The Christmas Norm (Music Thoughts: The Norm Lewis Christmas Album)

51drVEknVeL._SS500It’s always nice to see Broadway takes on Christmas albums, and I particularly welcome a Norman Lewis one, so I was happy to listen to ‘The Norman Lewis Christmas Album.’  At the very least, we will know it will be well-sung, with Lewis’ powerhouse vocals. And Lewis gives us a packed repertoire, with eighteen tracks. And some great tracks here: a swinging and funky ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,’ to ‘Mary Did You Know,’ to a soulful ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’ I mean, there’s plenty of soul here for everyone’s stockings. But I wish it had more Broadway inflections. He does include show tunes like ‘Where Is Love,’ from Oliver, and ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. I don’t know why, though, but they sound like fillers and feel kind of out of place here. Still, good playlist shuffling would give a lot of satisfaction from this album, and his fans, me included, would be delighted to spin this.

Jingle Jangle John (Music Thoughts: A Legendary Christmas, John Legend)

71puTP+02tL._SY355_For some reason, I don’t know much about John Legend’s music., except for that massive hit, ‘All Of Me,’ which was the song to sing a couple of years ago. For some reason, his music doesn’t really excite me, and I really was not impressed with his ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ performance. So I go into ‘A Legendary Christmas,’ his new album of Holiday music, with tepid energy.

And after a spin or two, I can say it is a well-crafted album, well-produced, with just the right amount of commercial appeal to make it a hit. And I bet it does, since it hits all the right notes. There’s a funky, soulful feel to it, evidenced in tracks like ‘What Christmas Means To Me,’ (with Stevie Wonder, natch) and ‘Merry Christmas Baby.’ And his originals really aren’t bad – I bet a couple of plays will help them catch on. I like his duet of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ with Esperanza Spaulding, and in some of the more traditional tracks, he sounds just a bit King Cole-ish.

All in all, ti still left me a bit cold. It seems like a product, not something from heart and soul. I am sure I will hear these tracks at Target and enjoy them during those moments, but I doubt if I will pull these tracks out to listen to specifically.

The Ingrid Season (Music Thoughts: Song Of the Season, Ingrid Michaelson)

81P8uIW8ArL._SY355_I know New York-based Ingrid Michaelson has enjoyed success as a singer-songwriter on the adult contemporary field, but I don’t know much about her music.  I do love teh cover of her new Holiday-themed album, ‘Songs For The Season,’ and it is what attracted me to listen to it. And I am glad I did, because this is a wonderful class-c-sounding album. She was obviously inspired by the classic arrangements of these songs, and they all sound wonderful here. We hear full orchestra arrangement of these songs (whether they were recorded as such) and it was a very pleasant musical trip. And, I feel like I can listen to this record again and find new things about it. I like her duet with Broadway actor Will Chase on ‘I’ll Be Home  For Christmas,’ and her other duet with Leslie Odom Jr in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ the Mariah Carey massive Holiday hit. Surprisingly, the song worked in their slowed-down arrangement without sounding gimmicky. She does fine with the rest of the songs, and I must say I even liked her one original, ‘Happy Happy Christmas.’ Above all, her album evokes a mood – not entirely melancholy, but it is very specific.

The Soul Of Broadway (Music Thoughts: Broadway My Way, Heather Headley)

BroadwayMyWay_AlbumArt‘Broadway My Way.’ Heather Headley is the album I have been waiting for, and I knew it would be good as soon as the music started playing.  I have always loved Headley’s voice (she does the best duet of ‘the Prayer’ with Andrea Bocceli, in my opinion) and her Broadway credits have been impressive. And, I just like her way with a song. She was the best thing in the London production of ‘The Bodyguard.’ and her versions of Whitney’s songs give the originals a run for their money. Check out, for example, her soul-crushing version of Brian McKnight’s ‘One Last try,’ for example.

And I love her renditions of these Broadway songs, giving them a soulful depth that in a lot of way completely transform the songs. My favorite? Quite possibly her ‘Look To The Rainbow,’ which is a total reimagining (style-wise) of the song from Finian’s Rainbow. The song never sounded more modern and more personal. A close second is her version of ‘My Home’ from Matilda, a score I normally would pass by. The rest of the album succeeds, like her jazzy take on ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonlight,’ where she peppers that song with jazz flourishes that makes the song less sounding like a Disney product. While her version of ‘For Good’ is still great, I did not really appreciate the rock riffs there, and must she recycle ‘Home,’ which was from her last album? All in all, all these songs are already on my daily listen playlist, and I wish next time she would go deeper with songs from Broadway’s Golden age, instead of the more pop=flavored modern songs. ( I mean ‘True Colors’ from Priscilla is not really a show tune)  Still, I think this is my favorite theater-adjacent album of the year, and will cherish it.

Frohliche Weihnacten (Music Thoughts: My Favourite Christmas Songs, Lyambiko)

xg6mzlyagf3cc_600I know we just finished Halloween, and have to go through Thanksgiving, but here I am, listening to my first Christmas album of the season. But whether we like it or not, it is coming. And what better first album to start with but Lyambiko’s ‘My Favourite Christmas Songs.’  I don’t know every German jazz vocal artist out there, but I have to say that she is my favorite. She has a very great way with lyric interpretation – she knows how to insert meaning and nuance to what she is interpreting. And I like what she does with these Christmas songs. And she has good taste, because her favorite Christmas songs are also mine. This is a very melancholy, introspective Holiday album, and if you knew me, that’s what I gravitate to more often than not. Even a song like ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ has a very sad context in her interpretation. All the usual suspects are here, but my favorite tracks are ‘Merry Christmas Darling,’ ‘Little Christmas Tree,’ and ‘Christmastime Is Here,’ which she duets with Luca Sestak (who is he?) I know a lot of times we feel like we are assaulted by the Mariah Carey ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ but here she gives it a very subtle rendition. All in all, a fine by-the-fireplace Christmas album.

Guards Down (Music Thoughts: Walls, Barbra Streisand)

126783-wallsJust in time for the midterm elections, Barbra Streisand has released her new album. And politics is on her mind, and she wants to protest. Is someone going to tell her not to? I dare you. Thank God it’s a good album, full of mostly original songs that speak different messages, all cohesive, all unifying. This is a protest to Trump, but she does so not with anger, but with love.

Her voice is still a force, though we all know that at 70 years old, it’s not what it used to be. But she can and does still manage to essay her songs the Barbra way. She still swoops up whenever she wants to (sometimes unnecessarily, but it won’t be Barbra if it didn’t) And you know what I like about this album? There’s a little bit more rhythmic production.(Desmond Child is one of the producers here)  There’s a bounce to ‘What The World Needs Now’ that’s R & B tinged (the last time she sounded like this was ‘Till I Loved You’, and she has Babyface and Michael McDonald in the track) and her carrier single ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ sounds modern enough to fit in Top 40 radio. Of course, I like the ballads, especially the LGBT themed ‘Love Is Never Wrong.’  Her medlette of ‘Imagine’ with ‘What A Wonderful World’ is fine enough, though I was a bit underwhelmed by its melodic transitions. And theater geeks like myself marvel at her inclusion of ‘Take Care Of This House’ from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Leonard Bernstein’s flop musical with Alan Jay Lerner (her operatic notes are tentative but still effective)

But probably my favorite track is her new version of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ When I saw the song on the track listing, I immediately thought – uh oh, filler. I mean, how many times does she need to sing and record that song? But this version is drama with a capital D. She acts her way through it, under a funereal paced arrangement, and she is over the top, she goes all out, and it’s the most authentic I have heard her in years. When she lets out that big sigh at the end, I wanted to stand up and clap and say Yass Kween Barbra, you are still our diva.  It’s great to see that sometimes, we can still see Barbra tear down her walls.

Swinging Celluloid (Music Thoughts: Jazz Goes To The Movies, Ann Hampton Callaway)

61MLd1nMlJL._SX355_A new Ann Hampton Callaway album is always a cause for celebration and break out the champagne because ‘Jazz Goes To The Movies’ We always know to expect something great from her, but we are always offered something much much better than what we imagine. Like fine wine, Callaway just gets better and better with vintage, and her voice has gotten deeper, and richer, and more velvety, and more earthy. It’s just always better. She is in fine swinging form in this album, finely accompanied by Ted Rosenthal on piano, Martin Wind on base, Tim Horner on drums and Jimmy Greene on saxophone. You can tell how well they all play off each other, there is a natural camaraderie between all the instruments, including the vocal. And I love all the arrangements – they feel fresh and new without trying too hard to be different. I love the soft and caressing tracks most, like ‘Long Ago and Faraway,’ and any tender version of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ is more than fine for me. But she is as engaging on the swing tracks, like  in ‘This Can’t be Love’ where she does so much more with some scatting and rhythmic vocal arranging. This is a solid jazz album, but you also experience lyrical expertise here – in every song she tells a story, and you are enraptured.