Sound Advice Reviews
It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas
Here is some of the holiday fare in the air this season; there will be more in an upcoming edition of this column.
MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET CHRISTMAS
If you get a sugar headache from renditions of holiday classics that are as sticky-sweet as candy canes, here's the antidote that nevertheless has a built-in tie-in to the ghosts of Christmas past. A companion piece to the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet, inspired by the real-life one-off studio jam session of early rock and roll stars, the stage production Million Dollar Quartet Christmas, staged around the country and now touring, has its own cast recording. It's a fun, fond reminder of the distinctive stylings of legends Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash and how music genres like rockabilly and country could revamp and invigorate holiday tunes. There are some non-Yuletide oldies, too.
The collection is lively and likable, with the four main players doing very admirable approximations of the icons without sounding slavish or self-conscious, and certainly not veering into exaggeration to become caricatures. Although the stage vehicle has dialogue, none of that is included on the recording, except for a few playful asides. The historic 1956 meet-up (preserved on tape and eventually commercially released) was in December, providing a convenient reason to imagine that the guys might have felt like indulging in singing some Christmas numbers. However, the actual surviving documentation only has two: both just instrumentals. (One, "Jingle Bells," here is given voice, too, in a real rollicking party mood.) But tackling seasonal songs was not foreign to the breadth of their discographies throughout the years; for example, Presley released two such collections and Cash headlined four. So, they had the credibility and credentials, even if they didn't record certain old classics until after 1956–and they could not have even sung the included "Run Rudolph Run," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," or "Jingle Bell Rock" (the latter two are in a zippy medley) as all first appeared on the scene in 1958. But the artistic license to ignore pesky reality checks allows for some rewarding performances.
Appropriate for the atmosphere of an impromptu songfest, some cast performances have a free, "jumping in" feel, as opposed to aping their slick, tightly arranged commercial release counterparts. Alex Swindle captures the essence of Elvis-isms in a relaxed way with "Blue Christmas," while almost anything that Jared Freiburg contributes as Jerry Lee Lewis wisely maintains plenty of the trademark hyperkinetic showmanship, as he lets loose with "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" and "Bad Kid." Bill Scott Sheets channels Cash's low-pitched timbre basement tones on "Ring of Fire" and Mark Andrew Miller ably recalls Perkins' crossover appeal and rockabilly swagger. Kathleen Macari is cast as a fictitious Presley girlfriend, in some change-of-style turns, like the tongue-in-cheek flirtation of "Santa Baby." A four-song medley presents the characters mockingly illustrating the fluffy and peppy pop successes of the 1950s that we assume would be anathema to their grittier sensibilities.
The religious side of things is not ignored. A warm embrace is granted to "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "Silent Night" and there's a robust gospel medley. Million Dollar Quartet Christmas, merrily, can feel like being "in the room where it happens."
And now for something completely different. The Bestest Office Christmas Party Ever is described in a press release as "the irreverent new holiday musical." That's truth in advertising. A four-track EP preview unleashes a brash, broad comic sensibility. It's not for kids or prudes. With this small sampling of the score, out of context, it's difficult to get a real handle on the show. The tone of comedy in the lyrics, credited jointly to composer Billy Recce and bookwriter Drew Larimore, won't be everyone's cup of spiced holiday egg nog. However, the singer-actors dive into their assignments with seeming relish to own their characters' moods and attitudes.
There are two group numbers here–the title song and "The Santa for Me"–both boasting mega-bouncy melodies for their choruses, but these numbers reveal more distinctive personal perspectives than the simple sunniness in their repeated title lines. Musical theatre veteran Mary Testa fearlessly powers through the wild tale of tactile experience with a "Sex Machine Robot." Subtle it is not. Conflicting emotions effectively co-exist with Ryan McCurdy's solo about "That Bitch Face, David" as the insults hurled belie the lingering affection indicated by the gentler music; a satisfyingly neat final line adroitly states the emotional state.
In this "partial view" experience of The Bestest Office Christmas Party Ever there are hints of humanity in the humor and sweetness under the snark.
"Dazzling" is my best adjective choice to describe violinist Lindsey Stirling's work handling Christmas material–classics and a few she co-wrote–on her latest release, Snow Waltz. Some tracks are thrillingly sweeping, others achingly beautiful in their elegance, and several, with guest vocalists, bubble agreeably in a contemporary pop style. Her own vocals do appear on a few selections, but are not so prominent in the mix, sounding more attractively misty/ethereal than dominating, although when it comes to "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" her lovely voice is on fuller display. Snow Waltz, with its varied tempi and sweeping instrumental lines, suggests muscular and/or graceful movement, which is not a surprise since this is an artist who, in her concerts and videos, dances while playing the violin.
Acoustic and synthesized accompaniment provides additional layers of sound and support, but the vibrant violin is engagingly front and center. Interest is maintained via surprise shifts in style and rhythms with some old warhorses: the horses in "Sleigh Ride" definitely giddyap after a first section that's as brisk as the supposed winter-chilled air. And "Feliz Navidad" begins atypically in a slow, long-lined fashion (which I wish wasn't abandoned so soon) before legato becomes percolating and percussive.
"Crazy for Christmas" is a gleeful confession of obsession with the holiday, adorable in its way, but arguably it runs a wee bit long as chipper vocalist Bonnie McKee (one of its co-writers) risks hitting us over the head to be sure we're converted, but it sure sounds like a hit. David Archuleta, who came to the public's attention on a TV talent contest ("American Idol"), as did Miss Stirling ("America's Got Talent"), charms with the more earnest "Magic," written by the violinist and multi-tasking Gladius, aka James Wong, whose other Snow Waltz credits include playing some instruments, programming, arranging, and producing.
This is Lindsey Stirling's second collection of Christmas material, following 2017's Warmer in the Winter and it earns a warm welcome. With an impressive history collaborating with many other artists, this genre-crossing performer is currently crossing the country on her Snow Waltz tour.
Some vocalists pull a listener in immediately, right from the first phrase. With her gorgeous voice, knowing approach to lyrics to establish intimacy, and her own sensitive arrangements, Corinne Mammana is that kind of enthralling artist on her EP. One can almost see those sights of the season she sings about with tender loving attention and glowing appreciation in "Christmas Time Is Here" and the cozy conversation-like self-penned title song of In the Christmas City.
The other selections are carols, and they get blessed with awe and respect. There is grace and a sense of drama in "In the Bleak Midwinter," and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is imbued with the appropriate elements of "comfort and joy." "Carol of the Bells," typically a grand and quick-paced affair, is taken at a slow pace that drapes it in dignity. Included within it is another classic, not indicated on the song list: "We Three Kings," kind of a "Christmas bonus." And a separate digital bonus track will come if the digital set or 5-track physical CD/digital combo is purchased at Bandcamp. "Silent Night" is that extra, the involved phrasing and simmering solo piano going beyond being merely a dearly serene lullaby.
The scenarios and moods are enhanced with the tasteful, simpatico accompaniment of pianist Sean Gough, guitarist Tom Kozic, bassist Gene Perla, and drummer Ian Froman, with Missy Salvadeo on viola. (Not all play on all selections.)
Corinne Mammana's years performing in theatre, in shows such as Nine, Show Boat and Rent pay off, evidenced in the strong presence and connection here. (She also sings in cabaret, concert, and jazz settings and has prior recordings that include some of these musicians; a few tracks were released as singles.) Spending time with the exceptional In the Christmas City makes living anywhere lovelier. The Pennsylvania performer has a concert celebrating this release in her home state on December 18 and, appropriately for a Christmas project, it is in the city of Bethlehem.
Call him "Retro Ruggiero." Basking in the reflected glow of the memorable past pop polish given to holiday repertoire, 24-year-old Chris Ruggiero steps into the snow-shoes of those who recorded iconic treatments. Much of Christmas with Chris Ruggiero is an enthusiastic young singer paying his respects to–or should I say a devotee's unabashed embrace of–the musical ghosts of Christmas Past. His engagingly bubbly personality and zest make the footstep-following an invigorating listen instead of a dull retread.
Some superstar's strong imprints are felt on fine cuts such as "Merry Christmas, Darling" (Carpenters) and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (Andy Williams). The famous 1963 record A Christmas Gift to You with various rock and roll acts of the day (mostly girl groups) casts a particularly big shadow on the arrangements. Thus, we get back-up voices chirping "Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding" throughout the bouncy "Sleigh Ride" and the moodiness of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The woman who recorded it back then, Darlene Love, even shows up as duet partner for the 1990 song "Grown-Up Christmas List." It's a major highlight and they both sound splendid and involved with this serious piece. (However, opting for the last seconds of the track to trail off as a slow fade-out robs a credible performance of an impactful conclusion.)
Not everything among the dozen offerings has an uber-obvious specific ancestor or heavy post-1950s pop patina. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" owes nothing to Judy Garland or others who followed her wistful way; it seems to be offhandedly skipping along, absent the caution of its hopefulness. A straightforward and timeless "Silent Night," the sole non-secular representative, finds the potent singer in full choir boy mode.
Arrangement assignments were divided between the veteran Charlie Calello and Christian Tamburr, the latter also serving as pianist on those he handled. Instrumentation varies, including some brass and sax. Chris Ruggiero's endearing M.O. and strong pipes make his latest release a treat. His December concert schedule finds him spreading holiday cheer and good will among several Eastern states. Like his voice and energy, his future seems bright.
BILLY STRITCH, JIM CARUSO & KLEA BLACKHURST
To make the merry-making even merrier, 2019's delightful Christmas at Birdland has been reissued in a Deluxe Edition with a few extra terrific tracks: Playing piano for himself (and the other performers), Billy Stritch contributes a heartfelt croon, bringing sincerity to "Old Days, Old Times, Old Friends." Jim Caruso, in charming mode, presents a smile-inducing ode to "Jingles, the Christmas Cat." Both of these were written by Ray Parker. Klea Blackhurst, the noted princess of pizzazz, cheerleads the way through "We Need a Little Christmas" from Mame, dispatched in just two minutes, spiced with a few mini-interpolations, and the aforementioned gents chiming in.
A new orchestral mix adds another layer of richness to the celebrational "It's the Holiday Season" that features special guest lead vocalist Donny Osmond. The Stritch/Caruso/Blackhurst trio are back doing their annual Yuletide run at, of course, Birdland in Manhattan. Comments on the original 13-track issue can be seen in this column's review from three years ago.
Leave it to the inventiveness of skillful jazz-oriented people to make sure even the most overdone Christmas content gets infused with new blood. While singing on her new album Bells Are Ringing, Andy James stays sturdily on her straight-ahead course in driving a melody line respectfully (but with a bit of judicious personalization), and her musicians keep thing extra-interesting and involving with accompaniment that is bustling and busy in the best sense. So much is going on! It's like a whole separate set of intriguing side shows with muscular, detailed playing that goes way beyond the old architectures of these songs. It's the best of both worlds for those who want to mix things up with a combustive combo of tradition and daring.
When Ms. James aims her laser beam-like vocal on a lyric, there's a sufficiently assertive vocal presence and sound so that she isn't in danger of being upstaged by the prominent accompaniment or generous instrumental breaks. There are eight selections: two carols ("Silent Night" and "The First Noel"), four secular standbys (including "The Christmas Song" aka "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" that's quite the valentine to Nat King Cole's iconic version, quoting that recognizable intro and more), as well as two dynamic original pieces with no vocals (because they have no lyrics yet). On these, Ms. James shares composing credit with one of the collection's pianists/arrangers, Jon Cowherd, and her co-producer, Piero Pata. One is called simply "It's Christmas Time," the mellower other serves as Bells Are Ringing's title tune (no relation to the Broadway musical of the same name), which does not invoke typical trademarks of the season, with not a single jingle bell, chime, or Heavenly harp in earshot, but the sax playing of Marcus Strickland will do just fine.
THE LAURIE BERKNER BAND
With some renditions that feel as "grown-up" as those on any holiday album and others coming on ultra-"cute" to cater to the kindergarten crowd, here's a collection presenting things for all ages. Another Laurie Berkner Christmas, with 18 tracks in all, has great variety, with non-age-specific exuberant joy and jolly attitudes turned up high (as in "Joy to the World" and "Holly Jolly Christmas," respectively). The Laurie Berkner Band–a quartet–is the big time for little folks' entertainment, for many years prolifically present and perky. This set often got me grinning, but proceed with curmudgeonly caution if you're a Scrooge type who feels unfriendly towards kid-friendly versions of the Christmas oeuvre or newer additions. Sweet-voiced lead vocalist, arranger and guitarist/ukulele player Laurie Berkner wrote five numbers on this set, with the standout being "Icicles," which is sung in a round and has simple plucking accompaniment.
Broadway star Norm Lewis guests on "Good King Wenceslas," his deep voice gratifyingly bringing welcome gravitas. Suzzy Roche and her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche join in as co-carolers on "Here We Come A-Wassailing" for affecting harmony, with an authentic old-timey feel. These are definite highlights on the mature side, but the glib romp through "The 12 Days of Christmas" with attendant sound effects for the avian and human gifts is entertaining, too. And if someone does take a cue from that list song's lyric and actually sends you "nine ladies dancing," they might enjoy the two revamped cuts from the vast Berkner discography presented as "dance mixes": "Jingle Bells" and "Happy New Year." Well, "happy" is the operative word.