It’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.
On its fifteenth edition, Broadway Cares’s AIDS benefit “Carols for a Cure” returns with a mix of originals and covers recorded by the casts of various shows currently running on the Great White Way. Some songs stay true to very traditional form–“Gloria In Excelsis Deo,” for example, is given the royal treatment with a full orchestra and choir by “The Phantom of The Opera” cast, while the troupe from “Newsies” offer a jazz-infused version of “Take Me to Manhattan in December.” The cast of “Soul Doctor” do an alternate take on Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” name-calling instead Jewish stars of the theater (Mandy Patinkin, Joel Grey, Mel Brooks, Michael Feinstein, and more.) I am not sure what Perez Hilton is doing on the album with his Cabaret-esque original “2013 Holiday Dishlist,” but somehow he manages to pull it off. Also notable is the cast of “Chicago” doing a hilarious “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” in which Roxie Hart tries to seduce Santa Claus with tragic results inspired from the play’s script.
I do encourage folks to check out these new releases—after all, they sure beat listening to light radio playing tired versions of holiday staples. Even the most ardent fans get tired of hearing Mariah Carey and Jose Feliciano. This year, spruce up your holiday spirit with some new versions of familiar classics. (Ernest Barteldes)
Nnenna Freelon & John Brown Big Band
Brown Boulevard Records
“Broadway’s Carols For A Cure Vol. 15”
Rock-It Science Records