CD Reviews: Tis the Season

By Marilyn Lester

The Festive Season has arrived, and among the lights and trees and other signs of the holidays, Christmas albums have too. Here are several for cozy listening by the fireside, be it real or virtual.

Edmund Bagnell: Christmas at Home

The classically-trained Edmund Bagnell is a prodigious talent of the violin. He also happens to sing with flair. Like many artists who are so doubly talented, the greater of his gifts is among the strings, from which he unfailingly produces clean, crisp, enticing articulations. As a vocalist, Bagnell is a singer who, more than having an extraordinary vocal instrument, knows how to deliver the goods technically and emotionally. His tone is not only pleasing, but has the ability to project personality, so much so he comes across as a guy you’d love to know and raise a glass of cheer with. Aside from a solo career, Bagnell is also part of the group, Well Strung, which fuses classical music with modern pop music. Although he has recorded with Well Strung, Christmas at Home is his debut solo album.

Christmas at Home was inspired by the music of the season Bagnell heard as a child. You’ll no doubt smile over his spirited rendition of “Mele Kalikimaka,” the Hawaiian Christmas song featured liberally on Bing Crosby Christmas albums––and what parent didn’t own one or two of those? For certain generations, Yuletide wouldn’t be complete without “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with its iconic tune, “Christmas Time Is Here, lovingly, musically embraced by Bagnell. ”Other standards of the season are splendidly presented, including “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” Not so traditional is the jazzy and fun-filled “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) the Man with the Bag.” Gloriously, two instrumental tracks, “Still, Still, Still” and “O Holy Night” feature the excellence of Bagnell’s violin. What’s equally impressive about this self-produced album is its first-rate engineering and beautiful sound quality. Miraculously, it was recorded by Bagnell at home with supporting vocals and instrumentation done by distant friends recording remotely from Israel, Canada, London, Ecuador and San Francisco. The result is a lush, fine product that should have no difficulty joining collections of other much-played music of the holidays.

Edmund Bagnell: Christmas at home is streaming on all platforms and may be purchased on Amazon and iTunes.

Liz Callaway: Comfort and Joy––An Acoustic Christmas

The official release date for Liz Callaway’s Comfort and Joy––An Acoustic Christmas is December 4, when fans of the Broadway, concert and cabaret star can look forward to more of the soulful artistry that’s been her standard. She herself says that the album was a “kind of crazy, last minute endeavor.” The 10 tracks have been inspired by Callaway’s many fans who suggested various songs. In this outing, the singer’s lovely and ethereal voice shines on its own, accompanied solely by the virtuosic guitar of Peter Calo. A few of the tunes have been in the Callaway repertoire, including Diane Warren’s sentimental “Christmas Eve (Could Not Ask for More)” and the standard, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Other standards such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” paired with “Carol of the Bells” and “O Holy Night,” mingle with sister Ann Hampton Callaway’s “God Bless My Family” and Sara Bareilles “Love Is Christmas.” Lovers of Callaway’s music (and who isn’t?) will be pleased with her new release. It is pure Callaway, after all.

Comfort and Joy––An Acoustic Christmas will be available on all streaming platforms and for purchase on Amazon.

Marty Thomas and Marissa Rosen: The Award-Winning Holiday Album

The debut album from Broadway denizens and best friends, Marty Thomas and Marissa Rosen, The Award-Winning Holiday Album, is set to release on December 5th. The duo have been performing together for close to ten years, often adding harmonies to prominent projects in the cabaret/concert world and in the recording studio––as well as crafting their own nightclub act. The Award-Winning Holiday Album pairs comedy with music, covering standard holiday classics such as “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) the Man with the Bag” and modern tunes including Sia’s “Puppies Are Forever” and Elf The Musical’s “There Is A Santa Claus.” Thomas is the vocal arranger and executive producer of the album, with musical arrangements and additional production elements by Yasuhiko Fukuoka, Alex Hamlin and Stephan Seiler. The final product was mixed and mastered by Yasuhiko Fukuoka.

Listeners will be able to download the new album on iTunes and stream it on most streaming platforms.

Lauren Henderson: Classic Christmas

A four-track EP from jazz vocalist-arranger, Lauren Henderson, has been released via her own Brontosaurus Records label. Backed by a standard rhythm section: pianists Isaac Wilson and Sullivan Fortner, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Allan Mednard, Henderson can be proud of top-notch production values with a crew of musicians who conjure dazzling sound from their respective instruments. The result is a collection of tunes with sophisticated licks and hints of blues for good measure, particularly on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic “My Favorite Things” offers light swing and altered lyrics that Henderson employs to highlight current social issues. “What a Wonderful World” is given a wistful approach, arranged, according Henderson, so that it will “touch people’s souls, especially as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.” The most creative of the tracks is the little-known hymn (in the US, anyway) of “Once In Royal David’s City,” which in Henderson’s hands is transformed into a full-out blues/jazz rendition. 


Classic Christmas is available on all digital platforms.


 Amber Weekes: The Gathering

Jazz-pop vocalist Amber Weekes Must be one of the nicest people you’d ever meet. That’s the vibe that comes across over the ten tracks of her Amber Inn-produced, The Gathering, a Christmas delight harkening back to seasons of yore in a simpler world. Weekes brings her Los Angeles roots to the jazz table with her sweet voice and delicate phrasings. Arrangements are fairly traditional and pleasingly well-done––easy on the ears and psyche, made all the richer by a group of highly skilled musicians playing an astonishing variety of instruments, including bagpipes and celeste. Weekes is excellent on ballads, which populate the album, but she can swing too as she proves in her interpretations of “Winter Wonderland” and an especially jazzy “”I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”The opener, Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz,” with an underlay of a bossa nova beat, sets the Christmas stage, and by the closer, “The Gathering,” an original with lyrics by Weekes, the holiday spirit has descended and a mellow Christmas mood established.

In between, an unusual choice among the standards is “My Romance,” which oddly fits in. With “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the singer adds the rarely heard verse. Given the pandemic and current social climate, the tune has particular resonance, as does the tender rendition of  “Some Children See Him,” a tune whose lyric describes how children picture the Christ child in their own image of race and ethnicity. The album is lushly produced and musically inspiring thanks to Nio Wilson, JoAnn Tominaga, Marcus D Cargill and Gregory Cook (background vocals); Josh Nelson, Tony Campodonico and Eddy Olivieri (piano, Fender Rhodes); John B Williams, Adam Cohen and Kevin Brandon (bass); Fritz Wise, Sinclair Lott and Nathaniel Scott (drums); Paul Jackson Jr, Doug MacDonald and Jacques Lesure (guitar); Rickey Woodward (sax); Andrew Carney (trumpet); Richard Heath and Munyugo Jackson (percussion); Ernie Fields Jr (bagpipes); Gregory Cook (celeste); and Mark Cargill (violin, string arrangements, conductor strings and horns).

Amber Weekes: The Gathering is available on all streaming platforms and most sites where CDs are sold.

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