Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

2021 Sounds of the Holidays, Part 2
Reviews by Rob Lester

See 2021 Sounds of the Holidays, Part 1

Keep those chestnuts roasting on that open fire as we continue to consider the 2021 Christmas releases, with some things old, new, borrowed and blue. We have two recordings by vocal groups, and then female vocalists: two collections and two singles.

Club44 Records
CD and digital album

Prepare to be dazzled. The marvelous 11-member a capella group called Voctave makes Christmas material—the carols, pop, even the giddy and kiddie faves—burst forth bigger and better and bolder. Glorious harmonies are a waterfall of sumptuous sound, often breathtakingly thrilling. "All Is Well" may well be the prime example; it made me gasp. In the stunning arrangements by group member Jamey Ray (also the recording's producer), one exquisite musical climax follows another, and soloists' sustained high notes can increase the excitement quotient. The Spirit of the Season overflows with riches to relish, some folded into medleys. One creative mash-up successfully blends the old "Carol of the Bells" with "The Bells of Notre Dame" from the score of the Disney animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Notably, the oeuvre of Voctave includes two collections of Broadway and movie music, with a big dose of Disney.)

This "Deluxe Edition" follows up on the original 2016 issue of The Spirit of the Season, with three tracks added and one removed.

Forget any worry that a large number of people singing the same line with purity of sound, in unison or layered, will sacrifice personalization of point of view. To the contrary, emotion projected is intense and full, whether it be the awe of "O Holy Night," the anticipation of the entrance via chimney of "The Man with the Bag," or the uber-exuberance in the "Happy Holiday" wish. Even those "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" seem warmer.

Various combinations of voices, with individuals in the spotlight for brief or extended sections, buffeted and supported by the group's bed of open-vowel blends, make for engaging, appreciative listening. Featured guest solo spots provide additional distinctive delights: in a strong and heart-rending performance, joining the group to lead "Mary, Did You Know?" is its lyricist, Mark Lowry (the music it was set to is by Buddy Greene); Jody McBrayer comes aboard for a lovely "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; and, in "Where Are You, Christmas?" (from the live-action film version about that grouchy Grinch) this newly added track has an endearingly winsome appearance by group member Ashley Espinoza's son Gael (age 5!), joining his mom who shines aplenty, too. Only a pre-reformed Grinch or Scrooge could fail to get into the spirit of the season while listening to The Spirit of the Season. Viva Voctave!

CD and digital album

Its title might suggest that we're in for unrelenting goofiness and giddy Christmas obsession, but there's a little of everything in Fools for Yule. The 11-track canny Christmas collection, the fifth release from the entertaining Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet, has quite the mix: popular season-specific selections with frequent flyer miles of coverage by so many who came before (like "Christmas Time Is Here"); a famous carol with heavenly harmonies ("Silent Night"); and, as usual, originals by group co-founding member/leader, alto Ginny Carr Goldberg, that range from the sincere to the sad. She is also arranger for most numbers and co-producer with engineer Bob Dawson.

The recording even makes room for a classical piece about a revered Irish nun who died in the year 570 ("St. Ita's Vision," its music composed by Samuel Barber, a setting of ancient anonymous text). They are tastefully accompanied on most pieces by five genre-adaptable musicians. But, despite some admirable instrumental work during or between vocal passages, it's really the four singers' show and they show grace, fun and chemistry! The other three voices are original member Robert McBride (tenor) and current colleagues Lane Stowe (bass) Holly Shockey (soprano). Her late mother, Marilyn Shockey, had written a playful but unfinished thing called "Santa Dear, Where's Mine?" which got completed by the quartet's tunesmithing leader and makes for an assertive scenario/change of pace here.

A couple of familiar and unquestionably merry items long "adopted" for inclusion in Christmas repertoire are about the snow and weather and romance and don't mention the holiday at all: "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and "Winter Wonderland" (the introductory verse is, happily, included). But we do get a subtle couple of extra nods to December 25 when the title phrase of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is the set-up and then a P.S. tag to a cozy stroll through "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire").

Needless to say, Christmas material that ventures beyond the voluminously recorded warhorses is always an attraction. For me, the standout as most artful is the one that's downbeat: "It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas," which confronts missing someone who's gone without being a full-out weeper. Heard for the first time, its appealing and satisfying melody feels already like an old friend; it seems to go just where it inevitably should.

Like other skilled, blissfully blending jazz vocal groups before them, Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet can get a lot out of an open vowel sound like "oooooh": embellishing, bending notes, taking a note of a melody we know and turning it into a few notes, using a long wordless tone as background to one or more singers presenting the lyric. Suffice to say, lyrics and music are both treated with love and care.

Arabesque Recordings
CD and digital album

Another winter, another June. For her new Christmas release, jazz-wise June Bisantz, who previously recorded two volumes addressing Chet Baker's songbook, takes on another performer from the last century. This time, with 7 Shades of Snow, she turns her attention to a namesake—June Christy (1925-1990), the appealingly smoky-voiced lady who went from big band vocalist to solo artist, issuing a series of long-playing vinyl albums and tagged as part of the "cool school" of singers. Her 1961 release was themed to winter and its holidays, This Time of Year, but it took a rare approach: All selections were new pieces, all written by Arnold Miller and Connie Pearce, a married couple who were also performers in vocal groups. And that's the sole source of the repertoire revisited here. However, I must say it's a puzzlingly big oversight that the physical CD's packaging text makes no mention of the earlier album or its singer.

The performances do stand on their own, and are so enjoyable that I'm disappointed that 7 Shades has only six cuts, omitting the other four the Christy collection had.

The classy but low-key Ms. Bisantz, a convincingly kindred spirit to the earlier artist, captures the range of subtly painted moods of the Miller/Pearce pieces. Melodies are pleasing and relaxed. Lyrics can be ambivalent, languid, bittersweet, or present someone who is honest in facing life's mix of pleasures and pains. They are insightful and often all about perspective. Here's an example: "So the season makes you sad and sentimental/ Memories it brings to mind/ Are things you'd rather leave behind. /Little lady lonely, don't you grieve,/ Winter's got Spring up its sleeve!" (That last line is the song title.) Looking at things in new ways, beyond the surface, is literally the lesson in "7 Shades of Snow," in which snow is seen not just as white, but changed with the colors of other things reflected in it. "Ring a Merry Bell" is a stiff-upper-lip urging to find something to celebrate, despite finding oneself forlornly far from home. "Sorry to See You Go" is a New Year's Eve farewell to the old year, recalling the good and the tough passages, too.

The recording's superb bassist, Jon Burr, is also the bandleader, arranger and producer. The 1961 recording is clearly a dutily respected model, but less so in the actual arrangements and instrumentation than in the more closely followed blueprints of vocals, tempi and phrasing. The Christy album featured a large orchestra—plenty of strings and brass—with some heavyweight jazz players. Here we have a sextet, so it's more intimate and looser in feel, with individual musicians' contributions more distinct. The other band members are Mike Eckroth on piano, James Chirillo on guitar, Brandon Lee on trumpet, Marc Phaneuf on saxophone, and Alvester Garnett on drums. I wish there were longer instrumental breaks to really showcase these fine gentlemen. (I notice that almost all the tracks are pretty close in timing to the same titles on the Christy album.)

It's nice to revitalize these wintry wisdoms six decades on, as they hold up. And I'm happy to get into another outing by long-careered June Bisantz (who, by the way, did release a six-track set with some very well-known Christmas standards back in the '90s). 7 Shades of Snow, sung by the lady wearing shades on the cover picture, is cool in the shade, sun, or snow.

Catn'round Sound
CD and digital album

Sounding confidently unruffled and grounded, singer Carolyn Lee Jones has an approach to her Christmas songs that settles into a middle ground between the extremes of overly sentimental and offhandedly cool. Her vocals are unforced and unpretentious as she breezes through melodies in a straightforward way while the musicians cook up more complex jazzy touches and tangents underneath her vocal lines and in the breaks. Emotions seem to be kept in check as there's nary an opportunity taken to pause or linger over an image as things keep moving along evenly, like a smooth winter sleigh ride.

The title song of Christmas Time Is Here (the performer's fifth solo collection) does allow for a less busy accompaniment and gentler pace for an effective and affectionate take on the understated melody we know from the animated "A Charlie Brown Christmas." "Red Christmas," about being in the red from overspending on holiday stuff, is a bit of humor written by Jeanie Perkins (a Texas-based music person, like Ms. Jones). "White Christmas" and another Irving Berlin number that's Christmas-adjacent for its inclusion in the movie White Christmas, "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)," both shrug off their potential for pensiveness and yearning, feeling kind of casual.

A highlight, Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" finds Carolyn Lee Jones digging deepest into jazz singer mode. But wait a minute—that isn't a holiday song! I suppose its lyric's mention of winter is the reason for inclusion. (A different version was released as a single in the past.) Also among the 12 selections are "Jingles, the Christmas Cat," a cute item recorded by the late Freddy Cole and the classic indelibly performed by his brother, Nat King Cole: "The Christmas Song," aka "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." Carolyn Lee Jones and the very able musicians, with arrangements by either David Pierce of keyboardist Brad WIlliams, make for good company, not fluffy or stuffy, with jazzy underpinnings.

Club44 Records
Digital single

Here's a stirring, sterling and vibrant new version of an old carol (it's been around since the middle of the 1800s) that will knock your Christmas socks off. Broadway's Stephanie J. Block makes the absolute most of a one-track release—a single that's a singular sensation indeed. It does clock in at a formidable six minutes, but, rather than overstaying its welcome, it keeps the listener alert and anticipatory. There is variety of tone and color, and it wisely just builds and builds—vocally and dramatically. Going from almost hushed awe to revelation to the release of nearly explosive celebration, her rich and strong voice ratchets up to full power.

The arrangement is layered and lush, yet focused so that the vocal line is never upstaged. The singer sounds so earnest and in the moment, the familiar words that wash over us in other versions now command our attention. (Just hear how she adds weight and wonder to the final word in the line "And his gospel is peace.") Stephanie J. Block makes "O Holy Night" personal and rapturously riveting.

Honey Bun Records
Digital single

No, the new single from sensitive singer Maxine Linehan is not a version of the same-titled love theme from the 1970s film A Star Is Born. But, like its predecessor, it revels in the assurance of romance that will not fade with time. The vocal and arrangement are pillowy comfortable, comforting, and on-so convincingly steeped in romance and gratitude ("Nothing comes in between my heart and yours/ Every day feels like a present"). The lyric also fits in many Christmas-ready references: mistletoe, snow, Bing Crosby in the film White Christmas, and praying beneath a tree outdoors. She wrote it with her husband, Andrew Koss, inspired by evergreen trees growing on their Vermont property.

This is a sweet little follow-up to her sublime full-length Christmas recording from last season, This TIme of Year. Like a soothing cup of hot cocoa, its sweetness hits the spot as the dose of appreciation and optimism just right for this time of year.