Ernest’s Annual Christmas Music Roundup: Putumayo’s “Latin Christmas” and Bibi Ferreira’s “Natal em Familia”

By Ernest Barteldes

This is of course the time of year when you cannot walk into a store anywhere in the nation without hearing the familiar chimes of sleigh bells and the cheerful melodies of tunes like “The Christmas Song,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland” (which I think does not qualify as a Christmas song in the first place)” to questionable hits like “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk” or “Last Christmas.”

It is also the time when everyone from Celine Dion to Ann-Margret attempt to give their own take on the music of the season – and it’s not only about artists desperate for the spotlight but many who don’t actually need it: for instance, all four Beatles released Christmas music during their solo careers (the worst being Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and the best John’s “Merry Xmas – War Is Over”), and Queen did a Christmas single at the height of their fame (the dreadful “Thank God It’s Christmas”).

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As someone who writes about music, I am usually inundated with new Holiday-themed albums starting from as early as July (one year I got one before Memorial Day) but things were slower this time around – I guess the gods of music realized that my time has been a bit limited for this stuff, and from the ones I did get, here are two that I do highly recommend.

The first one is Putumayo Presents Latin Christmas, a highly enjoyable album because it doesn’t really sound like a Christmas album in the first place: it opens with a bossa version of “Joy to The World” performed by Arizona-based cover band Nossa Bossa Nova, a group that has adapted everything from the Rolling Stones to Bob Marley into bossas – some with pretty good results. My favorites, however, were the tunes that went completely outside the box. Poncho Sanchez offers a swinging n Afro-Cuban take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that gets you immediately moving, while UK-based Dave Stephens offers a bolero-inflected instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Also notable are “El Año Viejo,” a cumbia celebrating the birth of the new year and also Susie Antoli’s s “La Peregrinacion,” a gentle Argentinean ballad that narrates the biblical story in which Mary and Joseph tried to find a place to sleep at the end of their journey to Bethlehem.

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Bibi Ferreira is one of Brazil’s greatest living legends – at 94 years of age as of this writing, she is actively performing throughout the Americas and Europe while still finding time to go into the studio to record new music.

Natal em Familia” (originally released in Brazil in 2012) brings together many traditional mostly performed as duets. The album kicks off with “Sinos de Belém” (Jingle Bells) done in an American Gospel/jazz style featuring samba singer Alcione and plenty of improvised instrumental solos from her touring band. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Estrada do Sol” is a bit unexpected for this album but it ultimately makes sense since the lyrics speak of hope for better days to come. “Um Novo Tempo” is a Marcos Valle/Paulo Sergio Valle/Nelson Motta composition that was for many years used as Globo TV’s Holiday theme, but here it receives a more serious treatment as a more devotional feel featuring the voices of Ferreira, Joyce Candido, Ana Cristina and Mayra Freitas.

There are a few throwaways – it’s hard to understand why anyone thought having Ferreira and former kiddie show host Xuxa Meneghel duet on “Vem Que Vai Chegando o Natal” (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) would be a good idea, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy even if it has a nice swinging jazz backbeat. Also the late Emilio Santiago;s vocal chops are under-used in the beautiful ballad “Feliz Natal” – he had such a great range but here is reduced to singing in unison with Ferreira.

Other notable tracks are Schubert’s “Oh Noite Santa” (Oh Holy Night) performed by opera singer Max Wilson and of course the beautiful duet that Ferreira and pop singer Ronnie Von do on Schubert’s Ave Maria – gives you goose bumps even after repeated hearings.

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Bluesy Christmas: Laura Cheadle’s “Ill Have a Blues Christmas” and Sheryl Crow’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”

By Ernest Barteldes

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Move over, “Santa Baby,” the song made famous by the late, great Eartha Kitt in which the singer hits on Santa Claus – you are not the sexiest Christmas song ever anymore. That title now belongs to Laura Cheadle‘s “Giving You Me For Christmas,” a driving blues with provocative lyrics about being ready to be unwrapped under the Christmas tree that is part of her  self-released “I’ll Have a Blues Christmas,” and album that blends original tunes with Holiday classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”  and “The First Noel.”

Other highlights of the disc include “Red Ain’t Everything,” which tells  Rudolph’s story from his own point of view, and a live rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” (there is no information of where it was recorded, but the audience sounds responsive and enthusiastic).  It is a strong disc thanks to the well-written arrangements and solid musical chemistry that Cheadle has with her family, who is present on every track.

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Speaking of blues, I recently discovered Sheryl Crow’s own Christmas record “Home for Christmas” (A&M), which is highly influenced by the sounds of Memphis. Recorded in the same era as her “100 Miles from Memphis,”  it contains mostly covers of classics like “White Christmas”  and “O Holy Night”  with a solid backing from a tight brass-heavy band featuring none other than Booker T (of the MGs), one of the key figures of the Memphis sound throughout the 1960s and 70s. I was surprised that I had never even heard about that disc for years – one of the last from her now-former label.

Among the best tracks are “The Christmas song,” played with a Jorge Benjor-like flavor. “Blue Christmas” has a nice backbeat focused on the rhythm section, great horn solos and of course Crow’s sultry voice. The inclusion of Crow’s “All Through the Night” (a track from ” 100 Miles from Memphis” ) seems a bit out of place on the collection, but it closes the album with a funky feel.

Ernest Barteldes’ Annual Christmas Music Wrap-Up is Back!

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.