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Sound Advice Reviews

2015 Holiday Recordings

Like the shows that light up Broadway each season, with debuts sharing the streets with old favorites revived and rethought, the holiday recordings released to brighten "the season to be jolly" include material ancient and new. On the CDs received, some of the "usual suspects" are totally absent and there are more new and rarely heard songs than usual.


(2-CD SET)
Rock-It Science Records

The annual no-brainer answer to the question of what to give a Broadway music fan for Christmas is the latest in the Broadway's Carols for a Cure series. Featuring cast members of the Great Way's shows having their way with seasonal specialties, with proceeds going to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, this 17th volume is another impressive, stirring effort. The word "Carols" in the title is not tossed about as casually as a snowball—there's quite an emphasis on age-old sacred material. With the bevy of strong-voiced singers employed in musical theatre, there's no skimping on vocal power; and with creative arrangers aboard, the musical settings are mainly exciting and alive. Occasionally the copiously filled cup of kindness runneth over and it may seem like an overdose of sounds and energy, but these are balanced by exquisite less-is-more moments offering gentler "tidings of comfort and joy."

While some years' double-disc sets have had quite a few more tracks, this season we get ten tracks on the first CD and nine on the second (that one being all sacred material until the last cut, with Something Rotten's company offering, appropriately, something silly: special lyrics to "The 12 Days of Christmas" with the substitute gift items related to their show, such as a certain costume piece for the Bard, "two Bottom brothers," and "eight shows a week."

Hamilton's contribution includes spoken awareness-raising commentary about our founding fathers. Specifically commenting on the show in question is a piece of special material for Broadway's longest-running revival as Chicagoans mark "Another Christmas in Fishnets" (by Brian O'Brien) which finds Amra-Faye Wright, who's logged many performances as a merry murderess, lamenting her lot with sighing resignation, tongue certainly in cheek. A special treat is the LOL number not heard on the original cast album of the Christmas-themed musical Elf because it was added to the score for its return engagement: The giddy-to-the-max "Happy All the Time" is delightfully frenetic. James Snyder is heard as the gleeful title character jollier than even Santa, who is played by an acerbic Perez Hilton.

Cast members of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical don't do a carol or a song by Carole, but they do take a page from the secondary married couple in the bio-musical, King's fellow songwriters/friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. It's "Christmas Vacation," not for the early period covered in the jukebox musical, but penned for the 1989 film National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. It is led by Jarrod Spector and Chilina Kennedy who play Mann and King now. While other tracks invoke the cozy, warm feeling for your ears equivalent to the comforting cup of hot chocolate pictured on the album cover, this bit of sweet, light pop is more like those fluffy marshmallows seen floating in the beverage.

As usual on this annual album, a musical's leading actors often do not provide the lead vocals, and may not appear at all. But there is sensational singing highlighting ensemble members, ample proof that blazing talent is prominent throughout the ranks. For shows that have replacement casts, it's a great chance to hear those performers you may have missed (or may have caught, and been impressed by, and you'll be happy to have them on disc). However, it's less common for the actors to be singing as the characters they play, so we also get to see a different side of their talent.

With charismatic star James Barbour currently donning the mask in Broadway's long-run champ Phantom of the Opera, his stirring voice is an especially welcome presence, leading castmates in "I Saw Three Ships."

We get the opportunity to hear the three main female actresses from the new production of The King and I sing together in gorgeously harmony, as well as on solo sections by each. They (Kelli O'Hara, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Ashley Park) deliver a combination of "Auld Lang Syne" and Joni Mitchell's sorrowful "River" and the distinctively different but all glorious voices sound sublime. Their radiant tones never push for effect or get showy. This track is a major highlight, with real feeling coming through. But gorgeous singing and playing abounds: Catherine Walker's vibrato-filled soprano leads the company of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, with a huge orchestra; and new Broadway resident Alan H. Green, an ensemble member from School of Rock brings a soaring "Mary, Did You Know?." Both are knockouts.

Frequent contributor to the series, Jason Michael Webb, offers a dynamic "One Star" and music-directs the rendition by the cast of Les Misérables, whose score, of course, includes something called "The Stars." The rambunctious kids (and adults) of Matilda sound especially rowdy in their custom-crafted and show-specific "A Crunchem Hall Christmas," by cast member Jennifer Bowles and children's music director Deborah Abramson; the selection is named for the school in the story.

Fun Home residents Joel Perez and Marrick Smith (understudy; also guitar/piano/co-arranger on the track) wrote a potent, original piece for their company, appropriate to their show and anyone whose home and family may not always be traditional: the well-delivered "Home's with You." If home is where the heart is, there's plenty of heart in this collection and a sense of home for the holidays is ever special.


Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

If you've had it up to your frost-bitten ears with "Frosty the Snowman" and "White Christmas," the same old/same olds in carols and pop chestnuts, take heed. All you who had given up hope of finding a Christmas album with all-new songs performed by a top vocalist who imbues everything she does with feeling and a silky voice, you will likely hope that The Hope of Christmas with Ann Hampton Callaway is on the way by sleigh from Santa or another reliable source.

I do hate to be at all Scrooge-like, but this CD did not grab me right away (it's growing on me a bit; I'm trying.) If we want to focus on that rare element of all-unfamiliar holiday material as the selling point, I found many of the songs too resistibly pallid. I have always been an Ann Callaway fan, and I can glory in the loveliness of her voice here (although it's mainly on low flame—a newcomer wouldn't guess at its true range and power). The plainness of the vocabulary and images feels too often drawn from bits and pieces plucked from a holiday songbook. "Bright" rhymes with "light"; "glow" rhymes with "snow" and "mistletoe"; "share this gift with you" rhymes with "dreams come true" ... and you can feel them coming. A few samples:

1. "This Christmas isn't a Christmas I'll recall/
This Christmas isn't a Christmas to enthrall
No, Christmas isn't Christmas at all."
     --- "Christmas Isn't Christmas At All"

2. "One star at the top of the tree
Grant this wish to you from me:
Will you lead us on our way
To the joy of Christmas Day?"
     ---"One Star"

3. "Bells ring merrily, carolers sing,
The days are filled with joyful songs of old
Bright stockings, once on tiny feet,
Now await a candy treat."
     ----"What Good Is Being Cranky (When It's Christmas Time)"

The melodies are never less than pleasant, but many lack vibrancy or surprise. Many different composers collaborated, and the two with Callaway's own melodies are among the stronger ones—the title number and the ethereal "Fly with the Angels." Michael Feinstein contributed a nice tune for "My Gift of Thanks" and Matthew Sklar (composer of Elf and The Wedding Singer) is aboard for the very, very delicate "I Saw a Sparrow" and the saucy brat's complaint that "Santa Doesn't Like Me," which works pretty well in a pouty way, though it could be more audacious and hammy.

Ann's special way of investing sincerity into songs with her loving touch and honeyed vocals have the odd effect of both seeming to artfully elevate the folksy stuff and revealed as gifts of threadbare material, not being up to the level of the velvet wrapping paper that is her voice. Gamely, she croons with hushed awe at more mundanely described sights, sometimes holding back, for there's only so much one can do with generic descriptions and moods without sounding odd pouring on out-of-proportion fervor or amazement.

On the plus side, Ann finds suitable religious respect and awe in "Discovery" with Wesley Whatley's nicely matched melody in a number about the birth of Jesus, with a lyric that lets her become someone questioning the traveling shepherd and wise men about the momentous event and raise her voice in praise. It's surely one of the strongest pieces here. With another selection by the same composer, the singer channels her inner child's sense of wonder for a satisfying "I Believe," which you may have heard, as it's been sung by the various performers—several times by that music superstar Kermit The Frog, including at New York City's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Featured lyricist William Schermerhorn is in charge of the Broadway performances there each year for Macy's, which also sponsors grants for his and Whatley's musical geared for families and school presentations, Yes Virginia. Although "I Believe," like that musical, is about being convinced that Santa exists, it's not from that score and neither is anything else on the CD. I've heard the songs from that score and find them far superior to most of what's on this disc, having both catchier music and more satisfying lyrics. Writing for specific characters and plot situations likely presents more inspiration and focus than coming up with something to say about the well-trod territory of winter weather, whether or not loved ones will be together for the holiday, and how romantic love and/or Christmas can make everything idyllic.

The presence of some superlative guesting musicians—Jay Ashby (trombone, percussion, also arranger on some numbers), Marty Ashby (guitar, banjo, also producer), Tim Horner (drums), Martin Wind (bass), Ted Rosenthal (piano), and guest Hubert Laws (his flute is the sparrow on the song about that bird)—and the heavenly harmonies of The New York Voices swirling around on the title song and "Discovery" all add a lot of satisfying colors. And, no question: I find Ann Hampton Callaway's sound so intrinsically satisfying, that I am always glad to hear it. To invoke the cliché, I could listen to her sing the phone book. This CD is certainly many steps more interesting than that, despite its minuses. I'll play it again for its pluses. But I'll always prefer her earlier Christmas album and the other fine work she has released. She'll be doing some holiday concerts, including one on the 12th with the organization that released this CD, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh.


Miranda Music

Although her well-written, well-performed, and endearing original posing the rhetorical question "Isn't this the 'Perfect Christmas'?" actually refers to a specific day and person, Tracy Stark could easily be echoing my feeling about what the contents of A New York Holiday can provide in musical terms. It's perfectly balanced between sacred and secular, and variety is one of its great values, capturing so many aspects of Christmas while showcasing the skills of New York City-based cabaret singers, musicians, and songwriters. Accompanying herself and many of the New York City-based cabaret artists as pianist/musical director, the Stark strengths are consistently evident. With talent overflowing, stickiness banished, and a marvelous range of genres and voice types, the CD on the Miranda Music label is highlighted by the several uniformly top-notch new pieces.

Let me mention those other originals first. Guitarist Sean Harkness (who starts off the disc supplementing the serious mood set by label founder Kitty Skrobela with a spoken piece, "The Shortest Day") mesmerizes with his instrumental composition called "Holy Days." On "Better Say Yes," Marissa Mulder, winner of many cabaret awards, nails the mixed feelings engendered by the overwhelming presence of the holiday, whether one resists it or embraces it, in this neat trick Rick Jensen wrote and accompanies. Bill Zeffiro (singer/pianist/music/lyric) on "So It's Christmas" is heartbreaking with his performance that confronts the aching loneliness the holidays can bring when memories of happier times with a loved one still haunt. "The Christmas Tree" (Fred Hersch/David Hajdu) is a sly slice of life about a lazy day after too many holiday headaches, when it's past due time for getting rid of the tree that's sagging, too.

Thrilling, rangy voices are like flashes of lightning when they also invoke the confirmed belief and respect connected to the birth of Jesus. Cases in point here: Hilary Kole's moody "I Wonder as I Wander," Kathleen France's powerful and radiant "One More Hallelujah," and Joshua Lance Dixon's riveting, building "Let There Be Peace on Earth." A commanding Julie Reyburn, with Mark Janas stately on piano, brings majesty and shadings to "In the Bleak Midwinter." Some of the selections feature a choir that is elegant and enhancing, not overdone or synthetic-sounding like on some Christmas albums. The voices are mainly those who also are on the disc as soloists.

More familiar secular items include some lighter fare done with fresh flair. Sue Matsuki's smooth glide through "Sleigh Ride" is more hip than hokey, with the decision to have Tom Hubbard's bass be the basic accompaniment in Gregory Toroian's cool arrangement. The CD's producer, Richard Barone, invests such joie de vivre in a rollicking rendition of Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" that it sets off lingering sparks of happy energy. Heart and soul—as in R&B—arrives with label regular Marcus Simeone's plaintive power-packed "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Maria Ottavia is tender on an especially thoughtful, nuanced "Merry Christmas, Darling," just one more gem in the 19-track treasure chest.


Home and Yonder

I'm predisposed to want to cheer on any singer who champions the more neglected work of Golden Age songwriters that gets overshadowed by the big standards that get recorded over and over and over. So, the singer going by the single name of Jeudi, who makes it a mission to mine them, got my attention—and her stylish way of singing gets my smiling approval.

While she also sprinkles in some better-known things, like Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," in her super-cozy seasonal survey, there's an abundance of stuff we don't hear on a regular basis. Six of the 14 songs are from the 1930s, with just two born after the 1957 Bobby Troup sweetheart song, "I'd Like You for Christmas," a vocal duet with her very capable (on all counts) arranger/pianist/co-producer, John Boswell. "And Suddenly It's Christmas" is a 1986 collaboration of Burton Lane and Ervin Drake, and the album's title number is from the score of the animated feature Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, from the decade of the 1960s by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Styne is also represented by the World War II classic "I'll Walk Alone," its Sammy Cahn lyric tweaked for Christmas. Vintage-voiced Jeudi sounds at home in all of these decades, but certainly evokes the old school "thrush" who sang with the band, waited for her soldier boy to come back from overseas, and had a wedding ring and Christmas bell to ring all picked out.

While some Christmas albums of yore (and now) seem to come with the idea that sentiment needs lots of strings, bells, chimes, and a choir, this one stands out with the smart choice of having just two instrumentalists in addition to the pianist. With guitarist/co-producer David Boswell (making it a bit of a family affair) and violinist Yvette Holzwarth completing the trio, each instrument's flavor is fully impactful, the uncluttered accompaniment adding to the simple but effective directness that is an asset. A kind of salon soiree feel on some tracks, especially right for the retro feel.

There's a smile in the lady's voice and her contented perspective seems to be influenced by the wearing of rose-colored glasses. The album's subtitle is very apt—the approaches are both Swingin' and Sentimental, sometimes a mix of the two. On the livelier side, there's the truly celebratory story of "It's Winter Again" (Arthur Freed/Al Hoffman/Al Goodhart) and her zippy romp through "Santa Claus Came in the Spring," an early example of Johnny Mercer doing both music and lyrics. The happy, perky ambiance is infectious, and the performer comes off like a genuinely happy, ageless sprite worthy of being Santa's elfin employee. The admonishment to "get lost!" rhymingly addressed to pesky "Little Jack Frost" (Al Stillman/ Sefer Ellis) is another bouncy and blithe twinkle that might easily turn saccharine in others' hands, but the mix of pluck and sass is disarming. And "There's Frost on the Moon" (Joe Young/ Fred E. Ahlert) is anything but chilly.

Indeed, with treatments like this and the already-snuggly love songs, the chosen title of Winter Was Warm could not be more appropriate. This Winter festival has a breezy feel, but no worrisome wind/chill factor.


LML Music

With an earlier Christmas album already under his belt (2006), vocalist Russ Lorenson digs deeper into the musical snowfall to find mostly rarely unearthed delights in a mostly peppy parade. And he's just the guy to do it, with a buoyant spirit and a robust energy that will eschew the goo that can sometimes take over merrier Christmas songs. Making sure things have plenty of high-energy swing and zing, a brassy "Big Band" (well, eight players) led by keyboardist (and sleigh bell ringer!) Kelly Park brings the kick. It's a bright, bracing affair with some sweet balladeering to vary the tone. But it's very much an upbeat, celebratory atmosphere that dominates, with no fear that that "The Christmas Blues" (Sammy Cahn/ David Jack Holt) will dampen the spirit for even a moment. Lorenson and Park take it in their stride, and it's hardly a deep shade of blue to start with. Another Cahn lyric, set to Ken Lane's melody, "A Winter Romance," is mistakenly credited to the writer of another seasonal tune not included. Both of these were on Dean Martin's 1959 album, but not so widely circulated otherwise. I find them to be two of the prolific Cahn's lesser efforts, but Lorenson treats them affectionately.

"It'll Be Christmas Before You Know It," a more recent addition to the holiday alerts (Henry Cory/Paul Rolnick) gets a juicy blast of enthusiasm that is typical of the album. But my favorite performance on the likeable disc, by far, is something called "Mrs. Claus." I know it sounds like it's going to be maybe dopey or a comic jab, but it's bathed in sincerity the way he paints the details of a loving, patient wife's habits with such convincing tenderness. And it is especially impressive due to the fact that the lady who is the subject of the song—spoiler alert!—is a non-existent person. Songwriters Nancy Schimmel (lyric) and Candace Forrest(music) are, like the singer, based in San Francisco.

The religious side of the holiday isn't even alluded to until the next-to-last number, a double-tracked vocal recreation of the counterpoint combination of "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Peace on Earth" memorably created for the odd couple of Bing Crosby and David Bowie for Crosby's final TV special. That carol about the poor kid with no gift to give baby Jesus but a percussion performance is the only super-famous number among 15 selections. Other than that, it's all about Santa, romantic Christmastime rendezvous, and signs of the season.

In the Holiday Spirit includes some numbers we know from other male singers who (co-)wrote and recorded them for Christmases past, but haven't been much heard otherwise. There are two from John Pizzarelli's album: "Santa Claus Is Here" and its title number, "Let's Share Christmas" (a collaboration of Pizzarelli and his late pianist Ray Kennedy). Russ is a kindred soul appreciating spunk and unaffected affection, echoing the sensibilities. Back in the 1960s, Steve Lawrence had crooned the early-bird season's greetings in "Let Me Be the First to Wish You Merry Christmas" (co-written with Berl Rothfield) and Lorenson latches onto that creamy crooning approach.

Hugh Martin, who wrote the iconic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," also came up with a merry bigger yuletide observation, encompassing the whole planet and the salutations in numerous languages—"It's Christmas Time All Over the World." The San Francisco Boys Chorus chipperly chime in with multi-lingual wishes. It's a festive finale for a quite enjoyable recital from a solid singer with a knockout band knocking out one not-overdone number after another—that's enough reason to be extra merry this year.


If the AF of M will forgive me, sometimes human voices are all the instruments we need for musical wonder and impact. In the case of Christmas songs we have heard forever, very often making them somehow more spare and direct makes them feel new and unchained. In this reissue of a couple of volumes of performances by Derric Johnson's choir, which he calls his Vocal Orchestra because the voices do everything an instrumental orchestra might, we have the glories of Christmas carols and non-sacred songs and can appreciate them in this fresh way. Of course, with the singers called on to swell more, provide a bass line, stretch notes, echo lines, sing counterpoint lines with either words or just vowel sounds and consonants, we can be impressed by their versatility and musicality beyond interpreting lyrics and hitting the basic notes. With no instrumental interludes as breaks, and an agenda of not belaboring things much, most tracks are quite short and we never get the chance to have our minds wander or be bored with repetition or developments that might feel anticlimactic. Only "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" with its built-in "add-on" repeating of numbered items in the many verses becomes a bit tiresome.

The carols treated with the greatest reverence and elegance are the most breathtaking and striking. "Joy to the World," a marvel of multi-part, layered singing and re-shaped lines, is almost epic in scope. Besides the old standbys, such as a respectful, serene "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," we get more unusual choices such as "Carol of the Russian Children," a welcome choice. And, unlike any of the other albums reviewed above, that other religion's holiday gets some attention; there's a spirited medley of Hanukkah songs.

The popular standards are a mixed bag with this all-vocal treatment. While "I'll Be Home for Christmas" benefits from the beauty and serious attention, making its longing for family and familiar sights gain gravitas and the "only in my dreams" ending all the more tragic, other numbers can't carry this weight. The golden tones and rangey voices are wasted and the option taken it to try to be playful. So, the voices are forced to resort to chant the trifle of trifles, "Jingle Bells," and after the line "laughing all the way" adding voice-grouped repeating "ha" or "hee." And in "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," when the line comes about kids sleeping, there's a lame snoring sound. But, when Maestro Johnson's arrangements stay in territory that shows off the beautiful music lines, embellishing them and also serving to bring out the many colors of the voices in different groupings, the work is something special to behold.


Timeless Grooves Records

Here's another bright new song for the season, released as a single. Singer Rebecca Angel is 19 and she has a bright, clear sound. "My Favorite Time of the Year" carries the day with enthusiasm in the delivery of its simply stated message about the time of giving and all the visual aspects of winter. Sunny spirits certainly beam through this unpretentious number about the time when weather can be anything but sunny and warm. There's an easygoing verve to the voice and song, which has music and lyric by her father Dennis Angel, who also plays flugelhorn and is joined by several musicians, including arranger/producer Jason Miles on keyboards and synthesized bass. The lilting melody and happy singing suggest a swift swirl around the skating rink. Rebecca raised her voice in song on "Tea for Two" as guest on an earlier release by her pop. We can see what other material she has up her sleeve when she performs at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room two days before Christmas, during her favorite time of the year.

- Rob Lester

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