(MaxJazz – 2001)
by John Barrett
From a label specializing in vocal jazz, this is the kind of Christmas album you’d expect: soft, subtle backgrounds and big emotional voices. Carla Cook overdubs herself for “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – pure on the high notes, she becomes a choir on the chorus. Cyrus Chestnut also goes dubbing: he’s spiritual at the organ, funky at the piano. René Marie is girlish for “Let It Snow!”; this voice was made for snuggling.
Bruce Barth keeps the piano nice ‘n’ warm – and the drummer clicks a near-samba! Laverne Butler giggles her way through “Sleigh Ride”, and Mary Stallings is the sound of pure class on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. Making her first records in the ‘Fifties, Mary sounds nostalgic, matched well with Barth’s lush accompaniment. It’s a lovely “old” sound – and it fits, as this is the season for memories.
With a crisp 6/8 and a warm reedy voice, Phillip Manuel brings joy to “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. Peter Martin jabs some expressive piano, and Phillip transcends it with ease. Barth plays “We’ll Dress This House” as a bossa, while Christine Hitt coos the lyric in satisfaction. (Barth then plays “O Christmas Tree” as an instrumental: he’s funkier than Guaraldi, but in the same general area.) René tries to go sultry with “Winter Wonderland” (nice idea, but a little plain in execution) while Laverne does “The Christmas Song” with just a little vibrato – a little, but it’s enough. Some moments need no embellishment.
Turning a little sassy, Mary has a “Merry Little Christmas”; Bruce surrounds her in block chords, and all is well. Chestnut dances on Carla’s version of “Silent Night”. Christine is thoughtful on “Some Children See Him”, and her bold piano fills the silence; Barth follows with a gentle “Greensleeves”, powered by exciting cymbals. Avoiding comparisons to Tyner, Bruce’s tone is broad … and restless. Manuel’s “Peace on Earth” (the only original composition) has a smooth approach and a well-stated lyric.
“Christmas is the story of a great and wondrous birth/ Mary’s child, a baby boy; His message, ‘Peace on Earth.'” The piano is quiet, the brushes thick – and slowly the message sinks in. Without histrionics or an overblown production, this album uses its many talents to convey the one thought of a special season.