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Sleigh Bells and Stuff Like That
Holiday Music 2018, Part 1
Review by Rob Lester

"It's that time of year when the world falls in love
Every song you hear seems to say:
'Merry Christmas.'..."
---Sammy Cahn, "The Christmas Waltz"

Yes, it's "that time of year" again—December, and time for the holidays and holiday music that's released: ancient, oldish, recent, and even the occasional new birth of a song.

MICHAEL LONGORIA
MERRY CHRISTMAS DARLING

Broadway Records

Within a brisk one minute and 49 seconds, singer Michael Longoria gets a lot out of Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "The Christmas Waltz," as drummer/producer Michael Croiter emphasizes harder drum beats. This makes it less traditionally waltzy, with less of a sway-along feel, but Michael Longoria is ready to dance his way into your heart—or pounce—by singing with his ebullient and throbbing heart. The 1954 seasonal chestnut feels out of its era. Are we playing mix-and-match with decades? Yes. The vibrant vocalist is cozily feeling most at home, musically, in what he calls "my lane": luxuriating in the 1960s. And no wonder. Our high tenor has long been visiting the work of those who rose to fame in that decade—most specifically, the vocal group The Four Seasons. Having played on Broadway in that group's bio-[jukebox]-musical Jersey Boys—first as young Joe Pesci and then "graduating" to the lead role of lead singer Frankie Valli. And this followed a stint in Hairspray, set in the same decade with pastiche songs, so Longoria was already immersed in the sounds. He solidified the retro experience in the last several years by touring with fellow Jersey Boys alumni as The Midtown Men revisiting hits of the music-rich '60s first popularized by a variety of artists.

Longoria's new album of strictly secular holiday fare focuses on the joys of having a romantic partner at Christmastime or the ache of being alone. He retains an especially youthful sound that can be leaning toward keening, but not mawkish, despite a heart-on-sleeve earnestness. The music arrangements, attitudes, beat, back-up vocals, and overall flavor often strongly evoke the decade in question, although the vast majority of items in the tune-stack are from before or after that period.

The few selections that do hail from the '60s very much follow in the blueprints of their original versions in many details. The rest of The Midtown Men (Daniel Reichard, Christian Huff, and J. Robert Spencer) step in for nifty harmony duties and some solo lines for "Little St. Nick," the holiday cutie introduced by The Beach Boys and written by two of its members, Brian Wilson and cousin Mike Love. And Darlene Love is recalled with her trademark plea, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The Longoria longing is somewhat muted, pain taking a backseat to hope or just grooving to the quickish pace and musical thrust. It was included on the landmark rock and roll holiday album "A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records" put together by Phil Spector in 1963 (who wrote it with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich). Although the ever-peppy invitation to have a "Sleigh Ride" had its melody born by Leroy Anderson, and its lyric was added by Mitchell Parish in 1950, one of the best-known radio-played versions is the distinctively of its time treatment by Ronnie Spector from that same collection; the rendition here unquestionably is modeled on that record. With both these choices, the ultra-simple and relentlessly repetitive back-up vocals sound a little tired, potentially irritating in their over-prominence. The indefatigable Michael Longoria, however, can rarely be accused of phoning anything in. He's got zest, but the oh-so-loyal paint-by-familiar-numbers tempo and phrasing on long swaths of singing on so many tracks make this listener yearn for more originality, risk-taking, and nuances of personal interpretation. Musical director/arranger/pianist Rona Siddiqui and the singer perhaps are so fan-like eager to evoke the feel of the originals that they erred on the side of conservatism

The purer and more melodic ballads "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the title song put the spotlight on Longoria's strong suit, as they find him singing in a more involved way, showing his acting ability. That is, he sounds involved in the lyrics. They give him more to work with and have more heft than the up-tempo and recent pop fare introduced and co-written by the likes of female pop divas Ariana Grande, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Leona Lewis, and Mariah Carey (two things). However, I still give props for not just picking from the usual suspects of the most over-recorded yuletide classics as so many vocalists do. From the male side of rock stars' repertoire, we get better results with an ingratiating glide through "Last Christmas," now 18 years old and seemingly standing the test of time, though it's ironic and sad to know that its creator George Michael died on Christmas Day just two years ago. This track has an especially appealing beginning before it quickly slips into the familiar territory.

The title song of Merry Christmas Darling is one of its highlights, retaining much of the bittersweet emotion heard in the original version (although somehow losing its title's comma). It's heavy with romance. (An interesting side note about this: Although first released by the brother-sister Carpenters in 1970, it actually is partially a song from the 1960s—and the 1940s—as the lyric came first and didn't have a melody until a college choir director named Frank Pooler asked one of his singers to set it. His name was Richard Carpenter.) And the classic Hugh Martin wish to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" finds Michael singing with the most heart and passion. For those who might wonder if he took a page from Christmas albums from either the Four Seasons group or the later solo outing by Frankie Valli, this old gem from Meet Me in St. Louis and introduced by Judy Garland, is the only piece that appears on either record. And it owes nothing to the version by Frankie Valli.

Another bright spot is an adorable original work by the singer and his maestro, "Merry Me This Christmas." That's not a typo, but please feel free to think of the first word also as "Marry." Cue the cutie-pie "sha-la-la" background vocals and those signature nostalgic catchy triplets rhythm beats. The sweet lyric, delivered with true tidings of comfort and joy, is a story-song that the likeable Longoria has explained in interviews happens to be his own true story. He met a guy online and they communicated while on separate coasts, finally getting together in person when both were invited to the same Christmas party. (The lyric line referencing the fellow's on-screen profile picture perhaps gives away that it's pretty contemporary.) Fast forward to love and recent marriage, making this a harmonic tolling of jingle bells and wedding bells.

Despite totally eschewing the religious side that makes Christmas Christmas, with 15 tracks, this mixed bag—like Santa's own sack—has something for everyone, whether you want the 1960s recreated, a flavor of that decade with this generation's pop stars' contributions, or a surprisingly reinvigorated and not-so-droningly plaintive "Happy Xmas" ("War Is Over") by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Although Broadway fans might well prefer this singer's debut recording , Brick by Brick, because it's stuffed with musical theatre smasheroos, Longoria's exciting high notes and Merry Christmas Darling's high points could make your holiday merry and bright.

STEVE ROSS, SUELLEN ESTEY, BENJAMIN WEIL, RON SPIVAK
IT'S ALMOST CHRISTMAS EVE

Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project

Here comes a blissful blizzard that mixes tradition and surprise and a bounty of Broadway-familiar writers' familiar and not-so-familiar works. With cabaret veteran Steve Ross presiding at the piano, joined by three other serenaders, the It's Almost Christmas Eve collection songfest that features 26 titles makes us feel like we are invited grateful guests for a parlor kind of soiree. It is somehow formal and informal at the same time. We're cozy inside, occasionally glancing outside at the chill notably absent herein: To quote "The Christmas Waltz," we can imagine "Frosted window panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree." And you can be sure the tree isn't an artificial one—it's just as genuine as the heartfelt, unabashed sentiment and sincerity spun out.

Oh—and snow, of course, is in the forecast. Case in point: In a three-part medley, we get not only the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn waltzing standard you get on many a Christmas album, but also two musical snowfalls. One winter-friendly choice has a melody by George Gershwin from the days before his brother Ira wrote most of his lyrics: it's a 1920 charmer called "Snow Flakes" with wordsmith Arthur Jackson. Then there's an Irving Berlin celebration of the fluffy white stuff—not the perennial "White Christmas," but the cheery "Snow" heard in the film musical Holiday Inn. The 1920 happily (re)discovered piece is a deft vocal solo for Steve Ross, who also plays piano for all the singers on the album and did the sparkling but non-intrusive arrangements. Benjamin Weil brings an old-fashioned presentational approach to the Styne/Cahn set-up and the recording's other two vocalists, SuEllen Estey and Ron Spivak, join them for "Snow."

We later hear from Berlin and Styne each again, but with rarely heard treats. There's the 102-year-old Berlin bit of playfulness called "Santa Claus: A Syncopated Christmas Song" that has a jaunty splash of fun warning kids to toe the line if they want presents from the guy from the North Pole. Cut from Styne and Sondheim's landmark Gypsy (but included as a bonus track on the show's 2008 revival cast recording and occasionally elsewhere), we get the lovely "Three Wishes for Christmas." This track show other sides of versatile Weil in two more of his solo turns. And if your wishes are for more refreshing think-outside-the-box picks, you'll get more than three such wishes. For example, the overlooked Broadway musical Three Wishes for Jamie has its "Goin' on a Hayride" seasonally tweaked as "Goin' on a Sleigh Ride," sung with simple, unforced joy that doesn't cloy. The sprightly "Who Says There Ain't No Santa Claus?" from Flahooley! is another welcome romp—Weil again, this time duetting with the nimble Miss Estey, currently in My Fair Lady on Broadway. She also pleasingly croons Rodgers & Hammerstein's non-show tune "Happy Christmas, Little Friend." Other numbers by writers of Great White Way fame are on the peppier side, like "Sing a Little Song of Christmas" for the full group; it's a Donald Pippin/Carolyn Leigh pick-me-up rescued from an edition of the holiday show at Radio City Music Hall. Also of note, from the musical A Time for Singing, is "Three Ships" (mixed with the carol "I Saw Three Ships," with Mr. Ross leaving the ship-shape vocals on both to his three companions).

Most is merry here with the exception of the angry "I Don't Remember Christmas" that gives Ron Spivak a chance to rage and rant, but he can't be a totally successful party-pooper for this holiday party; and John Meyer's dark lamenting plea from one member of a breaking-up couple (our female participant here) to stay together until "After the Holidays" might well bring down the room. Wisely, we get some audacious satire to follow those two consecutive gloom-gatherings with Frederick Silver's sly panacea "The Twelve Days After Christmas," for everyone sick of the unkillable litany of gifts from a "true love" that started with that partridge in a pear tree and some other feathered creatures. PETA people might protest the glee found in slaughtering the birds for soup or a neck-twisting twist on the original intents, but the quartet has a winking whale of a time complaining of the downside of a houseful of birds, flesh-discoloring golden rings, and milkmaids, etc.

Billed as "Steve Ross & Friends," the venerable Mr. Ross hardly hogs the spotlight. Although he is the sole instrumentalist, he gives much of the vocal spotlight to his cohorts, giving them no more solos than he has (just three) and they have many duets with each other. More prominence from him vocally would have received no complaint from these quarters as he is in fine form here, bringing such distinct tenderness to Duncan Lamont's "A Christmas Wish for You" and bittersweet emotion looking at "Toyland" from the other side of youth, perhaps a tear or two in his eyes which, on other tracks, you can almost see glow with pleasure when he joins the others in an enchanting piece he co-wrote (with Ron Hirsch and Rosie Casey): It's the title of It's Almost Christmas Eve and it captures the feelings and touchstones of the crucial night without feeling derivative. So, just imagine it's the night before Christmas when all through the house what's stirring is the spirited feelings of the holiday captured in old-school grace without a trace of irony or fake, plastic, put-on jolly or jingle. Be grateful for the tradition, for the newer items that follow in its snowy footsteps as we're "Together This Christmas" (to name-drop one of the pleasing contemporary gifts, courtesy of writers Alex Rybeck and Barbara Fried). Enjoy the party's concert, maybe sing along, sigh, and pass the egg nog.

Steve Ross and his friends from this album will be appearing at Birdland December 17 and 18 in a show called "Here's to Us - Festive Songs of Love and Friendship."

NORM LEWIS
THE NORM LEWIS CHRISTMAS ALBUM
Norelll Records
CD at CDBaby.com | mp3 at Amazon | Download at iTunes

A big favorite—big-voiced Broadway vet Norm Lewis—is an equal opportunity gift-giver offering his prodigious music gifts' genres on his new collection. Unlike singers on some Christmas albums, he does not have amnesia about the religious component of this holiday: the birth of Jesus Christ as Saviour. Oh, sure, there are the nods to that other guy people focus on in December, the one in the red suit with the white beard, as well as the white stuff that flutters in flakes from the sky. But he pays his respects to the holy and the Virgin Mary with awe-drenched, reverent renditions of "Mary, Did You Know?" and "The Little Drummer Boy" as well as "O Holy Night" blended with "Ave Maria."

This "something for everyone" 18-track set also includes some classics from musical theatre that aren't holiday-centric at all, although one can make a case for a connection when the lyrics are about someone going home ("Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables and "Home" from The Wiz). But, wait, there's more—mix in some contemporary sounds, a non-Christmas sultry pop classic (Peggy Lee's trademark "Fever"), a vintage R&B hit with some ripped-from-today's-headlines spoken political shout-outs. Downloaders with narrower interests who prefer to cherry-pick any one of the categories will find things ripe for that picking, while those who want the whole versatility parade's shebang will get plenty of shebang for their bucks.

Having been duly impressed by Mr. Lewis's considerable past efforts in show tune singing in person and on disc (many cast albums and his standout previous solo recording—his first, titled This Is the Life), my expectations were met and then some. We have a chameleon on our hands who sounds as at home with "Home" as he does soaring into angelic falsetto asking "Where does 'Peace on Earth' begin if not in the home? ... where is love? Where is the God in your life?" Note that one of the lyric's questions echoes an early track with the title "Where Is Love?" from Oliver!, which itself is adopted as a holiday song with one simple word substitution: "Is it underneath the willow tree..." becomes "Is it underneath the Christmas tree..." Simple, but effective. And I love the way the "Peace on Earth" track starts off choir-boyishly with just the first few words of "Let There Be Peace on Earth (And Let It Begin with Me)" sung a capella, and then he suddenly stops after just seven words, as if realizing that what needs to be said takes more explaining and the endeavor becomes an unblinking "J'accuse"-atory set of references to abusive mothers and husbands and the need to "heal our own." Wow! Even more intensely, he sails into the 1971 Marvin Gaye soul-searing scorcher "What's Going On," updating it with spoken interpolations, at the end shouting out issues of immigration and climate change.

Musical director Joseph Joubert and band unleash their skills with panache. Some of the settings for the holiday fare are pretty—and pretty laidback. I think that one of the Lewis skills is to give a nod to the approach and tempo we've become used to hearing for a famous piece without really risking being musical wallpaper that is too close for comfort, so that it brings nothing new. But there is musical comfort food. "The Christmas Song," aka "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," pays its respects to the indelible Nat King Cole version; this and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" on their own wouldn't give you much hint of the depth and breadth of Norm Lewis's talents and dramatic chops, but they go down easy.

The guy has his goofy side, too—with a raucous "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" that's rather silly in its harmless way. And then there's a bait-and-switch, with one track starting with a slinky, slow, seductive vibe and the first lines of "Jingle Bells" until naughty-but-nice Norm speaks the words "Just kidding!" and goes into what the arrangement and atmosphere are really setting the stage for, the oldie about lusty feelings: "Fever." And taking on the novelty number introduced by Eartha Kitt, who sexily teased "Santa Baby," our winking entertainer decides not to purr his demands with seductive-sounding overtones, but opts for being a guy's guy kind of chum and changing the addressing from "Santa Baby" to "Santa buddy" and "Santa papi" male bonding. This may be too dopey for some, but, hey, 'tis the season to be jolly, so I think he gets away with it and kind of wins me over. (Mr. Claus will have to speak for himself with the revised gift demands, including a Rolex.)

By the time Norm Lewis gets to his final track (in full-album order), he's already knocked off our socks (or, rather, the Christmas stockings hung by the chimney with care), and ends with a smooth groove. It comes as the kind of question that's been referenced in other yuletide-loving ditties: "Why Couldn't It Be Christmas Every Day?" Joined by singers Darius de Haas, Mykal Kilgore, and Destan Owens, it's another pleasing present in this eclectic, well-balanced package.

If you're in New York City in the upcoming days, you have some chances to catch the splendid singer Norm Lewis and his holiday haul of happiness, sacredness and intensity live and in person at Feinstein's/54 Below.



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