REVIEWS BY SEAN HICKEY
For Digital First Media
A Capitol Christmas
For those of us of a “certain age,” we fondly remember those old Christmas collections our dad’s bought at the Firestone Tire store or while getting an oil change at the Mobil gas station. A Capitol Christmas harkens back to those days and gives a nod to those simpler times.
Fittingly, the album opens with Capitol’s first homegrown superstar, Nat King Cole, and his stereophonic version of “The Christmas Song,” arranged by Ralph Carmichael in 1961. It is bookended on this disc with a splendid rendition of Cole’s ubiquitous seasonal standard featuring the 1999 virtual duet with his daughter, Natalie Cole. Cole’s jazz combo the Nat King Cole Trio is included with the novelty tune “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth).”
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Frank Sinatra to Capitol Records and he is showcased on the album with the exquisite “The Christmas Waltz” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Both songs were originally released on his 1957 holiday album, A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra and, while his dark, original Columbia recording of HYAMLC is an all-time classic, this more-positive rendition here is considered by most to be the definitive version of the tune. Fellow Rat Packer Dean Martin delivers his trademark croon on evergreens “Winter Wonderland” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Having recorded a dozen holiday themed albums, Bing Crosby became synonymous with Christmas. His Christmas single for Capitol, “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a call and response arrangement with the Ralph Carmichael Singers, became a worldwide hit. Singer, songwriter and actress Peggy Lee spent an illustrious 30 years on Capitol and the selections of hers span her tenure at the label. The gentle “A Christmas Spell,” arranged by her then-husband and frequent collaborator, guitarist Dave Barbour, was originally released as a single in 1949. “Like A Sleighride,” Lee’s jazzy adaptation of “Jingle Bells,” is from her sumptuous 1960 holiday album, Christmas Carousel.
No holiday collection would be complete without the seductive duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” of which continues to be recorded by scores of artists year after year. The version here features Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer, the world-class songwriter and recording artist, along with Margaret Whiting. Mercer’s swinging “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” from 1947 shows off his croon alongside the vocal stylings of the Pied Pipers. Whiting also makes another duet appearance, this time alongside singing cowboy star Jimmy Wakely on the sterling “Silver Bells.”
In 1967, The First Lady Of Song Ella Fitzgerald recorded a collection of non-secular standards for Capitol, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas, arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael. Her soaring versions of “The First Noel” and “Away in a Manger” are both included. A Capitol Christmas features many other delightful holiday tunes including Nancy Wilson’s symphonic “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” Lou Rawls’ soulful “Merry Christmas, Baby,” Jackie Gleason’s orchestral instrumentals of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and Bob Atcher’s tropical-tinged “Christmas Island,” among several others.
A timeless collection of some of the biggest songs and artists in the holiday canon, A Capitol Christmas is sure to get listeners in the mood for the holidays and serve as the perfect soundtrack to their yuletide festivities all season long.
Sarah McLachlan takes another bite at the Christmas apple after a decade with what will surely be one of the year’s top-selling Christmas albums, Wonderland.
Her first foray into this field was Wintersong in 2006, a dark, sometimes melancholy look at the holiday season. It was also a fine complement to her hit repertoire, following the same modern folky and vaguely world music approaches of her past work. Wonderland is a decidedly more upbeat approach for the Canadian singer. It’s also a more traditional approach with almost all of the tracks contained within falling into the holiday songbook we’ve all become familiar with over the years. So on Wonderland, you’ll hear the holiday staples like “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Let It Snow,” a rhythmic take on “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and “Winter Wonderland.” Also included here are wonderfully arranged treatments of “O Holy Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas,” and a perfectly faithful jazz-pop arrangement of “The Christmas Song.” But the real gem in this collection is her version of “Huron Carol” a tune that is probably unfamiliar to most Americans. It’s an old Canadian song written by a French priest in the language and culture of the Huron people (sung by Sarah in the English translation) and is worth taking the time to really listen to the words.
Wonderland truly showcases McLachlan’s angelic, ethereal vocals over her trademark soft and airy arrangements, evoking the sense of warmth and coziness that we associate with this festive season.
Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas
Regular readers of this annual column know we have great appreciation and affection for the folks at the Putumayo Record label for their constant and consistent output of intelligent and interesting Christmas music. This year is no exception with their latest release, Latin Christmas, which celebrates the season with both regional and global classics interpreted in Latin and Brazilian styles.
Leading off is Nossa Bossa Nova and their version of “Joy to the World” sung in Portuguese and a jazzy Latinized rendition of the classic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from Dr. Bobby Rodriguez. Other standout tracks include “Blanca Navidad” from Texas vocalist Erica Gonzaba, a bossa nova take on “Jingle Bells” by LA-based Columbian Juan Carlos Quintéro, and “La Peregrinación,” a Latin classic performed here by Canadian singer Susie Arioli.
And that’s what’s so cool about Putumayo collections; They’re interested in the global perspective on music from different regions of the world. They never seem to or try to fit into anyone’s preconceived notions of who should or should not be allowed to perform “Latin” music. So you’ll get Welsh guitarist Dave Stephens doing a tropical vibe on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Norwegian Hanne Tveter offering a Spanish-language version of the iconic carol “Silent Night,” and the US-based Roman Street blending classical, gypsy jazz, Latin and flamenco flavors together to create their own unique sound on “Christmas Rumba.”
A Latin Christmas is a holiday gift to you from a musical community that stretches around the world.
‘Tis the SeaSon
In case you didn’t know, Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas Day! So it seems apropos that he would be the perfect choice to perform some of your holiday favorites!
‘Tis the SeaSon arrives a mere twenty years after his platinum-plus selling holiday album Christmas Island. And yes, there IS a pun (sorta hidden) in the title that should tell you that Jimmy doesn’t really take any of this too seriously. That becomes obvious with his “updated” version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” where he’s found celebrating five cheeseburgers and eight vintage 8-tracks among other things. The key to this collections success is that Buffett aims keeps it a light, fun, festive time. From his revival of “Mele Kalikimaka” to his own unique version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” he delivers it all with a wink and a smile. Recorded in six different studios while on breaks during his 2016 summer tour, this 13-track release includes nine traditional chestnuts, and three hilarious originals.
For Parrotheads, there may be no better way to while away a December.
Christmas on the Lam and Other Songs from the Season
(Red House Records)
This compilation of Americana artists from the Minneapolis-based label Red House Records does a nice job with a collection of classics and originals.
There is quite a mix of styles here that all seem to mesh together seamlessly. John Gorka’s “Holed up Mason City” is a road song about having to yield to the wintry weather, and Heather Masse sings the praises of “Mittens.” Dale Watson & His Lonestars go nearly full country with “Christmas to Me,” Robin & Linda Williams go folky on the intimate “Together All Alone,” and Suzzy Roche enlists Jules Shear for his co-written “Cold Hard Wind.” Charlie Parr breaks out the dobro for the album’s near-title song, the field blues “Slim Tall’s Christmas on the Lam,” and the Wailin’ Jennys give us the front-porch gospel of “Glory Bound.” Reaching into the “more traditional” holiday songbook are Jorma Kaukonen with the finger-picked version of the West Indian carol “The Baby Boy,” and the Pines cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song For a Winter’s Night.” Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams serve up a traditional country “Blue Christmas,” and Davina and the Vagabonds slip a little Dixieland into “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me.” Bill Kirchen and Austin de Lone put a little Nashville spice on Mack Rice’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”
This is a fine collection of unique, eclectic roots music for Christmas that’ll be sure to put a tap in your toe and a smile on your face.
Joyful Jazz – Christmas with Verve!
Vol. 1 – The Vocalists
Vol. 2 – The Instrumentals
A couple of other releases are worth your time tracking down if you are looking for some tried and true, traditional Christmas fare. The folks over at Universal have put together two discs of classics that should get anyone into the holiday spirit!
On Volume 1: The Vocalists, some of our most illustrious singers appear to perform their favorite holiday tracks. You’ll hear Willie Nelson and Norah Jones’ take on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” as well as Diana Krall’s rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” Ella Fitzgerald performing “White Christmas,” and Dinah Washington on “Silent Night,” previously a rare single-only release. The album also boasts spirited tracks from Mel Tormé, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Patti Austin, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn, Diane Schuur, Betty Carter and Judy Holliday.
Volume 2: The Instruments — consists almost entirely of instrumental versions of some Christmas standards. You’ll hear exciting takes on songs like “Silver Bells” from Kevin Eubanks, “Frosty The Snowman” as interpreted by Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” performed by the Bill Evans Trio, Stanley Jordan’s version of “Silent Night” and Kenny Burrell’s take on “The Little Drummer Boy.” Don’t miss other standout performances by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Mark Whitfield, Tom Scott, who contributes “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” a song originally created for the four-time Academy Award-nominated film Meet Me in St. Louis’ soundtrack, as well as Nelson Rangell, Jimmy Smith, the Lionel Hampton Sextet, and Eliane Elias. Two additional tracks stand out on this release are Oscar Peterson’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” which was previously unreleased; it was recorded with Buddy Bregman and his orchestra in 1957 during Peterson’s sessions for his Verve album, Soft Sands. The collection also includes a rare alternate version of John Coltrane Quartet’s “Greensleeves,” which previously had only been available on the Deluxe Edition of Trane’s album, Ballads.
All in all, a great way to fill your home with classic holiday tunes for the holiday!