Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Christmas/Holiday Music, Part Two
Reviews by Rob Lester

Also see last week's Part One of our holiday release round-up here.

Real Gone Music/ RCA Red Seal/ Sony

Here's something sumptuous. There are 35 tracks (a few of which are medleys) on the 2-CD set reissuing secular and sacred songs of the season conducted by Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979), maestro of the Boston Pops Orchestra for just under half a century. It includes the remastered tracks from full-length records and various singles and album cuts. The collection is titled The Ultimate Pops Christmas Party! (although maybe the reverent "Panis Angelicus" and "Silent Night" might not jump to mind as "party" music) and it's a reminder that sometimes the tried and true can sound truly fresh when done with skill and care.

The first disc is all instrumental, while the second includes some chorus vocals and guest singers. From the opera world is Leontyne Price with moving versions of "Ave Maria" and "I Wonder As I Wander," and a few tracks feature Steve Lawrence and/or Eydie Gorme. He's alternately thoughtful and celebratory on sections of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," her voice is restrained but radiant on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and they're together on the spiffy "Hurry Home for Christmas."

Tradition reigns, but Christmas doesn't taste bland or warmed over with the perky Pops. The orchestrations that, within one number, highlight the many distinctive sounds of the different instruments in the big orchestra are the ones that I find especially delightful. There is whimsical humor in "March of the Toys" from Babes in Toyland and other kid-friendly material. Excerpts from The Nutcracker Suite are prominent as well. Leroy Anderson's contributions are notable, with his arrangements of medleys, each called a "Christmas Festival," although it might seem a bit odd to hear "Jingle Bells" sandwiched between two carols. And perhaps you might not feel you really need three versions of his famous composition "Sleigh Ride," whip cracks and all. (With the thorough nature of the reissue, there are other melodies reappearing, too.)

It doesn't feel exhausting or mega-schmaltzy because there's a sense of trusting the material and that many things don't need a huge climactic and splashy ending or to go on at length. There's a booklet with photos, information on the original sources, and new liner notes by Joe Marchese about the career and discography of Fiedler.

If you're looking for one release that encompasses a great number of the classic must-have Christmas songs done with expertise and vigor, don't forget The Ultimate Pops Christmas Party!

Porge Records
CD| Digital | Vinyl

Bursting with variety and adventure, The Yule Log is one mood-altering surprise after another. Beginning with a fleet "Fum, Fum, Fum" and ending with an instrumental "Auld Lang Syne" that could be the soundtrack for inebriated New Year's Eve party revelers wending their way home in lopsided manner, it's got the more serious stuff in between. Arrangements are by its pianist, George Burton (who also plays the harmonium). He's joined by four string players, drummer Nazir Ebo, with dulcet-toned vocalist Nancy Harms on six of the nine tracks and Alyssa Leigh Burrs lending her rich voice to the carol "Jesu Parvule."

Although he gets solo billing on the cover, keyboardist Burton does not dominate the spotlight by any means. Don't look for many showy, long solos, even during instrumental breaks. But his playing is supportive and understated throughout. The strings are often dominant, providing vitality, intensity, or elegance. Yule Log feels like a team effort, so even though Nancy Harms sings on most selections, the band is given quite a bit of time and attention in the arrangements, too. Her standout tracks are "Little Altar Boy" and a high-stepping navigation through "The Christmas Waltz." But be ready to sometimes expect the unexpected as The Yule Log casts its glow.

LDM Worldwide
Digital EP

Soothing and sweet, Lisa Dawn Miller's pretty voice and poignant original lyrics melt into stirring music like fluffy marshmallows liquefying into a comforting cup of hot cocoa. Her seven-track digital Christmas EP, which includes holiday-themed songs she's written with Mark Matson and presented as singles over the years, is brimming with grounded gratitude, cozy memories, and steadfast hope.

Throughout My Favorite Time of Year, the fluttery quality in her timbre suggests vulnerability and a soulfulness not unfamiliar with sad times and loss, but the prevailing attitude projects resilience. There's stated confidence that dreams do and will come true and that such faith is all the more possible at holiday time. Sometimes, when things seem like they could become overly sentimentalized, the savvy arrangements and pop music sensibilities keep the performances out of the goo. More than that, the material is performed with such heart and conviction, with straightforward language, that sincerity is not doubted.

The poignant "We'll Always Have Christmas Eve" and "It's Christmas" cling to the fond thoughts of the past for appreciated perspective, despite missing someone who's absent, while "A New Year" looks ahead to good times with assuredness. The fact-inspired tale of "A Christmas Truce" during World War I has added resonance in light of the current wars overseas. Adding to these original songs, the vocalist/writer reaches back in time to feature her own disarming treatment of the wish for a peaceful, caring world that could come to be "Someday at Christmas," by her father, Motown tunesmith Ron Miller, and Bryan Wells.

My Favorite Time of Year is delicate and dreamy and dares to wear its super-sensitivity without hesitation.

JazzUrbane/ Sugo Music Group
CD | Digital

Coining a phrase, pianist/pastor/educator John Paul McGee has called his genre-blending music "gospejazzical" and indeed, recognizable elements of gospel, jazz, and classical music are intriguingly present or suggested. (For example, the solo piano treatment of "Mary, Did You Know?" borrows its intro from Chopin's Prelude in C-Minor, as did an early Barry Manilow hit record, "Could It Be Magic?.")

With 11 tracks, most on the long side, A Gospejazzical Christmas presents John Paul McGee as piano soloist on three cuts, a member of a trio or quartet on others, and singing in a fairly low-voice, low-key but persuasive way on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain"; two other vocalists guest on one number each.

While the collection contains predominantly songs written about the birth of Jesus, most of those are in instrumental form that feel more like a night at a jazz club than a morning in church. Some are meditative and relaxing, played in an unrushed way that can be a lovely change of pace from the grand or intense manner in which they are often presented.

"Jesus What a Wonderful Child" with Wendi Henderson Wyatt's fervent vocal is full-on religious exultation. In calmer mode, Lori Williams croons "Christmas Time Is Here" from the animated TV program "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with much tenderness.

A Gospejazzical Christmas is thoughtful and creative — and a breath of fresh air this winter.

Ballyhoo Music
Digital Single

It's only a single of under four minutes in length, but, like that bag Santa Claus carries, it's impressively packed with quite the variety of things to make us happy. With pizzazz and playfulness, skipping through changes in tempo and adding some of his own bubbling music and words to Kay Thompson's original song, jazzy and joyful Liam Forde sings and struts through the Santa-centric "The Holiday Season." It bursts with cheer–cute but hip. His supple voice sails through his own arrangement, seemingly taking delight in the words and rhythm, including some vocalese. The snazzy band is led by pianist Billy Stritch, who takes a brisk, bright solo that matches the Forde frolicsome mood. Try this version of "The Holiday Season" to put the fun in the holiday season.