Music for the holiday season
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 12, 2002) -- Whether your celebration is of the secular, seasonal variety – with the emphasis on snowmen and sleigh rides – or of the religious kind – marking the birth of Jesus – there is new music aplenty to provide the soundtrack for your holiday gatherings with friends and family.

In the wake of the enormous success of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and the renewed interest in old-time music that ensued, it was only a matter of time before someone put together an all-bluegrass holiday collection. “O Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holiday” (Rounder) includes 18 Christmas-themed songs in the high-lonesome style. Singer/mandolinist Rhonda Vincent kicks off the effort with her smoothly polished version of Tex Logan’s “Christmas Time’s a Comin’,” and Jeannie Kendall applies her Emmylou Harris-like soprano to the aptly-titled “Smoky Mountain Christmas.” The ensemble Open Road delivers a very rootsy rendition of Ralph Stanley’s “Christmas Is Near,” and the Johnson Mountain Boys are equally traditional with the dual harmonies of “The Friendly Beasts.”

Other groups put a bluegrass or old-time spin on holiday standards, such as the Shankman Twins’s version of “Winter Wonderland” and Open Road’s lively bluegrass breakdown arrangement of “Blue Christmas.” The Cox Family delivers an appropriately spiritual version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and vocalist/instrumentalist Ron Stewart’s glistening solo version of “Silver Bells” veers into country-pop territory.

“Christmastime” (Shadow Mountain) features bestselling Christian singer-songwriter Hilary Weeks performing original compositions including the title track and “God Bless Your Way,” alongside tasteful orchestral arrangements of classics including
“The Christmas Song,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “White Christmas.” Her smooth alto seemingly glides over an icy bed of snow on a swinging, orchestral pops arrangement of “Sleigh Ride,” but she saves up her most stirring, heartfelt vocal performance for “O Holy Night.”

“The Christmas Album” (Columbia) is the first holiday collection of new music by Johnny Mathis since the 1986 release, “Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis.” The album – his sixth Christmas collection -- kicks off with a rather stentorian “Joy to the World,” but lightens up with a swing-jazz, big-band version of “Frosty the Snowman.” The kid-friendly recording includes a version of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” from Burl Ives’s TV special, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and Mathis offers hints of the vibrato-laden voice that once made the girls swoon on “Christmas Time Is Here,” the Vince Guaraldi composition that children will recognize from the perennial “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special. The album also includes a new ballad, “Heavenly Peace,” written especially for Mathis by pop composers Dean Pitchford (“Fame,” “Footloose”) and Tom Snow.

Gravel-voiced pop singer Steve Tyrell shares a stylistic affinity with Mathis, if not a vocal resemblance. On the vocal spectrum, his bluesy growl is more in the Ray Charles-Dr. John vein, which gives his jazzy, orchestral versions of favorites like “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on “This Time of the Year” (Columbia) an original flavor. Having musicians like trumpeters Clark Terry and Lew Soloff, saxophonist Lou Marini, guitarist Bob Mann and harmonica player “Toots” Thielemans on board doesn’t hurt, either. Tyrell’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is rendered as a bit of New Orleans funk, and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” dances along like a wayward snowflake.

One of the most unlikely revivals of the past year has been Barry Manilow’s. Seemingly out of nowhere the pop-shlock singer suddenly found himself the focus of revived interest, and so to capitalize on his newfound popularity we have “A Christmas Gift of Love” (Columbia), his first seasonal collection since 1990’s “Because It’s Christmas.” The repertoire on the new album features mostly holiday standards like “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” in Manilow’s typical eclectic style – mostly in classic-pop arrangements with big-band and orchestra. There are a few ringers in the bunch – Manilow attempts a hyped-up, jazzy version of “My Favorite Things” that sounds forced and wordy, but his surprising version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” is imaginative and well-chosen.

Those looking for something to set the mood for a romantic, holiday-inspired tete-a-tete will have to look no further than smooth-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti’s “December” (Columbia). Think of it as “Christmas for Lovers” – Botti’s baker’s dozen songs – including “First Noel,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” -- are given intimate, appropriately icy arrangements that never stray too far from the melody, and his accompanists mostly stay out of his way and let him do his Chet Baker-by-way-of-Chuck Mangione thing.

If instrumental wallpaper is what you’re looking for as a background to a holiday cocktail party, pianist Jim Wilson’s “My First Christmas With You” (Hillsboro) is the ticket. The collection includes traditional melodies, two new compositions and three vocal numbers featuring Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Bishop and Marilyn Martin. Wilson’s arrangements tend toward icy Muzak – the record label recommends it be filed under “New Age” -- with accompaniment on synthesizers, harps, uilleann pipes and electric guitars. Joni Mitchell’s “River” surfaces here, too, not once but twice – in a placid, flaccid instrumental version and in a slightly peppier version featuring juiced-up percussion and a saxophone solo by Everette Harp.

There’s nothing icy about the music on “Christmas Greetings from Studio One” (Heartbeat). Your holiday thoughts may not be inspired by a Caribbean beach, but Jamaican reggae artists have been making Christmas records for as long as there has been such a thing as reggae music. The baker’s dozen tunes on this compilation, all recorded at Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica, by legendary producer Clement S. Dodd, include newly recorded tracks by contemporary reggae artists like the Silvertones, Jimmy Tucker, Jennifer Lara and J.D. Smoothe, as well as vintage tracks by the Cables, Horace Andy and Al and the Vibrators. Highlights include the call-and-response vocals on “Praise Jah, It’s Christmas” by Alton Ellis, “Christmas Feeling Ska” by Toots and the Maytals, and a downright bizarre, doo-wop version of “White Christmas” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, in which Marley seemingly does an Elvis Presley imitation.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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