By Ernest Barteldes
For quite a few years I ran an annual wrap-up of the new Christmas music on NewCity over in Chicago, but attentive readers might have noticed that it didn’t happen back in 2014. I got a number of emails about it not only from publicists but also from music fans who looked forward to my annual list of must-haves and albums to ignore.
As I have stated before, the new editor who took over the music site (their publisher used to run it himself, but he seems to have wanted to delegate power to other people) pretty much turned his back on long-time contributors so a review I had already written ended up unpublished. After confronting both the publisher and the new editor over the article I pretty much gave up on dealing with so-called “visionary” individuals and decided to start – for better or worse – this music blog.
Anyway, enough kvetching, it’s time to look at some of the selections for this year:
Jazz pianist David Benoit is one of the most talented contemporary pianists of his generation, and his third Holiday-themed album “Believe” (Concord Music) is one of the best I have heard in a long time. Sticking strictly to a straight-ahead format, he goes through a number of standards, masterfully bringing together the Charlie Brown TV specials with “Guaraldi Medley,” a beautiful tribute to the pianist who helped introduce a generation of kids to jazz. Vocalist Jane Monheit joins the trio rounded out by drummer Jamey Tate and bass player David Hughes to create the kind of album that is not your usual classic radio stuff, but something you could hear anytime.
Thirty years after its bandleader’s passing, The Count Basie Orchestra has continued to make music without any sign of slowing down. Currently under the direction of trumpetist William “Scotty” Barnhart, they have recently collaborated with the likes of Tony Bennett and Ledisi, the latter of whom is a featured performer in “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas (Concord), a fabulous piece of music that is sure to be spinning when Renata and I spend our annual Christmas retreat at home away from everyone else that annoys us.
One of the best tracks is “The Christmas Song” fronted by the fabulous Ledisi, who keeps her New Orleans roots on a very traditional arrangement. Things also stay in the Big Easy with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” led by pianist extraordinaire Ellis Marsalis, the legend who happens to have fathered some of the greatest jazz bandleaders of their generation say what you will about their individual personalities, but you must admit their talents are unquestionable and undeniable.
I am not one to say much about someone trying to introduce a new Holiday song to the canon, but Rebecca Angel and the band led by her bandleader father Dennis Angel actually pull it off with their single “My Favorite Time of the Year,” a groovy, bossa-inspired tune with a sincere vocal that might just make it into the canon, specially thanks to the smart arrangement and an honest vocal delivery.
One of the most anticipated Holiday albums to me is Broadway Cares’ “Carols for a Cure,” when the casts of several shows in town come together to come up with a mix of classic songs, original and parodies.
Unlike recent releases, there are no obvious celebrity voices, which makes for a better n overall an enjoyable experience – except for the presence of Perez Hilton on “Happy All The Time” with the cast of “Elf” – I mean, what is a goddamn blogger doing on a Broadway album? Makes no sense to me, but since he is being featured for the third time in a row I must be missing something. Among best tracks this time around are “We Three Things” with “At This Performance,” which takes the classic tune to a whole new jazz-tinged direction. The best original is Chicago’s “Christmas in Fishnets,” which chronicles the routine of performers at the Great White Way during these festive days. Also notable is the mostly acoustic “Mary did You Know,” a poignant folksy tune that asks Jesus’ mom about her expectations on the baby she held in her arms on that first Christmas.
These are all great albums – just check them out, all of them will make for a joyous season.