Sound Advice Reviews
Holiday/Christmas Music Part One
It's that time once more: new and re-released holiday-themed sets, with very familiar standbys and some unusual or even new songs chosen. But it seems that almost everybody comes back to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," whether part of a little set on an EP or a full-length gathering of merry. Here are some things harvested from this year's crop.
STEPHANIE J. BLOCK
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is fervent and hopeful when Stephanie J. Block parses the lyric in a personal way, giving more weight to some words via little pauses, different vocal colors, or stretching out notes here and there. Overall, it's quite a cozy kind of Christmas when this Broadway fave brings every warm wish to imbue her set list with large helpings of gratitude, wonder and sincerity. The title song of Merry Christmas, Darling, which laments not being together with that special someone during the holidays, is an outlier here among the cavalcade of contentment and three famous awe-filled reflections on the birth of the Christ child. Singing some lines in a breathy way is the M.O. for telegraphing intimate emotions and wonderment, but there's juicy vocal oomph in store when things build. Sounding convincingly in-the-moment invested in lyrics and moods largely prevents the performances of the most famous material from seeming predictable and might make moments more justifiable when they veer into "cute" territory.
This new release on Club44 Records finds each of its multi-tasking co-founders, Wayne Haun and Joel Lindsey, involved in songwriting, orchestrating and production–alone or in collaboration with various folks. Accompaniment varies from simple to elaborate, with Jason Webb the effective pianist on most of the 12-track collection. It includes the powerful version of "O Holy Night" released as a single last year.
Two numbers not ostensibly about Christmas, but that have that association from showing up on other albums and concerts of the season, are intertwined. There are more than the usual blessings to count when "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)" (from the film White Christmas) ping-pongs back and forth with that long list of those small pleasures named in "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. Another inventive choice is relaxing romantically into "Sleigh Ride," typically a precise speed drill, slowing down the first sections to a tender glide instead of a giddy giddyap.
"When You Hold Me in Your Arms (It's Christmas)" has Mr. Haun's orchestration and he co-wrote it with David Zippel. As the title suggests, it's a dewy-eyed lovey-dovey declaration, and the feelings are emphasized by it being presented as a duet with Stephanie J. Block's husband, Sebastian Arcelus, a Broadway vet himself. This track includes bits of spoken dialogue that has them chatting about decorating their home that may charm some and distract others. With the classic "The Little Drummer Boy" retitled "Little Drummer Girl," their eight-year-old daughter, Vivienne Arcelus, gets to disarmingly sing the first part and reappear at the end, with her mom (who also did the arrangement) handling the rest, segueing into singing narrator mode as the plot thickens with gender pronouns switched and the story segues into third-person narration mode. Hearing these performances with spouse and child informs the listening experience drinking in the sweetness of the closing cut, "God Bless My Family," written by Ann Hampton Callaway, whose breezier collaboration with Lindy Robbins, a tour of the sights of "Manhattan in December," is another Merry Christmas, Darling pleasure trip.
Johnny Mathis has had more than a little history recording "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The commanding and caringly phrased rendition on the newly issued Christmas Time Is Here, building to a robust ending, is the fourth version released over the years by this legendary singer, who has put out seven Christmas albums in all. There are ten tracks on this splendid set, all vocals recorded in 2022, four of which were available last year on a digital EP, including "Have Yourself ..." Starting with supportive piano (Jim Cox) and rhythm, orchestral tracks were added later for "sweetening," but nothing gets overblown. If you have other reasons to get a lingering sense of déjà vu, it may be because most of the songs were presented in other musical arrangements in that parade of holiday discs that began back in 1958 with an LP simply called Merry Christmas that had the first Mathis handlings of two numbers also present here: "White Christmas" (with the introductory verse) and "Blue Christmas." The distinctive Mathis sound caressing the melodies and words is as endearing as ever.
If, in places, his singing is understandably more restrained and more careful in his late 80s, the gentle approach suits this gentleman and makes the material feel conversational or suggesting an earned, secure confidence, and the religious numbers benefit from a quieter reverence. It's subdued, but sublime. He sounds ageless throughout "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" by Meredith Willson, with pure head tones on high notes; it's achingly beautiful. This number weaves in "The First Noel" instrumentally to make it more Christmas-specific.
Kristin Chenoweth guests for a sunny-spirited duet on "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" with some chummy banter; it includes the song's fun lyrics about toys (mentioning such desired gifts as "curly-haired dolls that toddle and coo/ Elephants, boats and kiddie cars, too ...") that many vocalists don't get to.
Johnny Mathis cemented his association with the season long ago, and it's nice to have these revisits and a couple of things he hadn't put his stamp and style on before, like the invitingly soothing "Auld Lang Syne," the perfect balm to end the calendar year and the season.
Beginning arrestingly a capella, Julie Benko's gorgeous reading of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" continues the stripped-down approach by having only understated piano tip-toeing through the rest of this very tender treatment. It's breathtaking. The pianist/arranger and her co-producer for all four numbers on the EP Christmas with You is Jason Yeager, who similarly partnered with the singer, seen on Broadway in Funny Girl and now in Harmony, on 2022's full-length recording, Hand in Hand. (He's also her husband.) Also enjoyable are his crisp band arrangements for the other three tracks, which are more carefree.
The singer wears her songwriter hat for the fond "(I Never Had a) Christmas with You," a smile-inducingly splashy duet shared with Mykal Kilgore. His bluesy, earthy vocal timbre complements her sweeter tone; there's real camaraderie chemistry in this pleasantly laidback tempo with the band cooking on a low but steady flame. The 1950 number anticipating the arrival from the North Pole of a certain Mr. Claus, "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man with the Bag," is chipper and cheery, smoothly sailed through by Julie Benko and the musicians. A very lively and undeniably catchy traditional Ukrainian-Yiddish folk song, "Tumbalalaika," which she sings partly in English, rounds out the decidedly eclectic mini-mix.
GEORGE GEE SWING ORCHESTRA
You're sure to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with the more-than-merry music supplied by the group conducted by George Gee on Winter Wonderland. If you think that the annual overexposure is making you tune out the famous holiday tunes, these six brass players plus the rhythm trio (piano/bass/drums) jazz up the holiday tunes with added adrenalin. Trumpeter David Gibson is music director, arranger, and producer. The George Gee Swing Orchestra swings into action with John Dokes providing crisp, clear, unpretentious vocals on half of the ten tracks, including a low-key "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that makes it kind of a friendly party invitation promising a swell, virtually worry-free time. There's less confidence about his own romantic invitation being accepted in the medium tempo "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" by Frank Loesser. In a relaxed vocal duet, the same songwriter's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" reaches for its original presumed non-lecherous playful bantering with Hilary Gardner guesting.
Perhaps seeing the song title "What Child Is This?" on the set list and anticipating hearing–or just having in mind–the lyric about the holiness of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary could make one wonder if it will feel just too irreverent. But it is not one of the vocals and, of course, the melody itself has a non-religious source as "Greensleeves" and has been borrowed for other lyrics, too. In any case, it's a "joyful noise" type of celebration. Indeed the instrumentals delight the ear with surprise and zing as old relics get bright new musical identities. "Winter Wonderland" is immense fun as a sizzling high-energy mambo. "Jingle Bells" has more than the old familiar ring and there are some diverting embellishments of melody lines throughout. Only "O Tanenbaum" meanders and loses some momentum mid-way.
Dance, sway, and swirl along with the feel-good ensemble making spirits bright with this recording. In person, the George Gee Swing Orchestra continues its appearances in Manhattan's theatre district at Swing 46; they've been there regularly for 26 years, making merry.