ARTIST: India.Arie and Joe Sample
TITLE: “Christmas With Friends”
LABEL: Motown Records
STYLE: Soulful R&B Jazz Christmas
NOTABLE: For her sixth studio album, R&B and soul vocalist India.Arie teamed up with keyboardist Joe Sample to record “Christmas With Friends.” Sadly, Sample passed away in September 2014 before the album was completed. He plays piano on four of the ten songs – the opening “Let It Snow,” “Silent Night” (featuring Brandy), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (featuring Kem), and “The Christmas Song.” The album is filled with other guest appearances by artists representing contemporary gospel, jazz, pop, R&B, and rock, including Michael McDonald, Dave Koz, Tori Kelly, Trombone Shorty, and Kirk Whalum. The album strikes a nice balance between secular and religious Christmas songs.
HIGH POINTS: Arie has a strong, versatile voice that allows her to handle the various musical styles represented with equal aplomb. The album’s one original song, the sentimental “Favorite Time of Year” was co-written by Arie and is one of the highlights of the album. Arie shows off her playful side on a bright and breezy rendition of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” A beautiful rendition of “Mary, Did You Know” is performed as a duet with gospel star Gene Moore, Jr.
LOW POINT: As mentioned above, Arie has a strong, versatile voice, but she would benefit from more restraint in her approach. Too often she veers into runs and other vocal gymnastics when the song would be best served by simply carrying the tune. There’s a fine line between personalizing a holiday standard and ruining it, as unfortunately happens with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The usually reliable Michael McDonald joins Arie on “Merry Christmas Baby,” but what should have been an album highlight turns into what sounds more like a shouting match.
ARTIST: Count Basie Orchestra
TITLE: “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!”
LABEL: Concord Jazz
STYLE: Big Band Christmas
NOTABLE: Founded in 1935, the Count Basie Orchestra is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Although it was predominantly featured on Tony Bennett’s 2008 album, “A Swingin’ Christmas (Featuring The Count Basie Big Band),” this is the Count Basie Orchestra’s first Christmas album. The 19-piece band is accompanied by Johnny Mathis on “It’s The Holiday Season,” Ledisi on “The Christmas Song” and Carmen Bradford on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Additionally, Ellis Marsalis (Piano) and Plas Johnson (saxophone) are guest musicians on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” At age 90, veteran Count Basie arranger Sammy Nestico contributes charts for “Jingle Bells” and “Good ‘Swing’ Wenceslas.”
HIGH POINTS: If you’re a fan of swing or big bands, you’ll love this album from beginning to end. Director Scotty Barnhart has shaped an album deeply rooted in the Count Basie tradition that still sounds fresh and timeless in 2015. The usually mellow Johnny Mathis adds a surprisingly confident swinging vocal – sounding a lot like Al Jarreau – to “It’s the Holiday Season.” Vocal turns by Ledisi (on “The Christmas Song”) and Carmen Bradford (on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) shine as well. But it’s the musicianship of the orchestra that takes center stage throughout the album. “Little Drummer Boy” is a standout, showcasing not only Clayton Cameron’s excellent drum work, but also a piano solo by Llew Matthews, a sax solo by Jay Brandford, a piccolo solo by Cleave E. Guyton, Jr., and trumpet solos by both Endre Rice and Scotty Barnhart.
LOW POINT: No style of music, no matter how well played, will please everyone. So listeners who regularly avoid jazz, big band, or swing will probably not appreciate “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!” For everyone else, it’s a very Merry Christmas indeed.