Sound Advice Reviews
Another Holiday Haul
It's that mid-December moment when the year is approaching its end, but there's seemingly no end to catching up with holiday-themed recordings. So, here are some more that have come our way.
If we're making a list and checking it twice to make sure we haven't missed any worthy new holiday recordings that came in under-the-wire/under-the-radar, we need We Need a Little Christmas to be added. It's simply too good to miss. Kenneth Gartman, the strong singer expressing strong feelings with aplomb, is also his own polished pianist here. Chameleon-like, he convincingly switches gears to inhabit songs that demand sensibilities that are sentimental, cynical, philosophical or joyful. His work is enriched by the expertise of two musicians: Hiroko Taguchi (who's also played her violin and viola in Broadway pits and on many singers' CDs) and Tom Hubbard (the familiar face on bass chosen by jazz and cabaret artists and the Broadway by the Year series at The Town Hall).
This is the debut solo recording of Texas-born Gartman, who began in opera, moving on to musical theatre. Active in both New York City and Connecticut, the many hats he's worn include cabaret performer (solo and with others), church music director, vocal coach, conductor, arranger, actor, accompanist, and creating/booking a cabaret space at B.J. Ryan's Magnolia Room in Norwalk, Connecticut. The supple voice's power is thoughtfully calibrated to the dramatic needs of material. Especially attractive are the highest head tones when they float to approach falsettolandand I wish there were more of that.
The repertoire features six songs written or co-written by David Friedman, with whom the performer has had an ongoing professional relationship. Included among these are "The Truth About Christmas" (which borrows the melody of the verse to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), an eyes-wide-open look at family interactions, and two elegantly presented life lessons from the oratorio King Island Christmas (lyrics by Deborah Brevoort). These are "It's Love," one example of the use of vocals blended effectively with Corinne Broadbent's singing to create a choir, and "The Gift of Trouble" in medley with Susan Werner's gently persuasive "May I Suggest."
A likably enthused Gartman lets us render gender irrelevant when he bubbles with the career goal statement "I Want to Be a Rockette" by Alan Menken and Tom Eyen, from the long-shelved Kicks: The Showgirl Musical. This high-energy number isn't all about that chorus line's annual Radio City Music Hall holiday shows, but that's just one degree of separation from qualifying as Yuletide-relevant. More calendar-specific, crooning the opinion that it would be best for a couple to stay home on Christmas Eve could hint at a 2020 advisory, but that's not what was imagined by the writers of the romance-drenched "Lots of Love from Me to You" (Ben Martini/ Bobbie Horowitz/ Sharon Spector) long ago.
While the 13-track We Need a Little Christmas is a carol-free zone, room is made for another religion's traditions with a rich, reverent rendition of "Chanukah Lights" (Marvin Hamlisch/ Craig Carnelia). But those candles aren't by any means the only things that have a special glow when Kenneth Gartman's voice and piano grace them.
With only ten tracksand one, the Rodgers & Hart ballad "My Romance" recycled from her first album, remixed nowAmber Weekes offers in quantity the least "generous" of the Christmas recordings reviewed this week, but her performances are generous of spirit. She appears to revel in all Yuletide tried-and-true subjects: snow, Santa, family reunions, and of course, the birth of the baby Jesus. With the vocalist's friendly persona and the musical arrangements offering up lots of strings and a little swing, The Gathering feels pretty homey and hospitable.
Judging by the way she presents herself, aided by a couple of lyric-specific references, snuggling contentedly by the fire would seem to be Weekes' preferred winter pastime when not in religious mode ("Silent Night" and "Some Children See Him," both addressed with due reverence and rumination). The secular set list covers very familiar territory, other than the title song, with her self-penned lyric about folks getting together for the holiday, with music by Mark Cargill (also the collection's producer/ arranger-conductor of strings and horns) and engineer Gregory Cook (guitar here as well as celeste on "Silent Night"). Also included are two items from the fruitful collaborations of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn: "The Christmas Waltz" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"
There are congratulatory comments in the physical CD from mentor Sue Raney, one of my all-time favorite singers, who duetted with Weekes on the title track of her prior release, Pure Imagination. I can hear some of the stylistic influence of her enviably "creamy" sound and fond approach to lyrics and melody lines. (And it may or may not be a coincidence that both ladies chose two of the same standards for their Christmas albums.) Indulgences that strike me as underwhelming on The Gathering are: first, an overreliance on intoning some words and phrases in a stage whisper and, second, the use of inserting spoken "asides," usually as a P.S. as a track is ending. Some will find these cute, whether she's addressing the listener and her parent after a peppy "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" or "enticing" her hoped-for date being asked "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" I gather that these idiosyncratic elements are an attempt to make things feel up-close and personal, but a singer this good and direct doesn't need to lean on gimmicks.
Although Weekes' output so far just consists of three albums, the willingness to embrace a range of genres thereintorch songs, soul, bossa nova, blues, religious materialmakes one encouraged and curious about her future projects.
If singer Simone Kopmajer's advisors are setting the agenda and mood, the message seems to be: "Have yourself a mellow little Christmas. Let your voice be light." This laidback approach to her recording titled, simply, Christmas brings us her generally gentle but genial vocals with a band that manages to sound both cozy and hip. Indeed, sometimes you can generate a lot of warmth with a "chill" personality. The 16 selections include some of the "usual suspects" among the American seasonal numbers, the now 50-year-old José Feliciano hit "Feliz Navidad," and some things sung in German (the native tongue of the Austria-born feathery-voiced artist, who's been recording regularly since 2004, although there's barely a trace of an accent). On many of the tracks she is joined by singing partners or supported by background vocalists.
Restraint can have its rewards. Taking on Christmas standards in an intimate way allows warhorses that often have glitz and glee laid on pretty thick or their served-up buttermilk of human kindness curdles. Kopmajer and company make sweetness more palatablealthough maybe not for the Grinchiest among ye. Too casual a listen to the waves of calm may lead one to mistake peaceful for pablum. Yes, we have "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" at its most unruffled, and the ultra-prettiness of the lazy-paced, saxophone-laced "Leise rieselt der schnee" (harmonizing with The Schick Sisters) makes perfect sense if you know the title line translates as "Softly falls the snow." Irving Berlin's evergreen "White Christmas" likewise makes the best case possible for welcoming snow the way it's cuddled up to here. Of the guest vocalists, Allan Harris seems especially at ease with the vibe of slow-burning embers suitable for that chestnut about "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" (aka "The Christmas Song"), but that's no surprise, as he's nailed it solo on his own Christmas CD.
Musicians include those who've participated on other recordings by the singer, with standout work by the ever-intriguing and precise John di Martino, bassist Boris Kozlow, soprano and alto sax/clarinet player Aaron Heick and alto sax man Terry Myers, who weave in and out of pieces to great effect. Adding variety, instrumentation varies from track to track, with guests on dulcimer, bassoon, and trumpet.
Note that not everything is fixed in the slow lane; "Jingle Bells" swings, segues into scat-singing fun, avoiding any stereotyping as throwaway peppy fluff. The most commercial and modern-sounding entry is "The Most Wonderful Time." Not to be confused with "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" introduced by Andy Williams in the early 1960s, this song has words and music by Simone Kopmajer herself. (A full inside panel of the physical CD is devoted to printing the lyrics and, while she is credited there as the writer of this burst of cheer, lamentably none of the other songwriters are indicated, nor are the terrific band members named.)
Simone Kopmajer has been winning fans around the world, with a big following in Asian countries. With this lovely embrace of Christmas music, she could get a warm welcome from the North Pole's most famous resident, whom she addresses directly with her materialistic and altruistic requests, respectively and respectfully, here with "Santa Baby" and "My Grown-Up Christmas List." Her gifts displayed on Christmas are worthy of consideration when making your own grown-up Christmas list.
Slow down, hunker down, and turn the bright holiday lights down to let Beacon beam the way to peaceful pensiveness. Pianist William TN Hall, with laser-beam focus, examines and dissects a repertoire consisting mostly of famous Christmas carols, often dwelling on a very few initial notes of melody as a motif to ration and revel in. He can move on from determinedly unrushed repetition to a series of more nuanced themes and variations, surrounding his seemingly prized single-fingered notes with changing chordal landscapes and tempi, adding more tension or more flow, but returning to the basic signature note.
Much on the digital-only release Beacon: Holiday Improvisations comes across as earnest, moody meditations on age-old Christmas musical architectures. Think of it as the thinking person's holiday perspective, especially apt for the sobering darkness and loneliness heavier in the air during this year of dismay and disease. But the faith, hope and awe so intrinsic to the material (even with the lyrics just being in our heads) are the not-so-secret weapon to triumph over troubling tears.
Such standbys as "The First Noel" and "In the Bleak Mid-Winter" get the reverent treatment. Listeners used to splashy diversion and density may need their attention spans rebooted. On longer or sparer tracks, some may find the impact of the tiptoe/slow-mo M.O. to reap diminishing returns. But with 19 selections, there is a treat for almost every taste, including a welcome burst of brisk energy that infuses "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," here re-titled "God Rest Ye Merry Bootleggers." And the Jewish holiday enters with a strong festive presence with "Oh Chanukah" building and increasing pace in a most satisfying manner.
William TN Hall has been an increasing familiar presence in piano bars and cabaret shows (Manhattan and beyond), sailing the seas entertaining on cruise lines, and navigating the waters of musical theatre as a composer, since he relocated from his U.K. home. His charming British accent adds to the flavor of his very affecting singing on the two vocal tracks: a persuasive, invigorating "Auld Lang Syne" (separately graced instrumentally) and the emotion-packed "My First Christmas with You." The latter is his own delicate composition, with Patrick Gallagher's striking storytelling lyric. (Don't assume the title tells a predictable story.)
Two other atmospheric originals, "Christmas Eve 2019" and "Lullaoly," are gentle reminders that minimalism can maximize a hypnotic effect. With music's motor idling, time almost standing still, William TN Hall creates cushioned comfort.