kevin even manages to find welcome variety in how he phrases and emphasizes words in the repetitive title line. Quite the feat!
Interestingly, "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams)" gets a new perspective (or perhaps an imagined other side of the story) when combined with Stephen Sondheim's delicate, pain-etched "Goodbye for Now" from the film Reds. I find myself leaning forward to capture each turn of phrase in the complex emotions and change of mood in lyrics I know so well. The two are so in tune with each other on this track (and others) that it is almost as if they are singing a duet. Alex's heartbreaking fragility on the little instrumental phrases in the Sondheim melody speak volumes. The sparseness of just two people in that recording studio allow both to be truly heard and appreciated.
The pianist, who's hand a hand in many careers and CDs, such as the Liz Callaway EP reviewed last week, is invaluably prominent but never overshadowing a singer with his playing or arrangements (he's the arranger on all tracks here). His songwriting is also on display in two impressive pieces: "Together This Christmas," about being unabashedly in love with a new partner and family written with Barbara Fried (with images like "Watching it together this Christmas makes the snow mean more"); and the album-closing sweet nightcap "Bless Your Heart" written with Ira Gasman (lyricist for the Broadway musical The Life). In the latter, Kevin is the kind of guy who can sing the word "darling" without sounding coy or sticky.
This music by these skilled companions is the companion piece for no-rush, no-slush, just-enough-mushiness Christmas.
The sublime sits side by side with samples of the ridiculousmeaning sillyon Christmas Is ... It underscores the fact that the holiday can bring out the reverent beauty in song, praising the birth of Jesus, as well as deign to dishing about the more mundane secular habits. Dwelling on diversions of gift-giving and getting, parties and pairing-up pale in comparison to the stark beauty and simplicity highlighted so successfully in the serious numbers.
Sharing the bill, taking turns with solos or lead vocals while the other two provide back-up and harmonies ,are Candice Corbin, Teresa Fischer, and Andrew David Sotomayor, also the very capable pianist and musical director/arranger. He's a popular go-to guy for New York City cabaret shows, oft seen behind the keys at The Duplex, and contributes four originals, one a comical collaboration with the ever-likeable and feisty Fischer who sings it: "Please Don't Make Me Sing a Christmas Ballad" that grouses its self-explanatory titular position. His title song for this album lists tender and heart-revealing pictures of what "Christmas Is" ("No matter the way that you choose to believe, the love of the season is yours to receive, in a world that's so harried and littered with fear ..."). He leads the number with an especially sensitive vocal. Guest soloist Christian Smythe on oboe plays a powerful line, but it feels globbed on, too forward in the mix, rather than fully integrated and woven in. Sotomayor's own "Christmas Boo" finds him singing about potential love partners he's choosing among, as in a pageant; it starts nicely with its verse, but I find its charms resistible as he goes on about resisting most of their charms. His "My Epiphany" tries for a combination of straightforward appreciation of tradition with some offhand remarks about worldwide customs which I suspect work better in their in-person gigs.
Teresa makes her down-home sensibilities and slyness score with a folksy, frank look on the potential, and future potential, of holiday get-togethers in "We'll All Meet Up Next Year," a rouser and spirit-raiser written by Deirdre Flint. And, in the album's comedy highlight, she garners giggles with the snide look at the gift of the "Pretty Little Dolly" that can oh-so-cutely do everything oh-so pleasant and unpleasant. She has a field day with this Mona Abboud novelty number, but she can pull her weight in some straight-faced, straight-laced chores, too, and as a team player.
Candice Corbin invests contemporary soul into the proceedings with impressive stylizations. While I kept hoping she'd raise the roof all the way, her voice is a pleasure wrapping itself around the varied selections. She takes George Michael's self-penned hit "Last Christmas" and phrases it maturely, in a way to make the words and feelings command more attention. This is partly due to a more thoughtful tempo that avoids a see-saw melodic sameness. Her forceful vocal on "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams)" comes packaged with an invigoratingly lively (!), but not wholly convincing, arrangement, robbing it of its inherent bittersweet uncertain outcome.
So, Santa's bag is decidedly a mixed one here, but the very first track, with Andrew David Sotomayor leading vocally with the ancient carol "This Endris Night," is such a stunning beauty that I had to play it three times before being able to move on. It's simply gorgeous and his voice has a wondrous purity which cuts through everything and is breathtaking. This is an adventurous holiday collection that gets points for thinking outside the usual gift box.