HOLIDAY MUSIC TO UPLIFT THE SEASON

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

NOVEMBER 17, 2019

DAVE STRYKER – “EIGHT TRACK CHRISTMAS” Strikezone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Jared Gold, organ; McClenty Hunter, drums/percussion; Special Guest: Steve Nelson, vibraphone on track #10.

I have come to look forward to the Dave Stryker “Eight Track” series and was quite interested in hearing this one that celebrates the Christmas season. Stryker is a producer, guitarist, arranger and studio session musician who plays Gibson and Benedetto guitars. On this, his fourth eight-track project, he is employing the same steadfast band he’s used in the past. Stefon Harris brings joy to any project with his mastery of the vibraphone. The organ of Jared Gold, blends perfectly with Stryker’s guitar and recalls the days of great organ bands like Jimmy smith with Terry Evans on guitar or reminds us of the magic created by Kenny Burrell with Jack McDuff. These were popular organ/guitar bands from back-in-the-day, a time when we were popping an ‘eight-track’ into our car players. Now we just plug our cell phones into our stereo system or tell ‘Alexa ‘what we want to hear. Wow – We’ve come a long way baby.

Dave Stryker reaches back to the ‘eight-track’ days for a style of playing that rejuvenates that time period. His exciting mix of the ‘Soulful Strut’ classic song mixed in with “Frosty the Snowman” is an excellent example of bringing us back to the roots of an eight-track zeitgeist. He calls this blend of music, a “Soulful Frosty.” You will enjoy ten holiday standards on this release including John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” tune, shades of Ramsey Lewis and the Peanuts cartoon with “Christmas Time Is Here,” a bluesy, Country/Western-feel on “Blue Christmas” and an organ drenched, up-tempo arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” is played at a brisk trot. You can just picture a horse-drawn sleigh being pulled down a snow-covered lane by a galloping steed. McClenty Hunter is given an ample drum solo on this tune and deservingly so! Stefon Harris has flying mallets and Dave Stryker’s guitar skips along, leading the ensemble in a joyful way.


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JONATHAN BUTLER – “CHRISTMAS TOGETHER” Mack Avenue Records

Jonathan Butler, vocals/guitar/electronic programming; Donald Hayes, saxophones/flutes/additional programming; Dan Lutz, bass; Gorden Campbell, drums; Keiko Matsui & Ruslan Sirota, acoustic piano; Marcus Anderson, flutes; Nicholas Cole, Marcus Anderson, drum programming/keyboards, SFX; Kurt Lykes, Jonathan Butler, Shelea & Jodie Butler, background vocals; Dave Koz, soprano saxophone; The Kroma Ensemble String Quartet: Crystal Alforque & Nadira Kimberly Scruggs-Butler, violin; Nikk Shorts, viola; Adrienne Woods, cello; Nicole Neely, string arranger. Gerald Albright, alto & tenor saxophones; Donald Hayes, horns/saxophones/flutes/additional programming/horn arrangements. Rick Braun, trumpet/valve trombone/percussion; Stephen Oberheu, sousaphone.

The first thing that struck me about the Jonathan Butler album was the bright and beautiful artwork on the cover. Mr. Butler is an ambassador of the Lalela Organization in South Africa which provides educational arts for at-risk youth. The program works to spark creative thinking and awaken the entrepreneurial spirit. The cover and other paintings were created by the children of Lalela. Jonathan Butler opens this album with “Winter Wonderland.” Butler is richly influenced by the vocal style of Stevie Wonder and is additionally, an amazingly accomplished guitarist. I thoroughly enjoy Butler’s rendition of this familiar holiday song. Another stellar vocal presentation is the duet between Shelea and Jonathan Butler on the “Mary Did You Know?” composition.

Keiko Matsui is a special guest acoustic pianist on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” produced in a very smooth jazz way. “Joy To The World” is also smooth jazz and features Dave Koz on soprano saxophone. “Love Is,” an original song written by Shelea Melody Frazier & Jonathan Butler is the only original composition on this production. It’s performed as an instrumental with the ‘hook’ being sung by Shelea and Butler.
This is a lovely stocking stuffer for your holiday season.
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THE ALLIGATOR RECORDS CHRISTMAS COLLECTION Alligator Records

A BLUES COMPILATION

This is a collection of holiday blues songs that feature a bright and sparkling array of unforgettable blues artists. You will enjoy KoKo Taylor singing a funky, blues number titled “Merry, Merry Christmas.”

This track is followed by Kenny Neal singing “Christmas Time In The Country.” Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials come dancing in next on a bright shuffle rendition of “I’m Your Santa.” Katie Webster is a pianist and vocalist who offers “Deck the Halls With Boogie Woogie” instead of boughs of holly. William Clarke slows down the groove to a slow blues on “Please let Me Be Your Santa Claus.” Tinsley Ellis brings us a more rock/blues groove on “Santa Claus Wants some Lovin.” Of course, this album compilation includes the great Charles Brown singing “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” with Kenny Washington shuffling his drums underneath the groove. One of my favorites is when Son Seals picks up his guitar and sings, “I wanna be home to help you decorate our Christmas tree, but I’ll be thinkin’ of you and I know you’ll think of me“ on his “Lonesome Christmas ” tune. Plus, he plucks a mean guitar. This is followed by Lonnie Brooks who sings about “Christmas on the Bayou” with a Chuck Berry groove and a rock and roll sensibility. Little Charlie and the Nightcats feature Rick Estrin on a magnificent harmonica arrangement. Estrin plays harmonica and sings in between his riffs. Estrin is singing his self-composed, “Santa Claus” song and it swings hard, with Jay Peterson strongly walking his bass. Elvin Bishop brings the electric guitar alive on “The Little Drummer Boy” with his prominent slide technique. Saffire is a group of all female musicians who pride themselves in being called, ‘the Uppity Blues Women.’ They sing a holiday song called, “One Parent Christmas” about the trials and tribulations of making Christmas work in a single-parent home. It wasn’t my favorite on this album. The very popular Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown wrote a song simply called, “Christmas.” He uplifts the CD with a positive spin lyrically and a style of songwriting reminiscent of the late, great Alberta Hunter. Bob Hoban plays a mean blues piano on this tune. The album closes out with Charlie Musselwhite crooning us “Silent Night” on his blues harmonica. There’s sure to be more than one gem that pleases you in this shiny array of blues jewels.
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KRISTIN KORB – “THAT TIME OF YEAR” Storyville Records

Kristen Korb, bass/vocals; Magnus Hjorth, piano; Snorre Kirk, drums; Mathias Heise, harmonica.

Kristin Korb offers us a musical holiday gift with some fresh, new Christmas songs to add to the familiar pile of music we hear every year. “Christmas Will Really Be Christmas” is a well-written lyric and beautiful melody that could easily become a standard holiday ballad. Korb is not only a great interpreter of lyrics, she is also an outstanding scat-singer and the arrangements of these standard Christmas songs bring fresh appeal to well-worn music. On “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” drummer, Snorre Kirk, summersaults and dances all over the trap drums. Another beauty of a composition is “That’s What I Want for Christmas.” Kristin Korb plays the bass and sings, smooth and seamlessly, floating like warm breath on icy air. Her vocals are as soft as a cloud, bearing stories that drop sweetly from her lips like peppermint drops.

Born in Montana, Kristin Korb attended Eastern Montana College and then completed her studies at the University of California, San Diego. She studied with legendary bassist, Ray Brown and released her first record under Brown’s tutelage in 1996. I had wondered whatever happened to Kristin Korb, because I hadn’t heard about her performing in the California area for some time. In 2011, she married Morten Stove, the Danish co-founder of DPA Microphones, and moved to Copenhagen, Denmark. In Europe, her career continues with a band featuring Snorre Kirk on drums, Magnus Hjorth on piano and herself on bass. The addition of the sensational harmonica player, Mathias Heise, adds an exciting flavor to her holiday album.

Every song delivered is freshly arranged. There is nothing mundane or ordinary about this project. Even though the public will recognize most of these endearing Christmas songs, they are all painted with unexpectedly unique and jazzy colors. Korb cover’s Dave Frishberg ‘s composition, “Snowbound” with a slow, swing tempo. She sings the “Up On the Housetop” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” medley at a speedy pace and the group plays the French traditional hymn, “Angels We Have Heard on High” as an instrumental with a Latin-swing -feel. They also introduce this writer to an Irving Berlin composition titled, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” that I don’t remember ever hearing. Or perhaps, their excellent arrangement and delivery just makes me feel like I’m hearing it for the first time. Here is an album containing a Baker’s Dozen of holiday music that you will enjoy playing season after season.


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ACCENT – “CHRISTMAS ALL THE WAY” Independent Label

Jean-Baptiste Craipeau, tenor 1 vocal/France; Simon Akesson, tenor 2 vocal, Sweden; Danny Fong, tenor 3 vocal, Canada; Andrew Kesler, tenor 4 vocal/Canada; James Rose, Baritone/UK; Evan Sanders, bass/USA; Gordon Goodman’s Big Phat Band; Strings provided by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra; Arturo Sandoval, trumpet; The Barbershop Quartet cameo by Ringmasters; Don Shelton, clarinet; The Estonian Voices feature Jo Goldscmith-Etes & Sam Robson; Orchestral arrangement by Nan Schwartz on O Holy Night; Additional vocals by: Richard Bourne, Paul Cooper, David Dos, Skip Dolt, Hideaki Onaru, Benoit Pupin, Richard Owen Oz Ryan, Colb Uhlemann & Leonard Zerbib.

ACCENT is an a ‘Capella vocal group comprised of six male voices from diverse backgrounds. Simon Akesson is a tenor vocalist from Sweden. Jean-Baptiste Craipeau (or “JB” as they fondly call him) also sings tenor who is from France. Andrew Kesler and Danny Fong are both tenors from Canada. The baritone in the group is James Rose (who also composed the song “Winter Winds”). He is from the UK and the bass voice is Evan Sanders, an American. Surprisingly, unlike how groups used to get together beneath big-city street lamps and in barbershops to sing harmonically and without accompaniment, these gentlemen found each other Online and they collaborate via the Internet. This is their Christmas project and they have recorded old and well-loved holiday music in a very new and contemporary way. Some songs are totally a ’Capella and others have the assistance of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. They are featured on “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Let It Snow.” They are also joined by some special guest vocalists including the Estonian voices, who are a popular European vocal group. Sam Robson, a widely recognized YouTube artist based in London, was invited to sing with them and Jo Goldscmith-Eteson was invited from the UK group who call themselves, The Swingles. You will hear a trio on tracks 3 & 7 and string arrangements on tracks 3 & 10. This is a pleasant mix of strong a ‘Capella vocal arrangements with complimentary music added. Their previous recordings have celebrated jazz and pop tunes arranged for vocal jazz, and covering tunes like Whitney Houston’s song, “All At Once,” and The Weekends gold record recording, “I Can’t Feel My Face.”

I prefer them without a band. However, ACCENT with a little help from their friends, has produced an enjoyable holiday album of music. Their creative and challenging vocal arrangements feature the arranging talents of each of these international singers.
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THE JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA WITH WYNTON MARSALIS – BIG BAND HOLIDAYS II Blue Engine Records

Victor Goines, music director (2018)/tenor & soprano saxophones/clarinet; Walter Blanding (2015-17) /tenor saxophone/clarinet/shaker; Paul Nedzela, baritone & soprano saxophones / bass clarinet; Camille Thurman (2018) / tenor & soprano saxophones; RHYTHM SECTION: Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Ali Jackson (2015 – 2016), drums; Marion Felder (2017), drums; Charles Goold (2018), drums; TRUMPETS: Wynton Marsalis (music director, 2017-18); Marcus Printup, Kenny Rampton, Ryan Kisor, Greg Gisbert, Bruce Harris, Tatum Greenblatt. TROMBONES: Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw, Elliot Mason, Sam Chess & Eric Miller. FEATURED GUESTS: Aretha Franklin, Audrey Shakir, Denzal Sinclaire, Catherine Russell & Veronica Swift on vocals.

The Wynton Marsalis Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has cherry-picked holiday songs from several of their ‘live’ concerts between the years of 2015 to 2018. If you love the rich, full sound of a jazz orchestra, this is an album you will relish. Opening with “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Pianist, Dan Nimmer, takes a bright solo and the flute of Ted Nash flickers brightly like Christmas lights on this first track. The horns execute smooth harmonic changes in support of this holiday favorite that’s arranged by Wynton Marsalis. Wynton is also featured soloist on this one, along with Victor Goines on clarinet and Chris Crenshaw on trombone. At the completion, the audience bursts into appreciative applause, and rightly so. Next, vocalist Catherine Russell, swings a tune called “Cool Yule.” Soloists include Walter Blanding on tenor sax and Sherman Irby on alto saxophone. Irby also arranged this tune. Then, on “We Three Kings” the silky lead vocals of Denzal Sinclaire are featured. Once again, the piano solo of Dan Nimmer shines like a star at the top of a holiday tree. The straight-ahead, innovative arrangement by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., becomes one of my favorites, with Paul Nedzela’s baritone saxophone solo adding to the shine. The sweet surprise is the ‘live’ appearance of Aretha Franklin, who sits down at the grand piano and accompanies herself while singing “O Tannenbaum,” in English and in German! What a treat. It’s a beautiful moment by a beautiful artist. The Queen of Soul once again personifies a talent we must never forget.

“Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” is a Ted Nash arrangement that uses call and response horn lines that are exciting and demonstrative. They seem to speak brightly to each other, harmonically intertwining and interacting, like voices instead of instruments. There is a deep spiritual conversation going on for all to hear, spearheaded by the trumpet of Marcus Printup. Jazz vocalist, Veronica Swift, (whose wonderful, solo album I reviewed in my July 26, 2019 column) introduces us to a composition titled, “Everybody’s Waitin’ for the Man with the Bag.” It’s fun-filled arrangement and showcases Swift’s stellar vocals that bounce into scat singing as easily as she sells the song lyrics. There is something here that is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald herself.

One of the spectacular things about Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is that they introduce us to bright, new arrangements of familiar holiday tunes and to songs that aren’t as familiar, like “What Will Santa Claus Say When he Finds Everybody Swingin’?” This arrangement opens with playful saxophone parts, featuring an impressive baritone saxophone solo by Paul Nedzela that introduces us to the groove and melody. Enter Catherine Russell, with sparkling vocals that deliver fresh, inspired lyrics. The orchestra also gives the drummer some and Ali Jackson does not disappoint. Louie Prima composed this one.

“Brazilian Sleigh Bells” is an up-tempo, Latin arrangement that will have your hips swinging like wild, winter winds. Sherman Early is featured on saxophone. Ms. Russell once again offers us her vocal gift and is splendid singing, “Silver Bells.” “Silent Night” is a great arrangement by Victor Goines. Surprisingly, it’s a blues and features Denzal Sinclaire and Audrey Shakir on vocals. Audrey adds a soulful quality to the song, while Denzal soothes you as soon as you hear his rich baritone voice. The orchestra is dynamic throughout this entire production and will enhance any holiday get-together. Also, the singular, guest and solo appearance of Aretha Franklin, appearing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, along with Wynton Marsalis, makes this a genuine collector’s item.
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JOHN BASILE – “SILENT NIGHT”
Independent Label

John Basile, electric & nylon guitars/midi guitar programing/arranging/ engineering/synthesizers.

This is a rich and beautiful contemporary Christmas album, interpreting timeless holiday songs we know and love. John Basile is an expressive guitarist with a warm, comfortable sound on both electric and nylon stringed guitars. I was quite surprised that he used midi programming, rather than live musicians, because the sound is so natural and perfectly recorded. Basile uses technology to create colorful textures beneath his ‘live’ jazz guitar improvisations. You will enjoy holiday standards like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” arranged in a very contemporary way, with a Latin flair using bright percussions.

“Baby it’s Cold Outside,” is as warm and comfortable as a fur coat. “Lulladay” is the only original song on this album of music. It’s very melodic, romantic-sounding and poignant. “Silver Bells” is joyful and up-tempo, while “Silent Night” is more traditional. Basile’s technique on guitar is spotlighted passionately. He’s been playing his instrument since age twelve, honing his skills by performing with R&B show bands and playing in jazzy organ groups. He graduated to straight-ahead jazz after studying at Berklee School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. He toured with an octet led by Count Basie and worked with respected singers like Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Rosemary Clooney, Mark Murphy and Tony Bennett, to list just a few. His talent on guitar has been utilized by instrumentalists like john Abercrombie, Tom Harrell, Jim Hall, Michael Brecker and Red Mitchell. This is perfect background music for a quiet, wintry evening with a roaring fireplace, burning brightly, and surrounded by the ones you love.
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VERVE PRESENTS THE VERY BEST OF CHRISTMAS JAZZ Verve – A compilation CD

For those of you looking for a compilation that pulls from the years 1937 to 1996 and features some of the greatest names in jazz music, this is the holiday compilation CD for you. It features legendary singers and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Kenny Burrell, Joe Williams, Shirley Horn, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald with the Frank Devol Orchestra . Ella sings “Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer.” Here’s some trivia for you about that popular ‘Rudolph’ song. Before it was a song, it was a poem written by a guy named Robert L. May. In 1939, it was created as a holiday marketing tool for the department store, Montegomery Ward’s. Ten years later, a songwriter named Johnny Marks converted the poetry into song lyrics and added music. It is reputed to have been recorded over 300 times and has sold 50-million records. The biggest one was the Gene Autry rendition, that became one of the biggest selling Christmas songs of all times. For all you youthful readers, Autry was an actor and country singer who was known for his cowboy films. The songwriter, Johnny Marks, went on to write two other popular holiday songs; “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.”

Kenny Burrell performs with the Richard Evans Orchestra. The great Charles Stepney is on piano and organ. Cleveland Eaton mans the bass. In 1953, at a Los Angeles studio, Billy Eckstine recorded a song titled, “Christmas Eve” and in 1961, the original Ramsey Lewis trio featuring bassist Eldee Young and Redd Holt cut the track “Here Comes Santa Claus.” This compilation also features John Coltrane playing “Greensleeves” with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. The silky-smooth vocals of Mel Torme sing “The Christmas Song” and Louis Armstrong asks, “Zat You, Santa Claus?” Pianist/composer extraordinaire, B ill Evans, plays “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” Then comes Count Basie and his orchestra to play “Good Morning Blues,” that was recorded ,with an all-star band, August 9, 1937 with folks like Lester Young on clarinet and tenor saxophone and legendary guitarist, Freddie Green, along with Walter Page on bass and featuring vocalist, Jimmy Rushing. Organ great, Jimmy Smith performs his version of Jingle Bells. Finally, Dinah Washington sings “Silent Night” and the iconic Oscar Peterson plays “A Child is Born.” If that isn’t an all-star, jazzy Christmas, I don’t know what is! This CD is available on Amazon.com.
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DIANA ROSS – “WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME” Ross Records

For all of you Diana Ross fans, “Wonderful Christmas Time” is a very jazzy record that frames Ms. Ross’s crystal-clear tones with lush orchestration, choirs and beautifully, boffo string arrangements. The title tune is penned by Paul McCartney and opens this album in a joyful way. The addition of meaningful songs like Someday at Christmas, What the World Needs Now and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” are songs that embrace the spirit of Christmas, along with well-arranged and charmingly sung gems like “Winter Wonderland, It’s Christmas Time” and “White Christmas.” Diana Ross sparkles on this production. The pleasant surprise is her rendition of several religious offerings like “His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, Ave Maria” and “Amazing Grace.” Five of the songs feature the fabulous London Symphony Orchestra.

This is a twenty-song offering of absolutely beautiful holiday music originally released in 1994 when Ms. Ross was at the peak of her astounding career. Some of it is performed ‘live’ with the audience’s appreciative applause commending one of America’s musical icons. This album is perfectly produced and arranged for a stellar listen during the holiday season and beyond.
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THE BEST OF MOTOWN CHRISTMAS – “THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION “ 20th Century Masters

Motown Christmas opens with a young Michael Jackson singing a boisterous “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” along with his brothers, The Jackson Five. This is followed by a waltz-time arrangement of “My Favorite Things” sung by Diana Ross and the Supremes, accompanied by an orchestra. In the forty-plus years since The Supremes performed this song on the popular Ed Sullivan variety Show, Motown Christmas songs make annual returns. A very young Stevie Wonder sings “Someday at Christmas,” (penned by Motown composer, Ron Miller) and historically reaching back to when Smokey Robinson was the lead singer with The Miracles, we hear “It’s Christmas Time,” written by Stevie Wonder. Both of these songs have become modern-day Christmas standards. The Temptation group offers their unique, rich harmonies on “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer,” when Melvin Franklin was singing bass and Eddie Kendricks was the high tenor voice. This Norman Whitfield production was recorded back in 1970. Here is truly a historic collection that includes a merging of the Temptations and Smokey Robinson singing their rendition of “The Christmas Song.” Sweet!

The Four Tops serenade us, with Levi Stubbs’ beautiful, unique lead voice and emotional delivery. Shockingly, the angelic and soulful voice of Aretha Franklin steps forward to improvise over their instrumental break, adding holiday songs to deliciously delight our musical palate. She makes “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The Christmas Song” somehow fit into this mix, in an improvisational way. Four Tops member, Lawrence Payton co-composed this 1995 holiday song and was close friends with the Queen of Soul. I bet he asked her into the studio to improvise on their track. Sexy crooner, Marvin Gaye co-wrote a song with Forrest Hairston titled, “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” about a prisoner of war. This one is not uplifting and as wonderful as Marvin’s vocals are, this song is depressing. The Funk Brothers, who were the instrumental catalyst behind all the Motown hit records, play “Winter Wonderland” with gusto and they’re followed by Kim Weston’s strong and lovely voice singing, “Wish You A Merry Christmas.” The now famous rendition of “Silent Night” is sung by my old friend and extraordinary bass singer, Melvin Franklin, with the harmonic support of The Temptations. It’s always a pleasure to hear this one. This album closes with the voice of Florence Ballard, one of the original members of the Supremes, singing the lead on “Oh Holy Night,” produced by Harvey Fuqua and released on a Christmas album in 2002. Give yourself the gift of a collector’s album with this musical piece of Motown history.

https://soulfuldetroit.com/showthread.php?7360-Florence-Ballard-the-Supremes-Oh-Holy-Night!
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THE BEST OF B. B. KING – THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION 20th Century Masters/RCA Records

James Bolden, bandleader/trumpet; Walter R. King, contractor; Calep Emphrey Jr., drums; Melvin Jackson, saxophone; Leon Warren, guitar; Michael Doster, bass; James Sells Toney, keyboards; Stanley Abernathy, trumpet. The Nashville String Machine also appears on three songs.

If blues is your bag, this is a sack full of gutsy blues songs by a legendary bluesmaster. Few do it better than the great B. B. King. This is a seasoned holiday release that will never grow old. There will be songs you recognize and a few original Christmas songs penned by B. B. King himself. “Lonesome Christmas” is a shuffle and doesn’t sound lonesome at all. “Back Door Santa,” is a slow shuffle blues with risqué lyrics. “Christmas in Heaven,” employs the Nashville String Machine to fatten the arrangement in a sweet way. Every blues lover should add this 2003 historic recording by the late, great B. B. King in their Christmas collection.
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