Friday, December 18, 2015

New Christmas Music 2015: New Releases From India.Arie with Joe Sample, David Benoit with Jane Monheit, Bluebirds of Paradise, Kylie Minogue, Jennifer Paige, Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra with Freddy Cole, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, A Southern Rock Christmas, & More




I'm happy to report that we have a great new batch of Christmas releases this year. In order to bring you this article, I had to break with tradition and listen earlier than usual (before Thanksgiving). I figure that since the artists have to record these albums in the summertime, the least we music writers can do is listen early so we can write about them. There's something to be said for listening to Christmas music in early November; not something I've ever done before but it was fun, makes me think that maybe we should start listening to Christmas music after Halloween, think how much more we could listen to before December 25th.

The six albums and two EPs mentioned in the title are keepers, and we will get into their details below. There are also a few more Christmas releases this year that are worth knowing about. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass reissued their 1968 Christmas Album with remastered sound. If you are a fan or are nostalgic for the sixties (or the Newlywed Game theme music), this is for you. The Braxtons offer Braxton Family Christmas in which their voices combine beautifully in a solid effort that should appeal to more than just fans of Toni Braxton. In 1968, Glen Campbell released a number one selling Christmas album. Capitol Records rereleased it three more time with a few tracks added each time. Now, all 18 of the country/pop icon's Christmas recordings have been beautifully remastered and collected on Glen Campbell: Complete Capitol Christmas Recordings. LeAnn Rimes' entry for 2015 is Today Is Christmas which features a nice country/pop/soul vibe. There is a good mix of originals and familiar tunes, but I was picking up some sort of affect in her vocals and this did not seem to me to be the Christmas album she is capable of, so I'm going to recommend this for fans only. 20 #1's: Motown Christmas is a fine collection of Motown's best Christmas singles. These tracks are drawn from Motown's most beloved artists, artists such as The Jackson 5, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Boyz II Men to name a few. Now, here are the eight new Christmas releases that made my buy list.


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India.Arie & Joe Sample - Christmas With Friends

This one is my favorite of all the new Christmas releases. It's the kind of record I hope for every time I open the shrink wrap of a new Christmas CD. India.Arie's voice is so sweet and soulful that when combined with the piano of Joe Sample it makes for the most appealing Christmas album I've heard in many a year. Sample recorded this project during the last nine months of his life; he died of lung cancer on September 12, 2014 at age 75. Fans of Sample's career with The Crusaders and solo will treasure this recording.

From her bio, India.Arie says, “The sound of Joe’s piano and his special chord voicings always struck the perfect balance of peace and inspiration for me. I wanted to use my voice in new ways that would complement his aesthetic. To have been able to sing with Joe but also produce what I feel are my best vocals to date is something very special and meaningful.”

This album reminds me a lot of 1997's 'Tis The Season, in which some of the best jazz and R&B artists of the time performed with a house band and producer making one of my all time favorite Christmas albums. Christmas With Friends features guests on most of the tracks, which I am detailing below with the tracklist. The song selection is perfect, the performances are top notch, and you just won't find a more agreeable way to spend thirty-seven minutes at this time of year.

1. Let It Snow - The vocal is traditional, the piano is beautifully jazzy, the song is a pure delight.

2. Favorite Time of Year, feat: Tori Kelly - A new Christmas tune written by India.Arie, musician and producer Aaron W. Lindsey, and Simpson, her mother who contributed to the lyrics (India.Arie's real name is India Arie Simpson). Lindsey played all of the instruments. "Favorite Time of Year" has a vibe much like Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" which, in the years since Hathaway wrote it, has rightfully become a standard; this song deserves the same.

3. Silent Night, feat: Brandy - The first verse starts out soft and reverent, then things liven up with India's vocal duet with Brandy and some heavenly piano runs by Sample.

4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, feat: KEM - I love that KEM is on this track. First they trade verses, then they trade lines in a comfortably jazzy reading of this classic tune.

5. Merry Christmas Baby, feat: Michael McDonald - This is gorgeous slow blues with India.Arie dedicating the song to her grandmother.

6. I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, feat: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews / Dave Koz - I'm so glad to hear this and not the umpteenth cover of "Baby It's Cold Outside". India sounds great on this upbeat take on the Irving Berlin classic, complete with solos by Dave Koz on sax and Trombone Shorty on, well, trombone.

7. The Christmas Song - Everyone and their brother has taken a crack at this chestnut, and even though no one can touch Nat King Cole, India turns in one of the nicest versions of "The Christmas Song" that I've ever heard.

8. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, feat: Khristian Dentley - Khristian Dentley contributes vocals and vocal arrangements on a swingin' version of this traditional carol.

9. Mary, Did You Know?, feat: Gene Moore - I love the vocal duet between India and Gene Moore on this contemporary gospel Christmas song. The combination of violin and Paul Jackson Jr.'s acoustic guitar is sweet; Nathan East also guests on this track playing upright bass.

10. Auld Lang Syne, feat: Kirk Whalum - India rings in the new year staying traditional on the first verse, then the party kicks in with Kirk Whalum playing some lovely sax.

Listen to "Favorite Time of Year"




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David Benoit Trio - Believe (Feat Jane Monheit & The All American Boys Chorus)

Believe pairs jazz pianist David Benoit with jazz/pop vocalist Jane Monheit. Each artist has gone to the Christmas well once before; Benoit with Christmastime in 1983 and Monheit released The Season in 2005. I go back to The Season every year for Monheit's "My Grown-Up Christmas List", love that song.

When it comes to piano jazz no one does it better than Benoit, and this album benefits from the production touch of recording live in the studio. All of the tracks on Believe excel, I'm already partial to their swinging version of the "Christmas Waltz" replete with solos on piano and bass. Guesting on this album on flute is Tim Weisberg, who hit the pop charts in the 70s with Dan Fogelberg and also had a string of successful solo albums. In the liner notes, Benoit calls him "flautist extraordinaire".

I've long objected to repurposing songs like "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music or Joni Mitchell's "River" as Christmas songs, but Monheit and Benoit sound undeniably good on their version of "My Favorite Things". Believe is a well chosen set of mostly familiar songs plus one new tune written by Benoit with Lee Mendelson, who was Vince Guaraldi's lyricist on A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Benoit has long been a disciple of Vince Guaraldi who wrote and recorded, for my money, the best Christmas music ever with his soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is now turning 50 years old. The covers here compare favorably to the originals with Benoit taking a few more liberties on piano (with solos and such) than Guaraldi did. There is an excellent version of "Christmastime Is Here" featuring the All American Boys Chorus, who sound tremendous by the way, and they're on several other songs as well. You might not recognize "My Little Drum" by name, but as soon as you hear it you will instantly know it from the soundtrack, another superb cover. Benoit's not done with Guaraldi yet, there is also the "Guaraldi Medley" that includes "Air Music", "Christmas Is Coming", "What Child Is This?" and "O Tannenbaum", all of which Guaraldi composed or arranged. The David Benoit Trio more than acquits itself as a worthy successor to the Guaraldi legacy.

Listen to "Christmastime Is Here"




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Bluebirds of Paradise - In A Night

Singer-songwriters Chrissi Poland and Ari Hest formed Bluebirds of Paradise in 2013 and released a early version of "Snow" for that year's holiday season. In late 2014, they recorded their debut EP In A Night with producer and musician Will Lee and graced last year's holidays with a single release of the official EP version. 2015 not only saw the release of the In A Night EP, but also the marriage of principal Bluebirds Chrissi and Ari. In A Night is a set of delightful songs in the Brazilian jazz/pop style known as Bossa Nova. Listening to this EP is such a joy that I have included it in this list even though "Snow" is the only holiday song, make that anti-holiday song. Just listen to it and it will make your holiday music collection.

Listen to "Snow"




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Kylie Minogue - Kylie Christmas

Kylie Christmas is my next favorite new Christmas album of 2015 after India.Arie. The pleasures of this record are many and Kylie Minogue sounds at home in every era from the 1950s to the present day. The triumph of Kylie Christmas is shared between the amazing vocals of Minogue and the genius production of Steve Anderson (with assorted co-producers on some tracks). This album is so all over the place that I'll have to go track by track. The deluxe edition includes a DVD of six studio videos from the recording sessions.

1. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year - The orchestra backing Minogue sounds for all the world like the orchestras that used to back the popular singers of the 1940s and 1950s, as heard on the classic Capitol Christmas albums of that era. These orchestras don't just play backing music, the arrangements and performances have such personality that the orchestra serves almost as a duet partner with the vocalist. That Minogue sounds so at home with this old school music, and yet sounds modern in the quality of her voice, makes for a totally delightful contradiction.

2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (feat. Frank Sinatra) - I am normally dead set against posthumous duets. We can give Natalie Cole some slack because she sang with her own father, otherwise the dead cannot consent or give their approval to the results. The most egregious case had to be what Kenny G did to "What A Wonderful World" by Louie Armstrong. Even if Mr. G were to be strung up for this, it would not stop Armstrong from turning over in his grave. Even still, I'm here to say that Minogue's duet with Frank Sinatra totally works. She sounds like she's right there in the studio singing with Sinatra, and I have a feeling that if he could hear it he would like it.

3. Winter Wonderland - This track has the same orchestra as track one, which sounds seamlessly like Sinatra's own orchestra on track two. All three songs seem as if from a single set; this is what I call genius production.

4. Christmas Wrapping (with Iggy Pop) - The Waitresses' 1981 original "Christmas Wrapping" has become a sentimental favorite for many, including yours truly. Minogue's version doesn't stray far from the original, but she sounds every bit as at home here as she did with the old school tunes that began the record. This song has recently begun receiving numerous cover versions and this, I think, is the best that I've heard. The subject of the song comes to life in the voice of Mr. Iggy Pop of The Stooges, which is at once totally unexpected and a nice twist.

5. Only You (with James Corden) - We stay in the 80s for this gorgeous duet with James Corden on a tune that songwriter Vince Clarke sang with Alison Moyet in their group Yazoo; it was on their first single. I love this song and even though it doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, per se, Christmas is all about love and so this song delivers. I was going to say that "I just hope that no one else puts it on a Christmas album trying to turn it into a Christmas song", but my crack research department tells me that the original reached number one at Christmas 1983. If you've seen the movie Love Actually you'll know what a coveted honor it is to have the Christmas number one in Britain, so I guess that ship has sailed.

6. I'm Gonna Be Warm This Winter - "I'm Gonna Be Warm This Winter" takes us to the pre-Beatles rock/pop era of the early sixties where Minogue sounds equally right at home. I just listened to the Connie Francis original side-by-side with Minogue's version and I have to say that I like this one better.

7. Every Day's Like Christmas - This is one of three new originals on Kylie Christmas. "Every Day's Like Christmas" was penned by Coldplay's Chris Martin for this project. Minogue does such a spectacular job that it already sounds like a Christmas Classic.

8. Let It Snow - Minogue goes thoroughly traditional with the delightful orchestra we heard at the beginning of this album. One of the things that knocks me out about her talent is the way she can sound totally old school and completely modern at the same time.

9. White December - Another original, "White December" was co-written by Minogue and it too already sounds like a classic. I love those rare Christmas albums that have new songs that are as good as, or better, than the familiar tunes (Mindy Smith), and Kylie Christmas is one of them.

10. 2000 Miles - It's back to the '80s for this Pretenders' original, which is now a beloved Christmas standard and this is a wonderful version.

11. Santa Baby - Minogue's take on "Santa Baby" is so good that I must set aside my view that this is a song that has been covered way too much in recent years. The backing is playful and Minogue is adept at the sex kitten vocals that this song requires. A winner.

12. Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here - The third original on the album, this one was written by Minogue, producer Steve Anderson, and backing vocalist Karen Poole. I can't quite put my finger on it but whatever it is that makes a new song sound like a classic Christmas tune, "Christmas Isn't Christmas 'Til You Get Here" has it.

13. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - Minogue closes the album beautifully with a most poignant take on "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". There are two distinctly different iterations of this song, both written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Judy Garland sang the original in the 1944 movie Meet Me In St. Louis, a somewhat sad song hoping for a brighter Christmas in the future. 'In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." He told Martin, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin's new line was "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." Martin made several other alterations, changing the song's focus to a celebration of present happiness, rather than anticipation of a better future' (Wikipedia). I absolutely love the version here, with its period string backing, Minogue completely captures the wistful tone of the original song with its undercurrent of sadness intact.

14. Oh Santa - This is the first of three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of Kylie Christmas, all three are new originals co-written by Minogue. "Oh Santa" is like an update of "Santa Baby", complete with finger snapping, playful backing, and sultry vocals.

15. 100 Degrees (with Dannii Minogue) - "100 Degrees" is a modern full scale production featuring vocals by Dannii and Kylie Minogue.

16. Cried Out Christmas - "Cried Out Christmas" is a cool Christmas blues tune in the mode of Kelly Clarkson's "The Trouble With Love Is" from the Love Actually soundtrack. Nice.

Listen to "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year"




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Jennifer Paige - Holiday

Jennifer Paige's megahit "Crush" still sounds great seventeen years on, which is quite an accomplishment but it also makes her something of a one hit wonder. Holiday, a six track Christmas EP, is currently being offered as a free download on Noisetrade, which is nice because Paige's voice sounds as fresh and appealing as ever. Holiday has two Paige originals, "Happy, Happy Holidays to You" and "Miss You Most At Christmastime", and four familiar traditional tunes such as "Coventry Carol" and "Deck the Halls".

If you want the Noisetrade download you'll have to move fast, it probably won't be available after December 2015. If you are not familiar with Noisetrade, music is posted there by artists looking to build audience. The trade-off for the free download is that Noisetrade will give the artist your email address and your sharing about it on social media isn't much to ask for some free music. Noistrade also includes a place where you may leave a tip for the artist, if you wish. This is completely ignorable in most circumstances, however you might consider it in this case because it's the holidays and half of the money goes to charity.

All six tracks sound good and it's nice to hear Paige again. Her Holiday EP will be a welcome addition to your Christmas collection.

Listen to "Miss You Most at Christmas Time"



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Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra & Freddy Cole - Joyful Jazz

The Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra is a world class jazz ensemble whose holiday show has become a Pittsburgh tradition. The sound is big band all the way with brass, woodwinds, guitars, keyboards, and rhythm section all playing at the top of their game. Jazz and Christmas music always go well together and this album is a total delight. I would have liked this anyway but what really drew me in was the appearance of vocalist Freddy Cole. Cole's voice has the very appealing mixture of rough and satin textures. His voice doesn't exactly sound like Nat's, but you can tell that they are brothers. Cole did his own Christmas album some years back and I once saw him sing an excellent set of jazz and Christmas tunes at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia.

On "Jingles, the Christmas Cat" Cole's vocal swings, half spoken half sung, all cool. The orchestra's softer side provides a beautiful setting for Cole's vocal on "A Cradle In Bethlehem". Cole's third vocal track is "White Christmas (In the Sahara)". As the name suggests, the familiar melody gets some Middle Eastern flavor as the orchestra shows off its versatility. Maureen Budway provides vocals on "The Christmas Song" in a most pleasing jazzier version than you usually hear on this Christmas classic.

The rest of the album is instrumental, the orchestra doing many traditional favorites. The horns and saxes sound sensational as they make the high energy tunes come alive, complete with festive solos on trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, and alto and tenor sax. In addition, there's one new original "Merry Christmas, John Coltrane" written by Mike Tomaro, musician, arranger, and artistic director, as a tribute to Coltrane.

The Orchestra's press release says, "On this recording the skilled musicians of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra render a new treatment on holiday classics, and turn the Holiday Season into a unique celebration of wonder, bliss and merriment the whole family will enjoy. We hope you and your family find the spirit of the season when listening to our collection of Joyful Jazz."

Listen to "Jingles, the Christmas Cat"



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Brian Setzer Orchestra - Rockin' Rudolph

Brian Setzer Loves Christmas; Rockin'Rudolph is his third Christmas album. He recorded all three with The Brian Setzer Orchestra, a high voltage outfit that combines rockabilly and a swinging big band with Setzer's amazing guitar work. The song selections are mostly familiar favorites, with one twist. "Yabba-Dabba Yuletide" is the very familiar theme song from the Flinstones with new lyrics by Hoyt Curtin, which turns it into a Christmas song. In this version, "Have a yabba-dabba doo time" becomes "Have a yabba-dabba yuletide", great stuff. There's even an extended version (track 12) in which the solos, guitar, sax, and trumpet, which are nice and tight on track 2, stretch out to make the long version well worth having.

Setzer sings on the first six tracks which also include seasonal favorites such as "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree", "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year", and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", a song which nicely shows off the softer side of the Setzer Orchestra. The title track sounds like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" meets "Secret Agent Man". The last five tracks are instrumentals in which Setzer lets his guitar do the talking, while the orchestra shines on tunes like "Swingin' Joy", "Carol Of the Bells", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". The Brian Setzer Orchestra is a lot of fun with its fabulous guitar work and swingin' big band arrangements, and it will certainly brighten up your holiday season.

Listen to "Yabba-Dabba Yuletide"



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Various Artists - Southern Rock Christmas

There are fourteen tracks on Southern Rock Christmas and what they all have in common is electric guitars and lots of 'em, guitar solos and lots of 'em, and lots of solid high energy rock. I don't quite know what it is about that sound that makes it Southern, but the artists all hail from the South so it is what it is. The album is remarkably cohesive considering that there are tracks from so many different artists. Listening to Southern Rock Christmas not only put me into the Christmas spirit, but I got such an elated feeling that it caught me by surprise. I would have to say that this is my next favorite of the new Christmas releases for 2015 after Kylie Christmas. Yes, it's that good.

1. The Outlaws - What Child Is This? - This song begins with some strong acapella vocals, then the band kicks in and if you've ever heard "Green Grass and High Tides", then you know what The Outlaws are capable of and this track sounds even better.

2. The Artimus Pyle Band - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - The former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer's current band starts out beautifully acoustic, then goes full electric about the two minute mark for a solid workout on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

3. Steve Morse – We Three Kings of Orient Are - Steve Morse earned his Southern rock credentials when he founded the Dixie Dregs in 1977. Morse has been Deep Purple's guitarist since 1994. If anyone could be described as a musician's musician, or a guitarist's guitarist, it would be Steve Morse. He shows you why with his instrumental version of "We Three Kings".

4. Point Blank – Merry Christmas Baby - Point Blank's sweet lead guitar driven version of "Merry Christmas Baby" is one of the big reasons that I love this disc so much.

5. Charlie Daniels – It’s Bad to Have the Blues at Christmastime - There's no blues quite like the Christmas blues and there's no better electric blues than this track, any time of year. I don't think I've heard Charlie Daniels since the '70s, and it's nice to hear him sounding like he's working at the top of his game.

6. Georgia Satellites – Run Run Rudolph - The classic Chuck Berry Christmas tune gets a high energy rock treatment from the Georgia Satellites.

7. Adam Hood – Please Come Home for Christmas - I can't claim to have been familiar with Adam Hood before hearing this album but, the Alabama native is an accomplished songwriter, singer, and musician. His take on "Please Come Home for Christmas" is good reason to know him now.

8. Paul Nelson Band – Merry Christmas Everybody - Paul Nelson is an aspiring guitar god who has shared the stage with virtually every guitar icon there is. Nelson has played with, and produced, Johnny Winter. Here he updates Slade's Christmas classic from 1973, "Merry Christmas Everybody".

9. Richie Furay – Christmas Must Be Tonight - One of the more religious entries on Southern Rock Christmas comes from Richie Furay. Furay helped form Buffalo Springfield, helped define country rock in Poco, and he is both a singer-songwriter-musician and a Christian minister.

10. Blackfoot – Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer - If you've heard the original "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patsy more than twice, you probably don't need to hear this song ever again. If you haven't, allow me to recommend Blackfoot's high energy guitar driven version as one of the guilty pleasures of this record.

11. Sammy Kershaw – That Spirit of Christmas - The Louisiana-based country star delivers the soulful ballad that Ray Charles popularized in 1985 with his album of the same name.

12. Pat Travers – Happy Xmas (War Is Over) - The 1972 John Lennon composition has become a Christmas standard that sounds good in just about every style of music, including this electric guitar-based version from Pat Travers.

13. Black Oak Arkansas – Christmas Everywhere - I listened to this sparkling ballad without looking who the artist was and I would never have guessed it was the same group that in 1973 sang "Jim Dandy To the Rescue".

14. Oak Ridge Boys – Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town - The legendary Oak Ridge Boys have a lot of fun with "Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town", each member trading lines. I especially love the lines by bass singer Richard Sterban who has an extraordinarily deep voice. The electric guitar's in there, too, as the album concludes on a happy note.

Listen to Steve Morse - "We Three Kings"

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