June 17, 2024

A Nancy Wilson ChristmasA Nancy Wilson Christmas
(MCG – 2001)
by John Barrett

There are two things you need for a proper Christmas album: lavish arrangements, a cheerful voice … and a pure heart. Nancy Wilson kisses the lyrics gently: the emotions come naturally, and that is the best way. She sounds prim on “Let It Snow!”, but check out that arrangement: the Gillespie Alumni Big Band swaggers, with a sound that’s pure Sinatra. She has fun with it, letting some words drift long as the brass slowly builds. (Jon Faddis’ stratospheric, Dizzy-like solo is a keeper.)

With New York Voices cooing a chord behind her, Nancy is humble on “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”. She has some gospel inflections, and a little blues: when she sings “We didn’t know who You were”, she sounds truly sad. Check the samba guitar on “White Christmas”: Marty Ashby is soft and sensuous, a great foil for Herbie Mann’s flute. Their tropical heat sounds great with Nancy’s traditional reading; reminds me of Darlene Love’s version on the Phil Spector Christmas album. A quiet trio trips through “What Are you Doing New Year’s Eve?”; she sounds excited for the season, and begs you to accompany her. I doubt you’ll refuse.

The programming here is splendid, interspersing secular songs with the sacred. The wordless choir will grip you on “All Through the Night”. Renee Rosnes puts the Guaraldi touch on “O Christmas Tree” – before Claudio Roditi stirs up a Brazilian breeze. (Speaking of Guaraldi, Mann flutters through “Christmas Time Is Here” – and Nancy chirps like a skylark.) The woodwinds and strings on “O Holy Night” are a wondrous concoction, and “Carol of the Bells” has an a cappella intro you must hear to believe. This features the Voices, and they are magical – suddenly pianos rush in, with the power of Tyner. (Monty Alexander has a beautiful solo, jabbing in sophisticated, bluesy figures.)

“Angles We Have Heard” could almost be by Ella: new chords, Basie piano, and endless melismatic joy. For “The Christmas Song” we get a few quiet chords, formal strings in parallel lines, and a hint of Billie Holiday. I love her new lyrics: “They know that Santa’s on her way/ I’ve got lots of toys and goodies on my sleigh!” Both heartfelt and grand, it’s hard to do better than this. On the best Christmas music, you can feel the snow falling. After this wonderful effort, I’m shivering … and from joy.

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