NEWLY RELEASED CHRISTMAS MUSIC – 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 1, 2021

JEFF HAMILTON – “MERRY & BRIGHT” – Capri Records

Jeff Hamilton, drums; Jon Hamar, bass; Tamir Hendelman, piano.

At this time of year, there is absolutely nothing that brings me more joy than a swinging trio who offers a concert of holiday jazz.  This is a recording that features Jeff Hamilton’s favorite Christmas tunes, along with his powerful drumming.  Here are three awesome players, known to bring the best to whatever they play.  In this instance, it’s holiday music that will definitely put you in the mood for the season.

They open with a smoking rendition of Kay Thompson’s “It’s the Holiday Season.”  Back in the day, vocalist Andy Williams recorded this song that was played on radio stations coast-to-coast.  Hamilton recalls hearing it as a youngster.   I also enjoy their arrangement of “Caroling, Caroling,” where Jeff Hamilton propels the music ahead with his creative and always inspired drumming.  

“I’ve always enjoyed holiday music and have been planning on doing a Christmas project for many years.  I finally did it during the pandemic and got my trio into the studio to record it direct to 2-track; like I used to do.  We were very happy with the outcome. We put together these arrangements and got the recording done in only a few hours,” Jeff explained his mindset for the production of this holiday album.

“The Little Drummer Boy” is given a new and inspired arrangement with Hamilton’s unique drum arrangements on brushes spurring the production.  I enjoy the tasty and pensive way that Tamir Hendelman unfolds the tune, exploring new and jazzy chord changes.  It’s an absolutely beautiful arrangement of this familiar Christmas song.  I had to play it twice. 

I like the crisp, clean arrangement on “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” Jon Hamar steps briefly into the spotlight to share his bass virtuosity with us.  Hamilton learned “Bright Bright the Holly Berries” from a ‘Singers Unlimited” recording.  This trio performs it as a jazz waltz.   If you like the blues and a good shuffle, you will love their arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” followed by the Gene Autry composition, “Here Comes Santa Claus.”  For all you young folks, Gene Autry was a popular cowboy on early black and white television shows.   Not many people remember that he was a songwriter and collected a lot of royalties for his hit record of “Here Comes Santa Clause.”  For history’s sake, I found this old 1947 video of him performing the song in a movie.  Then, you can enjoy how Hamilton’s group jazzes it up.

You’ll also find provocative, jazzy productions of “Santa Baby,” “O Tannenbaum” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  All of these songs not only mirror this holiday season, but reflect peace, happiness and love in every arrangement.  You will probably enjoy playing this album all year round.

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UPTOWN VOCAL JAZZ QUARTET – “FOOLS FOR YULE”  – HouseKat Records

Ginny Carr Goldberg, Robert McBride, Holly Shockey & Lane Stowe, vocals; Frank Russo, drums; Max Murray, bass; Alan Blackman, piano; Donato Soviero, guitar; Chuck Redd, vibraphone. SPECIAL GUEST: Keith Carr, Irish Bouzouki.

There’s nothing like a good vocal chorus to enhance the holiday spirit.  These four talented singers bring not only their best voices to interpret familiar holiday tunes, but they also offer a few new, original songs for us to consider.  The title tune, “Fool for Yule” is a slow swing with a memorable melody and cute lyrics.  It was composed by CD arranger and group vocalist, Ginny Carr Goldberg.  Chuck Redd adds a vibraphone solo that is perfectly festive for the season.  Other favorites on this jazz vocal Christmas album are: Christmas Time Is Here, Winter Wonderland and Silent Night.  Their original ballad, “Whisper” (another Goldberg composition) showcases their tightly woven harmonies and Alan Blackman takes a well-executed solo on piano.  Goldberg has also penned a song in French titled, “L’Amour Nous Entoure Ce Soir” that translates to “Love surrounds us this evening.”  This arrangement has Latin overtones wrapped in laid-back joy.  “The Christmas Song” is all vocals and shows off the mastery of these a cappella voices.  The song, “Santa Dear, Where’s Mine?” is sung from the perspective of Mrs. Clause and it offers a very comical take on the holiday and reflective of a wife who feels a bit neglected by her busy, working husband.  Frank Russo shuffles his drums and Max Murray briskly walks his bass.  This is a very humorous tune written by Marilyn Shockey.  For those of you who love classical music, they have added “St. Ita’s Vision,” arranged by vocal member, Robert McBride and features one of the female vocalists in the group.  Unfortunately, this CD does not designate who the featured vocalist is on this number.  “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas” is another original song by Goldberg, whose lyrics tell the story of missing a loved one at Christmas.  The group closes with a beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.”  Here is an album of holiday music that will warm any chilly winter evening with their lovely harmonics and beautiful vocal arrangements.

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MICK KOLASSA – “UNCLE MICK’S CHRISTMAS ALBUM” – The Blues Foundation/ Endless Blues Records, Inc.

Mick Kolassa, vocals/guitar/producer/arranger/composer; Jeff Jensen, guitar/arranger; Bill Ruffino, bass; Rick Steff, keyboards; James Cunningham, drums; Eric Hughes, harmonica; Marc Franklin, trumpet; Reba Russell & Susan Marshall, back-up vocals.

Here is a Christmas album that was recorded on a ninety-five-degree day in Memphis, Tennessee. This blues album is 100% Memphis; every musician, the engineers and even the special guests call Memphis home.  So, if it’s a bluesy holiday you’re looking for, this is the album you’ll enjoy popping into your CD player.  They open with the Mariah Carey/Walter Afanasleff pop tune, “All I want for Christmas Is You.”  However, you won’t recognize it the way Mick Kolassa has arranged it.  It’s brand new and all blues!  “Frosty the Snowman” is a Second Line kind of arrangement that reminds us of New Orleans jazz bands with Marc Franklin’s trumpet brightening the production, along with Eric Hughes pumping his harmonica into the mix for good measure.  Mick Kolassa not only sings all vocals on this production, but he also has written some of the tunes.  “The Best Christmas Ever” is one of his tunes he composed and arranged with funk drums and female background singers.  Another original where he rocks out is “Christmas Morning Blues.”  This is a blues jam session that celebrates Christmas from a Memphis point of view.

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JAN DALEY – “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS” – LOG Records

Jan Daley, vocals/piano arrangements; Mischa Segal & Craig Garfinkle, orchestrations & performances; David Cohen & Misha Segal, piano & strings; Craig Garfinkle, piano/guitar/bass & strings; Nate Light, bass; David Johnstone, drums/percussion.  

Jan Daley has a warm, inviting voice.  She has chosen a Baker’s Dozen of holiday songs, presented to us like piping hot Christmas cookies just pulled from the oven.   Her rendition of “The Christmas Song” is a delicious show-stopper, with a fresh arrangement, tinged by Latin rhythms and an unusual piano accompaniment that is bound to please.  She approaches songs we know and love with very creative productions.  Take for instance her wonderful arrangement on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  She has repainted the face of this song with warm orchestrations and a piano part at the top of the tune that catches the attention in a lovely way.  The piano sounds like a pendulum swinging or a clock ticking down to a bewitching hour where all the toys beneath the tree will come alive.  There is something magical about the way Ms. Daley presents this song.  In fact, Jan Daley sprinkles each song with holiday cheer.  Her vocal delivery is festive, like wreaths of holly or silver bells hanging from the Christmas tree. Her voice sparkles and dances. This is a delightful holiday album, containing many of your favorite songs including, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “White Christmas.”   You will also enjoy songs you may not be that familiar with, like Barbra Streisand’s “The Best Gift,” or the David Foster and Linda Thompson tune, “Grown-up Christmas List,” where Daley sings: “no more lives torn apart; that wars would never start … that everyone would have a friend… and love would never end.”  We certainly need more of that mindset.  Also, this was my first time enjoying the Alan & Marilyn Bergman composition, “A Christmas Love Song.”   Jan Daley’s album is just like Christmas morning; full of sugar-sweet surprises.

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BENNY BENACK III with the STEVEN FEIFKE BIG BAND – SEASON’S SWINGIN’ GREETINGS DELUXE EDITION” – Cellar Music Group

Benny Benack III, trumpet/vocals; Steven Feifke, piano/conductor; Sasha Berliner &Warren Wolf, vibraphone; Dan Chmiellnski, Griffin Fink & Emiliano Lasansky, bass; Joe Perl, Charles Goold, TJ Reddick & Bryan Carter, drums; Alita Moses, lead vocals on duet; SAXOPHONES: Andrew Gould & Alex LoRe, alto saxophone/flute; Sam Dillon & Michael Stephenson, tenor saxophone; Andrew Gutauskas, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Alexa Tarantino, alto & tenor saxophones/flute; Lauren Sevian, baritone Saxophone. TRUMPETS: Max Darché, John Lake, Walter Cano, Bijon Watson & Gabriel King Medd. TROMBONE: Robert Edwards, Javier Nero, Armando Vergara & Gina Benalcazar, bass trombone. VIOLINS: Lavinia Pavlish & Caroline Drexler.  Laura Sacks, Viola; Susan D. Mandel, violincello.

Benny Benack III has a voice as smooth as a holiday sharkskin suit.  He opens up with a very comedic holiday song titled, “My Girlfriend is an Elf.”  After singing the tune down once he picks up his trumpet and shows off his other awesome talent as a talented horn player.  Benny has composed this cute tune and bandleader, Steven Feifke, has arranged and orchestrated it.   They follow up with the beautifully orchestrated familiar ballad, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  Track #3 is another Benny Benack original composition; “My Wishlist Is You” and features a duet with the lovely voice of Alita Moses.  I enjoyed his interpretation of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” where Benny Benack III shows that he not only is a crooner, but he’s also a talented improviser and scat singer.  The big band of Steven Feifke is superb and their repertoire is both familiar and enjoyable.  You will appreciate “The Christmas Song” and an up-tempo arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” (featuring Benack on trumpet).  They include “The Dreidel Song” and “Ma’oz Tzur” is a song of Hanukah sung in Yiddish.   Also, there are two more original songs introduced: “When Christmas Time Comes Around,” co-written by Benack with Steven Feifke and “A Midnight Wish” closes the CD out with multiple songwriters.  If you enjoy smooth voices similar to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, you will enjoy Benny Benack III and the wonderful Steven Feifke Big Band.

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KIRK WHALUM – “HOW DOES CHRISTMAS SOUND?” – Mack Ave Music Group

Kirk Whalum, soprano, tenor & baritone saxophone/composer/flute; Mark Jaimes, guitar; Kortland Whalum, Chantae Cann & Kevin Whalum, lead vocals; James McMillan, keyboards/trumpet/trombone/ programming; Mark Edwards, piano; Kyle Whalum, bass; Marcus Finnie, drums; John Stoddart, keyboards; Take 6 & John Stoddart, background vocals.

Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, Kirk Whalum offers us an album of holiday music that is refreshing and fun.  Some of the songs are original and Whalum features a few talented relatives including his nephew, Kortland Whalum, who is featured as lead vocalist and his son, Kyle, handling the bass duties.  The title song establishes the tone for this beautifully produced holiday record.

“My discography is always about family and this record is no different.  Whenever I record music, I’d be crazy not to use my son who plays with Kelly Clarkson, my nephew who is out doing Broadway shows and my other nephew who plays with Bruno Mars,” Kirk Whalum proudly brags about his talented family members.

The relative who is currently part of the Bruno Mars aggregation is trombonist Kameron Whalum.  Currently, he’s so busy touring with Bruno Mars, he was unable to participate in his uncles Christmas album.  However, the other two are Kirk’s son, Kyle Whalum who plays bass, Kevin Whalum who sings lead and his nephew, Kortland Whalum, who is a talented actor and singer featured on Kirk’s original song, “How Does Christmas Sound?”

Track #2 features the familiar Mariah Carey song, “All I Want for Christmas” but it’s rearranged as a ballad with Kirk Whalum’s sexy saxophone setting the tone.  I love his expressive and fluid presentation of “What Are You Doing New Years?”   This is followed by “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” where Kirk picks up his flute to explore the melody and pleasantly surprise the listener.  Pianist, Mark Edwards, shows off during his spotlight solo.

“We had to sit out a Christmas.  I realized, during the pandemic, that Christmas means more to me now than it ever did.  Like my faith, Christmas is axiomatic to my life and I have evolved spiritually in so many ways,” Kirk Whalum reflected.

Kirk has included some familiar songs and some contemporary music, like the popular “Mary Did you Know” sung beautifully by the whispery vocals of Chantae Cann.   There is a little something for every listener, from the Black National Anthem of “Lift Every Voice & Sing” to little known holiday gems like “Thorns In the Straw” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  Using a bit of studio magic, Kirk Whalum layers three of his saxophones (tenor, soprano and baritone) for a unique arrangement on “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  He creates percussion sounds using the hammering of his saxophone keys. Kirk’s second original song on this project is titled “Seven” and features Kirk Whalen’s lead vocals with the background voices of Take 6 providing lush harmonies.  This is an amazing holiday album that brought me great peace and comfort as I listened to it.  I appreciate the diversity in repertoire and the creative arrangements that highlight the multi-saxophone talents of the brilliant and blessed, Kirk Whalum.

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MONTY ALEXANDER – “HERE COMES THE SUN” –  MPS Records

Monty Alexander, piano; Eugene Wright, bass; Montego Joe, percussion; Duffy Jackson, drums.

Duffy Jackson sets up a brisk pace on drums, introducing the opening tune and Monty Alexander leaps in with both hands busy and creative.  “Montevideo” swings in a very Latin way.  Alexander is famous for blending jazz with the sounds of his Jamaican culture.  All of the songs on this exceptional album have been remastered from his original analogue master tapes of 1972.  Consequently, they have a very warm and inviting sound.  If you were looking for an album that offers piano brilliance, happy, Caribbean calypso overtones, along with the percussive excitement of Montego Joe and the virtuoso bass work of Dave Brubeck’s longtime bassist, Eugene Wright, you will find great pleasure with this production. 

Monty Alexander manages to mix the blues into every corner of his music, be it Latin, swing or ballad.  You hear his brilliant ability on track #2, “Where Is Love?”  The talented pianist introduces the listener to the lovely melody, all the while soaking the song in shades of turquoise, navy and royal Caribbean blues.  Next, Alexander transforms the Beatle’s popular “Here Comes the Sun” into a blues-laced, Latin inspired arrangement in a most untraditional, but complimentary manner.  It’s bright, up-tempo and funky with Montego Joe’s percussion licks stroking the groove that dynamic Duffy Jackson lays down on trap drums.  Eugene Wright, who we used to fondly refer to as ‘The Senator,’ sways his double bass in perpetual motion and I just want to get up and dance!  Towards the end of the tune, Alexander punches out a boogie-woogie lick that both surprises and pleases me.  On “Love Walked In,” track #4, Alexander continues to swing and demonstrates his straight-ahead jazz chops.  The quartet joins in without reserve, racing along with the piano master, while Wright walks his bass at the swift speed of a fast-moving locomotive.  Duffy Jackson is given a bright spotlight to showcase his magic on the trap drums.  They about-face and step back into a calypso groove on their adaptation of “Brown Skin Girl.”   You’ll enjoy the happiness that spins and circles from this disc.  The quartet’s pretty arrangement of “This Dream of Mine,” along with a ten-minute arrangement of the Miles Davis’s standard, “So What” completes their concert.  This is perfect music for any holiday party or Christmas get-together.  For all your jazz friends, who love to swing hard, who appreciate be-bop and iconic piano playing, this album is a flawless stocking stuffer.  

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THE SINGERS UNLIMITED WITH LEADER, GENE PUERLING – “CHRISTMAS” – MPS Records

Gene Puerling, group leader/founder/vocals; Len Dresslar, Bonnie Herman and Don Shelton, vocals.

Legendary jazz singer, Jon Hendricks once compared Gene Puerling’s ‘Singers Unlimited’ a cappella group to iconic, ground-breaking saxophonist, Charlie Parker.

“Gene broadened the harmonies, like Bird did with bebop,” Jon Hendricks proclaimed.

This album has been remastered from the original analogue master tapes dating back to their historic 1971 studio sessions.  This timeless work of art features harmonic concepts that influenced groups like Manhattan Transfer, Take Six and Brian Wilson.  The Singers Unlimited group recorded fifteen albums for MPS Record label, but this “Christmas” album is best-known by fans of the popular a cappella singers. The talented quartet presents traditional Christmas music like Deck the Halls, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Joy to the World and Silent night. They also add jazzy arrangements on more modern tunes, including seven original compositions by trumpeter, Alfred Burt.  The vocal quartet was first formed to record commercials.  They were such a tight unit that it didn’t take long for MPS Records to convince them to sign-on as recording artists.  They recorded for MPS from 1971 to 1982.  Gene Puerling’s vocal arrangements are dynamic, unique and respected by many in the jazz community.  Their bass singer, Len Dresslar, was best known as ‘The Jolly Green Giant’ voice after he made the canned food jingle famous with his ‘Ho ho ho’ bass line.  Bonnie Herman made the State Farm Insurance Company commercial famous for her line, “Like a Good Neighbor” that she sang.  That line continues to be popular today and a trademark for the popular State Farm Company.  Bonnie was also the daughter of musician and band leader Lawrence Welk.

This is an historic album of beautiful, harmonic voices delivering Christmas holiday music you will enjoy listening to year after year.

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