Sound Advice Reviews
Holiday Hearing, Vintage 2011
Also see Rob's review of Elf
Each season, new holiday-themed recordings emerge and, despite a zillion versions, it's the famously usual suspects that dominate, secular or sacred. Enter humming. But there's always a fresh approach somewhere for a classic, a few new or little-known songs amid reheated chestnuts, and something worn brought back to glitter-shorn simple basics.
VARIOUS BROADWAY PERFORMERS, ETC.
With mainly Broadway's performers taking the mics, this year's holiday recording fundraiser for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS charity is what we've come to expect: a mixed bag of the traditional and cheeky, lovely and loony, powerhouse singing aplenty. Among the 25 tracks on the two-disc set are some tracks that might sound like any fine Christmas albumskilled and vibrant voices singing traditional songs in traditional wayswith an extra dose of dynamite. Blandness is generally a stranger, phoniness or phoning it in is not the way it goes. What makes the sets special is when the theatre folk indulge in type casting of the most fun kind: treatments of familiar songs taking on the personality/genre of the music from the show represented by the cast. This may be in the form of high-spirited highjacking of a classic song and re-shaping or re-styling it, adding new lyrics to an old standby, or the creation of a brand new song.
Daniel Radcliffe starts things off with sass, with satirical songsmith Tom Lehrer's old snide but on-the-money tirade about Christmas becoming about hard-sell selling of products. With some lyrics set to snippets of yuletide melodies we'll later hear in their traditional glory, it rants about merchants out for mountains of money, knowing well "how to succeed in business." Memphis is one of three shows getting an original piece by Jason Michael Webb, who wears many musical hats on the CD: "Give Away Love" features the recent Best Musical Tony Award winner leads in characterMontego Glover belting, Chad Kimball commenting as "radio show host," and cast members joining in on an earnest song added to the genre of those imploring us all to make Christmas about caring and sharing instead of merchandise and shopping. More adventurous, suitably intense and grand is when Webb spins something for the web of Spider-Man ... with the rocker "St. Nicholas Sky." Best is a disco-flavored "Light It Up!" for Priscilla Queen of the Desert, with guest diva divine Martha Wash (The Weather Girls and solo singer) ripping it up in grand style.
A genre mutiny is afoot as the shipmates of Anything Goes take the show's title literally and, instead of riding the wave of their Cole Porter/1930s effervesce, opt to sail into contemporary musical waters for the raucous "Christmas on the S.S. American" (the show's conductor James Lowe's hip-hop-happy music, with cast member Robert Creighton's lyrics referencing some of the show's details and doing the rap himself). In the close-to-type "doing it our show's way" department this year, the tracks that jump out are cast members of The Addams Family making merry in their macabre manner, substituting preferred creepy gifts for the the originals in "The 12 Days of Christmas" (here, it's 13 days): cadavers and maggots among them. It's foolish but fitting and they seem to be having a field day of fun (no credit is given for the revised words). Also on the silly/cute side, Avenue Q company members raise their puppet voices in song for "Deck the Halls."
Successfully on the reverent side, The Lion King cast does part of their "Silent Night" in a language heard in South Africa, Sesotho. Other highlights among the more serious moments are a knockout "Waiting for the Snow to Fall," a recent original by Billy Elliot cast member Kevin Neil Bernard, among the show's singers of all ages. Numerous carols get mostly soulful, traditional turns or gospel wailing turned on high, like "Angels We Have Heard on High" with Sister Act actors getting into the act and going on as if there's no tomorrowbut, then again, they play convent choir members, so I guess they have a right. I prefer the less-is-more approach vocal duet of Matt Doyle and Kate Pfaffl (also sole accompanist on piano) on "The First Noel," representing War Horse.
The Christmas warhorses of song are trotted out again on this album for an important cause and there's something for everyone. With personality and power, production not cutting corners with all kinds of solid, dazzling instrumentation, it's a wise choice for theatre-lovers and Christmas music fans with an adventurous side.
It's kind of a fun idea to gather guys who've been in different companies of the hit musical Jersey Boys and let the "Boys" sing of Christmas joys in the style and sound they do on stage: namely the legacy of pop's Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. The real-life group recorded a holiday album in 1962 and, though this new item uses the ready-made title wordplay that was used in the original vinyl issue's title, it does not duplicate that set list, with only a few shared songs. What they do here is reference or echo some specific hit record trademark sounds that fans will note immediately and liner notes point out for others. Significantly, this new CD is produced by Bob Gaudio, member of The Four Seasons, who wrote or co-wrote some of their songs and has been involved with the biographical Broadway show. Associate producer and keyboard player is Ron Melrose; he's the arranger and musical director, having done those last two duties for the stage production and wrote incidental music for it, too.
I don't relish being a semi-Scrooge, but some tracks work far better than others, considering the different possible agendas: being Frankie Valli/ Four Seasons pastiched paeans, showcasing the singers, and, beyond that, as holiday fare. Some cuts succeed on one count but on another, not so much. As far as the emulation situation, the arrangement/structure/Seasons-quotingthat's sometimes more impressive than the execution.
With 17 tracks, some featuring medleys, we have a very full Christmas stocking that weighs down with 24 holiday songs in all, plus those quotes from The Four Seasons' hits sprinkled in like so much snow. It's kind of exhausting. The biggest danger in side-by-side performances of a few who've played Frankie Valli is instant comparisons of the challenge of approximating his piercing, strong high falsetto without sounding effortful, too thin, too shrill. The original Broadway star, John Lloyd Young, Tony Award-honored, comes off as winner and still champion, with an ease and charisma that others can't match. His spotlight solos of a sophisticatedly jazzy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the song expanded with melody/lyric material jazz stylings, is smoothly navigated. And his contrasting medley of Santa Claus songs is spiffily spun.
The talented Joseph Leo Bwarie comes off well as he brings a gentle spirit and vulnerability to "The Little Drummer Boy," a song others have made excruciatingly cloying or tedious. He's less successful saddled with a tepid treatment of "Jingle Bell Rock," forced into the high-helium voice territory, exacerbated by more of the same from too-close-sounding backing vocalists, a pattern that mars other tracks to overkill. (More is less.) Jarrod Spector's "I'll Be Home for Christmas" shows his skills of phrasing and balladry nicely, melisma and purer falsetto notes employed judiciously and with care. (His "A King Is Born" is more troubled and cluttered.) The Australia company's Bobby Fox, London's Ryan Molloy, and Las Vegas's Travis Cloer and Rick Faugno don't triumph over the hurdles as well as the aforementioned.
And then, at the end of the Christmas Day, one wants more than a gimmick or cloning, even if close, to enjoy familiar songs beyond as an exercise. The CD is growing on me, though some of the stronger tracks don't mainly depend on Valli-voicing victories. I suspect that some Jersey Boys fans will find it to be heavenly and/or a hoot. Or maybe just cute.
In the maze and blaze of annual Christmas albums, with a glut of gimmicks, big productions, artificial sweeteners, noise, forced joys and Jersey Boys or whatnot, sometimes sincerity and understated elegance shine through. Such is the case with Ronny Whyte and his new CD, (perhaps inevitably) titled Whyte Christmas. The singer-pianist has been unassumingly taking the high road for many years, putting the material lovingly center stage. He keeps things simple but not simplistic, with subtle colorings rather than blinding neon. He sings in a conversational, storytelling manner, phrasing naturally and relishing words and feelings, bringing buoyant goodwill to a couple of change-of-pace numbers.
It's all about the spirit of the season or the cold weather itself. There are warming-up songs about winter (beginning with a smooth "Sleigh Ride" that steers clear of a slide into too-cute perkiness) and seven songs with the word "Christmas" in the title, but nothing is chosen from the religious side of holiday songs: not a carol to be heard, with neither Bethlehem nor the babe in the manger to be addressed. Most have a cozy by-the-fireside feel. A few Sinatra-associated songs are on hand, such as the homespun nostalgia of "Mistletoe and Holly" and the sweet "Christmas Dreaming" (combined with "White Christmas"). Daryl Sherman guests for an agreeably playful duet on "That Holiday Feeling," short at just over two minutes, but long enough to make it clear how much he and she enjoy each other's company. Instrumental company is choice, with Boots Maleson on bass, Vinson Valega drumming, Harry Allen on tenor sax for six tracks and John Hart's guitar on just five, but adding immensely to the moods and intimacy.
A 2010 entry hitting the holiday home run for new material, "Always Christmas in New York" is a gem, a splendid match of Whyte's own melody and Roger Schore's romantic lyric name-dropping NYC spots and hitting the sweet spot. It even rhymes the not-very-romantic-sounding Brooklyn area of Gowanus! Among the older material is a very early Burt Bacharach/ Hal David collaboration, "Winter Warm." And things end with the Maltby/Shire "I Don't Remember Christmas" (with less vitriol and angst than we typically getit's even jaunty in its determined denials) and the special lyric set to it by David Levy and Leslie Eberhard, "I Don't Remember Purim," full of mentions of Jewish holidays and kosher delicacies. It's an unusual ending to an otherwise rather tender, heartfelt, feel-good holiday songfest who can freshen stale songs by just being true to them.
This CD is hot off the press and is not widely available online. For now, it's being sold through JazzCares.coman organization that lets artists earmark a part of sales to charities such as victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina or professional musicians needing a helping hand.
LYNN DiMENNA & BOB SPIOTTO
Casual winks at wintertime come with jolly goodwill by two pals, Lynn DiMenna and Bob Spiotto, in just a trio of tunes comprising this EP. Likeable Lynn has been a musical multi-tasker on the cabaret scene, a radiant song-appreciator whether singing with a band, being part of the radio/online "At the Ritz" program, or writing about singers as a reviewer for Cabaret Scenes Magazine. Past teamings with Bob Spiotto included his guesting for duets in her Dinah Shore tribute show and CD. Their easygoing chemistry is on display here.
Lynn breezes cheerily through Steve Allen's jazzy "Cool Yule" with Bob joining in for lines as Santa Claus, adopting a gravel-voiced hipster tone instead of his natural smooth, light one. (The song was Louis Armstrong's turf many Christmases ago.) The pair's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is genial and gentle, refreshing absent of the tired smarmy flirtation some belabor with this Frank Loesser classic. It's all good clean fun in a plucky way, their spoken moments seeming unforced, too, as they glide through the song, not breaking ground but also not breaking a sweat. Last and best is the oldie-but-cutie "Little Jack Frost, Get Lost" which is a sweet marshmallow of a holiday song, and it gets a bubbly, upbeat airing here. Accompaniment is likewise bright and un-fussy. The "jolly" joy these folks are having is evident, and the songs of "Cool" and "Cold" and that winter sprite are inflected with bonhomie.
H2 (SEAN HARKNESS & MIKE HERRIOTT)
Highly visible Sean Harkness is the guitarist of choice for a staggering number of NYC cabaret singers, his Bistro Award as outstanding instrumentalist and the MAC Award for his own debut as a solo artist in clubs and nominated for his prior CD with flugelhorn-playing colleague Mike Herriott nominated, too, I am happy to find they have just issued a Christmas album. When working together, they call themselves H2 (H-squared). Their Christmas collaboration is especially satisfying. It's not just that both play with taste and distinction, but they are respectful of the 10 traditional and sacred songs included without ever seeming creatively intimidated. And their snuggled-into renditions of "Christmas Time Is Here" and the melody that gives the CD its title (appealingly given a chill pill from its usual pep rally-ing cry) work quite well, too.
It's quite the accomplishment that they can approach one melody conservatively and take another, like "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," and loosen its formal, reverent architecture to seduce it into loose jazz sensibilities and make it feel just as at home for the holidays. They play with overlapping lines and phrases, answering each other or staying in a unison approach, to make it all feel right in the same number ("O Tanenbaum") and then branch out with new growth but not losing the thread. "Carol of the Bells," not what one might expect a duo of this sort to tackle, is aced as a showpiece that builds without the approximating of the dizzying ding-dong that would be cheap frenzy.
While the interactive work is compelling, solo times never "time out" on the interest scale. Striking and haunting is the special studio mixing of the dreamlike brass sounds for "Meditation on 'Lo, How E'er Rose Blooming'" and it stays in the mind. On the Harkness "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," the guitar does seem to sing and rejoice.
Home for the Holidays brings so much to the table beyond holiday evocation that I daresay it could find a home in CD players, iPods, etc. during non-holiday time. The mind may say "December," but appreciative ears know no season.
DOUG MUNRO AND LA POMPE ATTACK
Any Christmas album that has a novel approach and sound with truly fresh energy can make me stop in my tracks and grab my ear.
A Very Gypsy Christmas does that. Sorry, fellow musical theater fans: it has nothing to do with the Broadway score of Gypsy! It's inspired by the legacy of iconic guitarist Django Reinhardt: the Hot Club of France quintet era, the swing and joyful feel, with some mellowed meditation, applied to 15 holiday evergreens. In the hands of Doug Munro, the guitar is the star and it's a very happy sound commanding attention and respect. His impressive instrumental cohorts are fellow guitarist Ernie Pugliese, bassist Michael Goetz, and violinist Howie Bujese, who adds particular beauty or vigor. And Ken Peplowski's clarinet notably adds infectious zip, with understated wistfulness for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Followers of newer-to-the-scene vocalists will be especially glad to know that French-born Cyrille-Aimée Daudel (now generally billed without the last name) is aboard for three selections. This intriguing-sounding jazz singer has created quite a stir in a rather brief recent time. And she's captivating here: her lovely and disarming "Christmas Time Is Here" has a crushed velvet sound, "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") lets singer and guitar wrap themselves around each other with a hint of Billie Holiday's sound, and a "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is a bundle of fun without being the least bit goofy and childish. A welcome, well-done breezily scatted chorus shows another skill. The inclusion of the introductory verse sweetly done before the tempo of the chorus kicks in is one more plus.
It's the religious songs that surprise and make one stand up and take notice; you'd think they might not adapt to the style, but they get a whole new lease on life without feeling disrespected at all. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is not just merry but funky and catchy. Welcome to the party, Gentlemen.
With Doug Munro's gypsy band at the ready, be ready for a grand, energizing time.
For easygoing holiday/winter mood-setting instrumentals, a small band featuring Chris Bauer on harmonica might do the trick. He's been playing the instrument for four decades, is the son of a harmonica player, and certainly knows how to make the mouth organ sing and display variety. He can be smoothly legato and gentle, higher-energy, bluesy, showy or gruff. Sharing the spotlight withor yielding it tofour fine musicians, we don't often overdose on the harmonica sound. But a little goes a long way when it starts to sound dangerously, if blessedly briefly, like an unimaginative accordion in a wedding band. There's fine work from guitarist Chris Ziemer, keyboardist Glenn McClelland, bassist Matt Parrish, and drummer Dave Mohn. No track or solo is overly indulgent or lengthy or totally predictable from the first impression. It works as enjoyable music in the foreground or background. The 16 songs are all super-famous ones. The understated yet sophisticated "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas is a highlight, a real mood-setter that stays warm and toasty and tasty, allowing for some musical experimentation and the bassist's bowing and piano tinkling of the best kind.
While some cuts are inconsequentially laidback to feel lazy-tempoed and less involving ("Feliz Navidad" and much of "Home for the Holidays"), some are quite engaging and inventive indeed. A few start off sounding like we'll be traveling down the musical road too often plowed in a sing-songy-sing-alongable ways, but the path takes a welcome original turn after the melody is established (as if it needs to be!) to save us from a trip to Muzakville. There are some surprising tempo choices. Broadway is represented by The Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things," with some zip. "White Christmas" eschews sentimentality. And CD producer Rob Paparozzi gets into the act terrifically, playing blues harp and singing on the album's only track with a vocal: his gruff-voiced, playful "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" also lets the players cut loose and instrumentally quote some other tunes.
While Gounod's "Ave Maria," which McClelland sits out, ends the CD back on simple, familiarly reverent ground, the other three religious songs turn out to get the best revampings and reimaginings, and they work well. "O Tanenbaum" becomes mellow and hip, and "We Three Kings of Orient Are" is sly fun with vim. Lastly, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" avoids the peppy, piping or staccato sounds it's so often saddled withhere, it's jazz, eschewing the sameness of briskly even beats. It has an appealingly slo-mo opening and then kicks into cool gear with some of the best solo work.