Monday, November 28, 2005

James Taylor – A Christmas Album (2004)

The following review first appeared online in November 2004. Therefore some of the information about how to obtain a copy is now out of date. A year after this review first appeared the album is now considered a collector's item. Unless you can find a few leftover copies at your local Hallmark store the album appears to be available only at places such as Amazon.

James Taylor's first ever Christmas CD, simply titled A Christmas Album, is now available only at Hallmark stores. I have bought some of these Hallmark Christmas CDs in past years and they are usually mediocre or worse, partially because only half of the tracks are by the featured artist. The remaining tracks usually feature the London Symphony Orchestra who, at least on these Christmas CDs, is a group with very plodding arrangements. However, this year Hallmark has outdone themselves. A Christmas Album features JT on all 11 tracks, is produced by jazzman Dave Grusin, and features trumpeter Chris Botti on "Winter Wonderland," Natalie Cole on "Baby It's Cold Outside," and harmonica player Toots Theilemans on “The Christmas Song.” Other jazz stalwarts such as guitarists John Pizzarelli and Michael Landau are prominently featured throughout the album as is Grusin’s piano. This is Grusin’s CD almost as much as it is Taylor’s because he did all of the producing and arranging and wrote the CD's only original song, “Who Comes This Night.”

The CD’s tone is typical Taylor, meaning it never strays too far from his trademark soft folky rock but this one has a touch of smooth jazz sprinkled throughout because of the Grusin influence. Taylor tries to kick it up a notch at least once every album and this time he pulls it off with a bluesy version of “Jingle Bells.”

As always, the CD will be sold this year in Hallmark stores only, and next year at non-Hallmark stores that carry its product line, and then it is over. Done! Finished! Out of print forever! I have a feeling Taylor's will sell much faster than than any of the previous Hallmark Christmas CDs so run out right now and buy your copy because this may be the last Taylor music we see for awhile. For the first time in his long career he is without a label. He and Columbia parted ways after releasing October Road in 2002.

I know this sounds like a commercial but the word needs to spread. The album is $10.95 if you purchase it alone but the price drops to $6.95 if you buy three greeting cards. This time of year most of us will probably purchase at least that many so this disc is a potential steal.

Both JT and Grusin have seen to it that this album is far superior to any of the previous Hallmark limited edition holiday releases. If you like James Taylor you will like this album.

Chicago - What's It Gonna Be Santa (2003)

It’s been a long time since Chicago, the American rock band that ranks second only behind the Beach Boys in terms of commercial success, was on the cutting edge of rock music. Newer fans may not realize how eclectic and influential the band was in the early 70’s. Their artistic peak came so long ago that the group’s more recent fans were only familiar with the power ballads that featured the now departed Peter Cetera on diva-like lead vocals while the band played over-produced, bombastic arrangements in which the brass section was treated only as an accessory that no longer provided any musical substance. If you were a fan of their vintage period the drippy Cetera ballads became very hard to take.

Therefore, I was both happy and very surprised to hear Chicago 25, The Christmas Album, their best release of the 90’s. Despite the fact this disc is influenced more by their later pop-rock style than their early psychedelic, blues-rock and jazz days that launched them to stardom in 1969, I must give the group credit: they play these popular Christmas songs and carols with a verve and spirit I haven’t heard from their ranks in years. A band that issued years of formulaic drivel strictly for commercial purposes appears to have upped its artistic goals a degree.

The horn section still consists of all three original members. Section leader James Pankow on trombone, Lee Loughnane on trumpet, and Walter Parazaider on saxophone and flute, have more influence on the recording process than at any time in the last two decades. Except for their 1995 release Night and Day: Big Band you would have to go back all the way to 1974's Chicago VII to find a time when the horns were this involved in every aspect of the production. They are even soloing again. Loughnane plays piccolo trumpet on the CD's only original song, his own "Child's Prayer," and he rocks out on "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow." Parazaider's flutes are everywhere. He is featured on both C flute and alto flute while playing a duet with himself on “O Come All Ye Faithful.” All of this is very good because Chicago has proven too often that they were just another generic rock band when the horns were de-emphasized.

Original member Robert Lamm and longtime replacement members Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff all share lead and background vocals while arranging duties are shared with the horn section. The combination offers the listener a diverse set of songs that are mostly upbeat treatments of traditional carols and holiday standards. Hearing Chicago play Christmas songs everyone has heard time and again in their unique style is a real treat. Highlights include “Let It Snow," in which the horn section generates enough energy to light up a city street, a nice R & B version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" with Champlin on lead vocal,” and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

The original Chicago 25 was released in 1998. Two years ago the band recorded six additional songs, added them to 25, and re-released the whole package under the name What's It Gonna Be Santa?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Diana Krall - The Girl In The Other Room (2004)

Diana Krall always has a fine singing voice and a great band. She also plays very cool jazz piano. Her readings of jazz standards from The Great American Songbook and covers of more modern fare are always top drawer. In short, I like her.

On her current release, The Girl In The Other Room Krall shows her usual good taste in covers including a Mose Allison original, the slow and bluesy "Stop This World." She also is great covering Tom Waits' "Temptation." She even does a nice take on Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow." The highlight of the CD is the Chris Smither/Bonnie Raitt classic "Love Me Like A Man." I could listen to Krall sing material like this all day long.

For the first time Krall has recorded her own songs. She has co-written six new works with her famous husband, Elvis Costello, and here is where the CD falls to the ground. Most of the Krall/Costello songs have no melody and no beat, two ingredients that are always essential in good jazz and have never been a part of Costello's songwriting. I don't know who wrote what here but I'm going to blame this problem on Costello because he is a master at writing songs no one can sing or hum. I don't have a problem with cerebral or inward looking lyrics. The singer/songwriter genre is full of them but the works of Costello seem out of place on a jazz album, a place where listeners are looking for vocal and instrumental virtuosity. Since four of these songs come all in a row at the end of the disc I find my mind wandering out of boredom, craving for something else to listen to.