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Sound Advice Reviews

Heaping Helpings of Holiday Hooplah
(Christmas Recordings, Part 2)
See Part 1
Reviews by Rob Lester

What is a Christmas party without songs? Answer" "Silent Night." That's no fun. So, let's get this party started because hark! the angels sing! Here are some holiday-themed recordings to enliven a party or to be enjoyed at another time by you, a party of one.

VOLUME 20—2018

Rock-it Science Records

Decorating the evergreen with the same decades-old items, putting out milk and cookies for Santa, family reunion and gift-giving at Grandma's, wearing blindingly ugly Christmas sweaters—many of us have cherished yuletide traditions. For those who love music, it's caroling or seeking out others who sing of the season in church, concerts, or on recordings. For Broadwayphiles, the annual edition of the talent-loaded Carols for a Cure is something to await and treasure. With each succeeding year since the tail-end of the last century, we have merrily anticipated and celebrated the collection of talents, the vast majority appearing on the Great White Way, having their way with music, much of the material being very old favorites which are by their continuing existence Christmas traditions themselves. And buying copies for yourself and friends on your list is also a feel-good goodwill decision, as your purchase benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Canny curator/producer Lynn Pinto has pulled together another cornucopia of solid entertainment bursting with energy.

With each year's musical theatre production having its own "brand" and personality, a show's attitude or the genre of its score often cleverly dictates the approach. For example, the current season's look at the career of entertainer Donna Summer throbs through a disco version of "Winter Wonderland" with two of the Donnas, one understudy Donna, and one swing swinging into the beat with several castmates. It's a rollicking track channeling the disco queen and a hot Summer wonderland. Speaking of pop music bios, Carole King's classic "You've Got a Friend" is instrumentally recalled throughout the track from the bio-musical about her, Beautiful, as a distinctive voice wraps itself around "O Holy Night" in one of the most compelling tracks. The vocalist is a cast member who also understudies three roles, including Carole: Kennedy Caughill. "O hear the angel's voice..." Meanwhile, Mean Girls mean business (or show business) with what is certainly an assertive attack, steamrolling through the rock and roll oldie "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."

Some companies eschew musical type-casting and spread their wings in a holiday from their usual sound for their holiday offerings. The Hamilton crew makes a kind of declaration of independence from its reliance on hip-hop with a solid "On This Christmas Night." The Frozen cast stays as close as possible to home with a number from a recent Disney featurette that continues the saga of its characters, as Alyssa Fox and Aisha Jackson (understudies for the female leads) lead the company in climax after climax in the earnest ode to emotional bonding, "When We're Together" from Olaf's Frozen Adventure.

One cool aspect of these packages is that little-known or newly crafted material can appear. I am especially impressed by the towering emotion in the new-to-me "A New Earth"—both the writing by Steven Skeels and the vocals led by Jerad Bortz. These gents with Wicked on their resumés, also an offstage couple—along with others from Oz—bring us a standout, stirring piece. Oh, and speaking of that land with the yellow brick road, the classic of classics "Over the Rainbow" is heard instrumentally as a touching tribute to the late actress Jan Maxwell, arranged by friend Bill Hayes, heard on vibraphone accompanying the honoree's son, Will Maxwell, who plays violin. Another attractive (but spunkier) nod to a recently lost performer appears with the playful "Christmas Eve on a Dance Floor" by Brian O'Brien, a veteran of these albums and of Chicago (in several roles). It's dedicated to the memory of that revival's Jeff Loeffelholz.

Christy Altomare, star of Anastasia, wrote music and lyrics for the effective, heartfelt "It's Just Like Christmas" and shares lead vocal duties with fellow original cast member Zach Adkins. The creativity award goes to the guy who's been playing the title role in Aladdin, Telly Leung, who combines musical styles for "You're Auld I Need to Get By," which cleverly echoes the (uncredited) Motown hit "You're All I Need to Get By," while giving us a taste of "Auld Lang Syne"'s New Year's Eve atmosphere. Mr. Leung, who is in there singing with company members, is billed as conceiving the potpourri and co-arranging it with music director/keyboardist Michael Patrick Walker.

In addition to the 18 newly recorded pieces here, this special 20th anniversary set (two discs for the physical version) has a whopping ten bonus tracks culled from prior years' collections. Some had the leading players of their shows or special guest stars. Among them are: Reeve Carney, from the year he flew high above our heads as Spider-Man; Daniel Radcliffe, showing How to Succeed... with a bit of whimsy; Jessie Mueller with "Love Is Christmas" by her then-current show Waitress's songwriter Sara Bareilles; disco diva Weather Girls singer Martha Wash turning on the electricity with "Light It Up!"; and Sting representing the show he wrote the score for, The Last Ship. Warning: If you don't have many of the volumes, these will whet your appetite for the previous feasts (many of which are available on Amazon and at iTunes).

I can hardly wait for next year to see if someone playing Cher will belt out a concoction called, maybe, "If I Could Turn Back Christmas Time" or "I've Got You, Babe-y Jesus," or if a trio of handlers making the title character of King Kong move will croon a moving "We Three King Kongs of Orient Are," or if the farmers and the cowboys from the latest Oklahoma! revival will tweak one of its classics into "People Will Say We're in Love with Christmas Songs." I know I have that ardor—when the material is done with the kind of splash and conviction we hear each year for sure on Carols for a Cure. Here's to the third decade of these labors of love!

Music and Mirror Records On mp3 | at iTunes

If she's even a little bit like her holiday collection, Auld Lang Syne, I suspect that Laura Dickinson would be a peppy and enthused guest at a party celebrating the merriest Christmases or New Year's Eves. Indeed, she might be the life of the party. On many tracks of her recording, the vocalist sounds as jolly as Santa and as bubbly as the champagne with which the assembled toast the new year. Check out the boisterously brash first cut, wherein a mash-up of "Happy Holiday" and "The Holiday Season" arranged by veteran Johnny Mandel comes somersaulting upon your senses. It's like opening the door and being instantly hit with a brisk, bracingly cold wind. The voice and powerhouse band are invigorating. The glee is bouncy and unrelenting. Scrooges will run for their lives and take cover. The rest of us will stay and be entertained by the singer's Niagara-sized rush of flowing energy.

Wisely, rather than exhaust listeners with constant attacks of loud and lively, we get some ebb and flow throughout the recital. Silky, lush, contemporary pop crooning skill is demonstrated on the cover of Mariah Carey's record "Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)." The nicely calibrated performance is smooth and still highly emotional. This is a performer in full command of her instrument. But the chipper personality and up-up-upbeat are returned to again, most appropriately in numbers that invite a child-like merriness, like a romp through the mega-cute "A Marshmallow World" and the zeal-filled anticipation of a certain Mr. Claus in "(Everybody's Waitin' for) The Man with the Bag."

In addition to a previous solo outing, a Frank Sinatra salute, California-based Laura Dickinson is quite the busy multi-tasker: she's sung with groups; done background vocals, toured and recorded with Michael Bublé (one of the artists she has done vocal contracting for, as she did for her own disc); plays piano; opened for Tony Bennett; written her own songs and arrangements (she wrote additional lyrics for and co-arranged the gorgeously rendered New Year's Eve-ready title track). She also does commercial voiceovers, plays piano, and has done much singing for Disney Channel projects. From that part of her career, she includes two pieces: "Peace and Joy," a big yet sweet production in which she's joined by a cluster of other singers, from "Sofia the First"; and a frisky "Christmas Is Starting Now" from "Phineas and Ferb."

Besides the aforementioned "Happy Holiday," Irving Berlin is also represented by a glib "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and a warm, rich "Love, You Didn't Do RIght by Me," heard in the film White Christmas, that gives us an unbilled instrumental-only Berlin bonus of the melody of "How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky)" between swaths of terrifically torchy singing that builds to a smashing, belted finish. The arranger on this selection is no newcomer to the score, as he is Larry Blank whose work on the stage version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas earned him one of his three Tony Award nominations among his many Broadway credits. (This recording has a few arrangers contributing one chart each, except James A McMillen who is represented by five of the 11 tracks.)

The band members—together as unit and in featured solos—are a major part of the attraction throughout the proceedings. Whether blaring the musical equivalent of winter weather or cooling down for coziness, punctuating the lyric-phrasing with little bursts or subtly creating backdrop ambience, there's admirable work and coloring. Among the 27 musicians credited are keyboardists Randy Kerber and Alan Steinberger, drummer Ray Brinker, and guitarist Andrew Synowiec (featured on the title number, which he co-arranged). The band is a blast—in both senses of the word. And singer Laura Dickinson is no slouch.



What's a nice Jewish boy who happens to love Christmas songs gonna do in a recording studio? Why, record his own Christmas album, of course. It's been pointed out before that many of the standard hits of this chapter of the American Songbook were written by Jewish men. So Jake Ehrenreich has collected a bunch of long-treasured classics that fall into this category, proving the observation. The "news" is not quite startling and it might only rate a nodding footnote as trivia or commentary on the general public's appetite for Christmas songs and how ubiquitous they are in entertainment through the decades. But it just so happily happens that this guy is a splendidly ingratiating vocalist who brings notably fresh phrasing and real-feel involvement to the material. To be sure, we are basically talking about secular pop, not carols or lyrics that name-drop the baby Jesus or mention the joys of church, or are reverent in tone. No, the spotlight is on decorations, Santa Claus, gift-giving, and lots and lots of snow.

The set list credits the tunesmiths by their familiar professional show biz names and the more recognizably Jewish names they were born with, so he lets us know that "The Christmas Song"'s co-writer (with Mel Tormé) Robert Wells' birth surname was Levinson, and the same was the case with Ray Evans' ("Silver Bells") partner Jay Livingston. We get their classics named here and two from the team of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn (né Stein and Cohen), in a medley of "The Christmas Waltz" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!". All are treated with great care and fondness; despite their over-familiarity, none comes off as tired or hackneyed. Quite the opposite—the singer sounds as if he's in the moment, discovering and fully appreciating each sight and sound, meaning each wish, renewed and revived by each snowfall, relishing home and kin.

The arrangements are stellar in bringing out all this joy, a million miles away from Muzak or mush; the singer is co-credited for them, along with pianist/orchestrator Roger Kellaway. The other members of the fine band are guitarist Bruce Forman, bassist Dan Lutz, and percussionist Kevin Winard. The album was first released at the end of last year, but apparently has been reissued anew this holiday season. Check to see that you get the "Special Bonus Track Edition" because you wouldn't want to be without that bonus of "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire")—it is especially tasty, at a nicely relaxed tempo that allows space for drinking in the sights and sounds described in the lyric. The strumming guitar and lightly dancing piano set an easy groove, and a quote of "Sleigh Ride" in the instrumental break just before repeating the line about Santa and his sleigh adds charm. Although it's been sung many times, many ways, when Jake Ehrenreich sings the final line, "Although it's been said many times, many ways/ Merry Christmas to you," and then adds an extra "you" on an airy, sweet high note, the sincerity of the salutation comes through loud and clear. Or, to be more accurate: soft and appealingly smoky.

If I had to guess at a role model, I'd hazard a conjecture that this likable vocalist admires Tony Bennett. At times in his attitude and timbre he reminds me of that star crooner, and both sometimes drop the "g" in gerunds, and the sound "r" at the end of a word is nowhere near rolled. However, his "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" might take a cue from Dean Martin's version instead because he calls him "Rudy." But in this particular track, that is incidental. What stands out in his rendition is a remarkable success in teasing the ear in a fortuitous way frequently stressing the unexpected syllable ("They never let poor Rudolph play.."/ "And they shouted out with glee...").

One of the many things that makes the interpretations feel more like full stories with beginnings, middles and ends is that they include the introductory verses so often dropped on other recordings. This is especially notable in the treatment of "Winter Wonderland" which starts with an appreciation of the snow as a "mantle of white." This track also has some playfulness, with an instrumental quote of the song "Broadway" and a big winking nod to the end of Nancy Sinatra's breakout record "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" with the spoken line at the end: "Are you ready, boots? Start walkin'." Expect little bits of unexpected and modern attitude. In "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" (which by the way has a long, juicy break for the band, making this sentimental song sound more hip), the lyric is changed from "the traffic is terrific" (which rhymes with that trek "from Atlantic to Pacific") to a more realistic "the traffic is horrific." In the tag, Ehrenreich takes the liberty to slang-ify the lyric to say he loves to "hang" at home.

Don't be put off by the album's subtitle describing it as "Cool Jazz" if that phrase makes you think of the kind of jazz that is ultra-laidback and emotionally detached, avoiding any kind of singing or playing that treats even a whiff of sentimentality as anathema. Rather than that kind of cool, much of this is better described as warm.

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