Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Motown Christmas: Supremes’ Mary Wilson and Four Tops are Here for the Holidays

Holiday Music, Pop, R&B, Soul No Comments »

By Dennis PolkowMaryWilson2011

Nearly fifty years after she became an international sensation as an original member of the Supremes, Mary Wilson still knows how to light up a room. As she hosted a cocktail party to talk about her upcoming holiday show, all heads were turning when she made a star’s entrance, complete with accessorized golden gown.

Wilson mingled and posed for photos before sitting down to talk about her long career. “It didn’t come easy,” says Wilson. “We had seven flops before catching on. The Marvelettes had five consecutive number-one hits and so [Motown president] Berry Gordy decided to put us with the same songwriting team.”

Originally formed as the Primettes in 1958 as a female version of the popular Detroit male-singing group the Primes, it was Wilson who recruited her classmate Diane Ross—who would be later called Diana at Gordy’s direction—to join what was originally a quartet, becoming a trio in 1961. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: New Takes on Holiday Classics

Big Band, Holiday Music, Jazz, Orchestral, Pop, Record Reviews, Vocal Music No Comments »

nnennafreelonandjohnbrowIt’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.

First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »

Separating the Holly from the Poison Ivy: Christmas Record Wrap-Up

Holiday Music, Record Reviews No Comments »

With the season that kicks off this week with Christmas tree lightings, caroling at Cloud Gate and, of course, the decorated windows at department stores comes the onslaught of holiday records, which range from reissues from long-gone crooners and divas like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald alongside records from fading (or faded) pop artists and symphony orchestras. Some are great, others are good background music while others are simply forgettable. (When was the last time you spun Cyndi Lauper’s “Merry Christmas… Have a Nice Life”?)

Some, however, are really worth your time. Among these is the fourteenth installment of “Broadway’s Carols For A Cure,” an annual compilation of newly recorded songs from the casts of various shows from the Great White Way that benefits AIDS research (available through through BC/EFA at As someone who has followed the collection almost from the start (I own copies starting from the sixth edition), I must say that this is one of the most enjoyable so far. Read the rest of this entry »

Spotify This: A Rock ’n’ Roll Holiday Playlist for the Ages

Holiday Music, Rock 2 Comments »

By Anne K. Ream and R. Clifton Spargo

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that a good idea becomes a trend, the trend becomes a cliché and the cliché thereafter morphs into an irresistible marketing opportunity. The rock ’n’ roll holiday record is as old as the October 1957 release of “Elvis’ Christmas Album,” which yielded several fine tunes, including the King’s unforgettable, bluesy rendering of “Blue Christmas.” But somewhere between the well-intentioned, if wildly uneven “A Very Special Christmas”—a multi-platinum 1987 benefit album—and this year’s perfectly even and perfectly predictable “A Very She and Him Christmas,” featuring M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, the rock ’n’ roll Christmas record became less concept album, more hackneyed concept—often nothing but a crass attempt to cash in on the spending frenzy that is the holiday season. So, in the distinctly 2011 spirit of making do with what we already have, here’s a modest proposal for stadium rockers, indie phenoms and music industry bigwigs of every sound and stripe. Let’s lay off holiday albums for a few years. And don’t worry about us during your hiatus; we’ll be taking musical stock and listening to the too-often-unheard gems that already exist. Henceforth, our favorite rock ’n’ roll holiday songs: Read the rest of this entry »

Record Reviews: Everyday Holiday Music

Celtic, Folk, Folk-rock, Holiday Music, Jazz, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Rock, World Music No Comments »

During this time of year, music stores and their online counterparts get filled with rereleases that range from remastered versions of holiday classics from Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to not-so-great offerings from the likes of Christina Aguilera and even former Beatle Ringo Starr (who made a whole album about a decade ago). And then again there are those faux-humorous songs about daddy getting drunk at Christmas while grandma was run over by a reindeer. While some of these examples are genuinely enjoyable, many are better left where they belong—in the bargain bin.

But the truth remains that for many people a Christmas party is not quite complete without holiday music, so there definitely is always a market for these albums—even if we have been hearing them day in and day out at the local grocery store since late October. In spite of that sensory overload, some new
releases deserve to be checked out, especially for artists who decide to present these classics from a different perspective. Read the rest of this entry »

Music to Knowell 2010: This year’s top five holiday releases

Chicago Artists, Holiday Music, Record Reviews No Comments »

By Dennis Polkow

Anonymous 4, “The Cherry Tree” (Harmonia Mundi)
The all-female early music vocal quartet known as Anonymous 4 has recorded a number of Christmas albums over the years, and can even be heard all over the soundtrack of “The Nativity Story” where their ethereal approach to music making is an integral part of the fabric of that sacred tapestry. What is distinctive about “The Cherry Tree” is that it focuses on songs, carols and ballads of the Anglo-American tradition, which means that they are by and large in English, if old English, and therefore what is being said is immediately discernable thanks to the group’s extraordinary ensembling and diction. “The Cherry Tree” itself is heard in an Appalachian setting and poignantly tells the story of a jealous Joseph who, when his pregnant wife asks him to pick some cherries for her on their way to Bethlehem, tells her to ask the father of the child to do so.

Jimi Hendrix, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” (Sony Legacy)
In late 1969, Hendrix, bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles prepared for what became a legendary series of concerts at New York’s Fillmore East during the holidays. Wanting to do for Christmas carols what he had done with patriotic music during Woodstock five months earlier, Hendrix put together a medley of “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night” and “Auld Lang Syne” that gave a new benchmark for outrageous Christmas music at the time. The released version is here, along with an extended version as a bonus track and Hendrix’ unique take on “Three Little Bears” recorded in 1968 during the “Electric Ladyland” sessions where things break down in the middle. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio/Music of the Baroque

Holiday Music, Orchestral, Vocal Music No Comments »


Although many of us think of the holiday season as being in full swing now that Thanksgiving is behind us, there was a time when Christmas actually began on December 25 and extended to January 6, the full “Twelve Days of Christmas” known to us in song. The season itself would then extend to encompass a full forty days, ending on February 2.

As inconceivable as it would be to us today, the weeks prior to Christmas, or Advent, were actually an austere, penitent time when no music could be played. As such, Johann Sebastian Bach wanted the first sounds of Christmas itself to be particularly jubilant, blazing forth with trumpets, timpani and chorus festively welcoming the newborn Savior.

Eighteenth-century German Lutheran worship services were literally all-morning affairs. The Leipzig services that Bach musically oversaw included biblical readings, hymn singing, organ preludes and postludes, a long and dramatic sermon, and a musical cantata based on the lesson for that day for vocal soloists, orchestra and chorus that Bach himself composed and directed. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: Broadway’s Carols for A Cure Vol. 12

Holiday Music, Record Reviews No Comments »

“Carols for a Cure” has reached its twelfth edition with the same objective: to reunite the performers of currently running Broadway shows in the production of a CD relevant to the holidays. The two-disc album features a collection of both traditional and original material—all recorded to benefit Broadway Cares, an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS.

Previous editions contained plenty of humorous and satirical material (last year they featured a mock treatment to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” from the cast of “Jersey Boys,” for example), this time around the casts mostly went with revamping better-known material within the format of their shows. The disc opens with Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph,” from the players in “The Million Dollar Quartet,” reimagined if Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis had recorded it back in 1956—complete with Lewis-like piano riffs and Perkins-styled chord solos. “Mamma Mia” contributes a sunny take on O Holy Night,” while “West Side Story” comes up with a touching bilingual version of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  “The Addams Family” is featured with “It’s Chanukah,” the token song in honor of the Jewish  holiday.

“My Fair Lady” stays true to its character, with narrations from “Henry Higgins” (Thomas M. Hammond) pestering “Eliza Doolitle” (Rachel Moulton) for her cockney enunciation—all using dialogue directly adapted from the famous play. The cast of “La Cage Aux Follies” (including stars Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge) gives a beautiful rendition of “We Need a Little Christmas,” while “In The Heights” comes up with the original “Vengan!,” a catchy Christmas salsa. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Take 6

Holiday Music, Jazz, Record Reviews, Soul No Comments »

Holiday albums are inevitable for any kind of artist (even Bob Dylan tackled the genre in 2009), and it is hard to bring much innovation to the classics that most people know, especially if you are doing it for the third time.

This is the case of Take 6: after releasing two Christmas albums (1991’s “He Is Christmas” and 1999’s “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” both on Warner Bros. Records), the Alabama-formed sextet explores the holiday catalogue once again. While the two first were more religious, this time around they include more secular songs, such as “White Christmas” and I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” The biggest surprise is the suite “Mr. Grinch/You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a very tongue-in-cheek rendition of a classic that is hardly ever featured in this kind of disc.

The group’s vocals are impeccable. On “I’ll Be Home,” the vocal arrangement goes into a very soulful direction, while “The Sugarplum Dance” blends their classical training with their gospel and jazz influences, especially their vocal homage to Miles Davis. (Ernest Barteldes)

“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Take 6
(Heads Up International)

Death Takes a Holiday: Sinfonietta inaugurates lively Mexican concert tradition

Folk, Holiday Music, Orchestral, World Music No Comments »

Hector Guzman

By Dennis Polkow

With the August announcement of Mei-Ann Chen to become music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, the ensemble is performing most of its twenty-fourth season with Chen listed as music director designate, yet not conducting the ensemble until the final concerts of the season in May, and not officially taking over as music director until the fall of 2011.

With the suspense over as to who would actually succeed Paul Freeman, the Sinfonietta’s founding music director who is retiring at the end of the 2010-11 season after twenty-four years in that position, the ensemble still has a few surprises up its sleeve for this Freeman-farewell season nonetheless.

As with its longstanding annual Martin Luther King Day concerts each January, the Sinfonietta is experimenting with another annual concert tied to a holiday, in this case the Mexican “Día de los Muertos,” or “Day of the Dead.”

“In December, holiday concerts are certainly not hard to come by,” Freeman, who has already moved back to his home base in the Virgin Islands and now commutes for his concerts here, is quoted in a press release. “But something around the Day of the Dead and Halloween is much less common in classical music, so we decided to seize the opportunity. We hope this concert can become a new annual tradition for the Sinfonietta.”

Mexican conductor Hector Guzman, who will be the guest conductor to inaugurate this new tradition, is excited not only for the opportunity to work with the Sinfonietta again—which he first conducted two seasons ago and considers an “excellent orchestra, very attentive and professional”—but to be able to showcase important Mexican music while helping to celebrate a holiday that meant so much to him growing up in Mexico.

“The Day of the Dead is not a sad occasion,” says Guzman, “but a celebration of life. There is no sadness. We remember the ones who have passed, yes, but in a joyous celebration with food and family reunions and a looking forward to one day joining them.” Read the rest of this entry »