Bela Fleck & the Flecktones Holiday Recording

Christmas music from Santa Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is coming on September 30. Jingle All the Way is the first collection of holiday music from the long-standing band. It features everything from banjo-harmonic arrangements of “Christmas Time Is Here” and “River,” to a Tuvan-inspired, worldbeat rendition of “What Child Is This / Dyngyldai.”

“We always imagined we would do a holiday album,” Fleck said in a statement. “When the Flecktones first got together, we worked out a Christmas medley; it was really fun. People loved it, and we continued to play it every year.”

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Jingle All the Way isn’t the first seasonal work from Bela Fleck. He previously recorded “White Christmas” with Bob James for the Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas PartyWarner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party CD years ago.

Review: Boney James – Christmas Present

Christmas Present from Boney JamesBoney James is now two for two for excellent holiday recordings. Almost a decade ago, I reviewed the saxman’s first seasonal CD, Boney’s Funky Christmas, and was impressed. I love the Christmas season and have a larger-than-average number of related discs. The fact that this is one of them that I put on first each season says something.

I’ve been listening to the new Christmas Present for about a month and jotting down notes on it. The words I wrote the most are warm, intimate, and acoustic. This is a great holiday recording and not just in the contemporary jazz genre. The opening track, “Skating,” maintains the jazzy feel of the original Vince Guaraldi composition. Boney’s playing effectively mimics the falling snow vibe I’ve always heard in the song. “Santa Baby” surprised me with an arrangement I’ve never heard before. I know a lot of musicians want to try something different with seasonal songs because everyone has heard the standard versions. More often than not, those make me wince. You know what I’m talking about. This different version, with a sultry vocal by Chante Moore, gets better for me each time I hear it. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is treated with reverence and feeling. The acoustic guitar and light keyboard interplay with a gentle saxophone had made this one of the most memorable versions of the song I have. The emotion is also palpable on the somber Joni Mitchell classic “River” – which is just Boney and Tim Carmon on acoustic piano. “O Tannenbaum” starts with a startling warm tenor sound then kicks into a festive mood about a minute and a half into it. It’s likely to get the people at your holiday party to start clapping. Speaking of fun, Angie Stone injects the uptempo, non-bluesy “Merry Christmas, Baby.” It’s another one for the party. My favorite track is “Silent Night” featuring Anthony Hamilton. It’s a gospel rendition featuring Boney, a Hammond B-3, an acoustic piano, and Hamilton’s vocal. Your local uninhibited church won’t be so silent if they hear this. Nice.

Christmas Present is more than a standard, going-through-the-motions holiday recording. It’s better than every other contemporary jazz recording I’ve heard in the last few years, and it’s better than the best selling holiday recording of all time. I think that can be chalked up to heart. There’s feeling in many of the songs. It’s music that can be enjoyed by everyone. Only the Grinch wouldn’t enjoy this gift.

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Review: Spirit of the Season from Hiroshima

Spirit of the Season from HiroshimaEven though Hiroshima had songs on a couple of Windham Hill holiday compilations, Spirit of the Season is the first full holiday release from the band. After listening to this 11-song collection, I’m ready for the sequel. This is an excellent holiday recording and makes me wonder why they haven’t done it before. June Kuramoto’s koto again is the highlight. The distinctiveness of the koto sound makes many of the traditional holiday songs sound like new. June’s expressiveness on “White Christmas” and playfulness on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” demonstrate her mastery of the instrument. The latter song is the best rendition I’ve heard of that song in a long time. Also notable, and appropriate given Hiroshima’s east-meets-west sound, is the use of taiko drums on “Little Drummer Boy.” Two new instrumentals also add to the fun: the atmospheric “Listen (To the Falling Snow)” and the uplifting “Peace On Earth.” The group’s classic “Thousand Cranes” is revisited and is enhanced with a gospel choir.

Overall, Spirit of the Season succeeds in evoking that special feeling of the holiday. It’s perfect for every holiday occasion – decorating your tree, dinner party, or just listening on your own. Even better, tell your friends!

Review: Peace Round from Yellowjackets

Peace Round from YellowjacketsThe Yellowjackets celebrate the holiday season with their first complete recording of Christmas music. This is the easiest review I’ve ever had to write. If you like the Yellowjackets, or if you like the sounds of the season, buying Peace Round is a no-brainer.

Russell Ferrante notes that there are some challenges in recording a holiday collection, including making “familiar Christmas songs personal but at the same time respect their original intent and the spirit of the season.” Even before reading the press release, that’s the impression I got from listening to this CD. Yellowjackets don’t stray too far from the familiarity of songs like “Little Drummer Boy, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Deck the Halls” yet still jazz them enough to make them unique and interesting. The ten song collection also includes favorites like “Winter Wonderland,” “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The group really packs the emotion into “In a Silent Night” and “Peace Round.” The latter is a simple eight measure round that “seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the season.” Ferrante elaborates on that in the CD’s liner notes. It is a somber tune that serves as a perfect soundtrack to the Holy Night.

Of particular note is the Yellowjackets’ playing. The band has never sounded better than on this effort. It may be due to the fact that most performances are just the first or second takes with little or no overdubbing. It may also be that the band has been so busy lately and have really bonded as musicians and friends. Whatever the case may be, they have released a warm and inviting recording.

Review: Boney’s Funky Christmas from Boney James

[This is an archived review I wrote at some point between 1997 and 1999.]

Boney's Funky Christmas from Boney JamesThe ads for Boney’s first holiday release call this “the album to put on after you put the kids to bed.” Sure enough, Boney’s Funky Christmas features the seductive grooves you know the saxman for. This is the smoothest Christmas release I’ve heard in the last two years. Boney’s stamp on these songs (mostly traditional holiday tunes) is distinctive and the rhythms and production by his longtime producer, Paul Brown are top notch. Boney is especially tender on the Chris Eaton/Amy Grant composition “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song).” He has able assistance on the album from guest vocalists Dee Harvey (on “This Christmas”) and Bobby Caldwell (on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”). Rick Braun guests on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Although the other eight tracks are in the silky r&b vein, Boney also tries his hand at a stripped down sound with just him and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa on “Jingle Bells.” Overall, this is one of the most solid contemporary jazz holiday releases and one that will be enjoyed for years to come.

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