Mid-Mod Christmas Music Made Easy
Frank, Dino, and Bing are old school...let the new school have some air...
Each year I listen to a great deal of holiday music preparing my seasonal review article. My preference is for the older, more traditional liturgical music, what my wife calls “church music.” Still, I remain the late Baby Boomer and have always appreciated the Midcentury Modern sounds of Sinatra, Bennett, Martin, and Crosby. Classic and nostalgic in turn, this was the music of my early childhood and I am not sure that I can hear it without an olfactory recall of cigarettes and bourbon mixed with the nutmeg and cinnamon of the season.
In keeping with the spirit of the mid-century popular singers is Jonathan Karrant. A song stylist in the tradition of Sinatra and Bennett he is no imitator. Karrant’s singing shares elements with these masters: he sings with the intense professionalism of Sinatra while maintaining Bennett’s exuberant con brio delivery. His voice possesses a certain sweetness, that of John Proulx or Jeff Baker, but with an assertive edge all his own. But make no mistake, Karrant is Karrant.
Karrant’s seasonal release, Christmas Wish, is a twenty-first-century updating of the holiday canon, both secular and religious. It is a conservative update that uses the small forces of the jazz piano trio as its vehicle, relying on the idea that “less is more.” Karrant shapes his material in stylistic clusters: the reverent traditional popular of “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and the fresh contemporary popular of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas (featuring tenor saxophonist Houston Person), "Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
But where Karrant finds special purchase with the material is that in the middle, set in an organ-laced churchy-gospel environment where his expressive voice is pushed to its best. One selection like this is “Grown-up Christmas List” which he shares with singer Diane Schuur. Deedles plays a special foil to Karrant in their mutual call for peace and healing in this soothing Gospel piece. Karrant saves his best performances for two diptychs, “I Wonder As I Wander/We Three Kings” and “Silent Night/O Holy Night.” Karrant is most inspired, his singing approaching an eclipse of traditions. “Silent Night/O Holy Night” is a soulful show-stopper and the anchor of this fine collection.
Emerging from the same vocal tradition as Karrant, with an emphasis on band arrangement and sonic fidelity vocalist Lyn Stanley throws the holiday doors open wide with a wide-open reading of the seasonal and near-seasonal canon, the latter being an exquisite joy to hear and experience. Ironically Stanley calls her ensemble the Big Band Jazz Mavericks when it is she who is the maverick, the evidence being how flawlessly she expands the holiday canon in Novel Noël: A Jingle Jazz Celebration to include compositions that sound as if they should have been there all along.
Since releasing her debut recording, Lost In Romance (A.T.Music LLC) in 2013, Stanley has accomplished two significant things: one, she has carefully and methodically reinterpreted the Great American Songbook, and, two, she has become an informed and respected audiophile, leaving no detail unaddressed. Stanley’s added attention pays off in her superb holiday offering. Originally intended for release in 2021, personal and global circumstances changed the project's trajectory. Six of the 13 selections were originally released under the same title, with the complete release dropping in 2022.
The complete package was worth the wait. Stanley makes all merry and bright, spiking the eggnog with vintage, dust-on-the-bottle mid-century modern music, a reflecting echo of the swinging ‘50s. The disc opens with "Zat You Santa Claus" and sets the tone for the entire release, with Stanley aping Pops lovingly before launching into the most sophisticated and swinging updates of the song recorded. Eartha Kitt may own "Santa, Baby," but Stanley one-ups that performance with this playful and festive steal from Satchmo.
With great invention, "Little Drummer Boy" is mashed up with "Take Five" and "Mary Did You Know" receives a stark and plaintive reading. Stanley stealthily slides into the holiday standards playlist: "Moonlight in Vermont," "I Concentrate On You," and "The Way You Look Tonight" giving the holiday canon a well-needed expansion. This Christmas collection is an exceptional one, created by an exceptional artist.