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Bill Binkelman's 2012 Holiday Music Reviews - Part I
By V/A
Happy Holidays
This year's batch of holiday music offerings are, oddly enough, all from men. Apparently, the women put on their Grinch costumes this year! As in some years past, nearly all are piano offerings. Finally, several of the CDs sent to me are either re-issues or are just being sent to me this year. While all of the albums reviewed in this year's holiday column offer quality and entertainment value, I would have enjoyed more variety of instrumentation. Oh well, there's always next year, I suppose.

I hope that 2013 brings each and every one of you peace, love and prosperity. May music offer you a soothing balm, not just at this stressful, chaotic, and tumultuous time of year, but at all times when your heart and soul are rocked with the travails of life on this twirling orb that we call home.


In The Spirit Of Christmas II

Self-released (2012)

Pianist Chuck Cape follows up 2010's In the Spirit of Christmas with the aptly-titled In the Spirit of Christmas II. Cape once again demonstrates a flair for taking the recognizable melodies from carols and giving them unique spins in such a way that even a staunch traditionalist like me can't help but grin. Deck the Halls gets an uptempo treatment that marries the tune's usual celebratory feel with a robust burst of energetic new age style. Santa Claus is Coming to Town really dials up the funk/jazz attitude, introducing alley cat struttin' piano riffs galore. O Holy Night stays with the carol's signature low key mood but Cape instills some interesting sidetracks along the way, bringing something new yet recognizable just the same, and he does the same thing with the CD's closing Silent Night. Cape contributes a few originals as well, including the mid tempo tune. Swirls which flows with an air of introspection and Home for Christmas, a warm, evocative piece which conjures up the titular image nicely. If you're looking for holiday music that's familiar yet also somewhat different (especially with a more uptempo/energetic pace and mood at times), In the Spirit of Christmas II fits the bill.



Kevin Kern Music (2012)

Pianist Kevin Kern avoids secular carols in favor of those associated with the religious aspect of Christmas on his album Christmas. Sixteen solo piano numbers will prove welcoming to those who prefer their seasonal favorites played in a straightforward manner, although when performed by a pianist of Kern's abundant talent means that even with their usual arrangements intact, these tried and true Christmas carols still sound more than a little special. Meticulously engineered and mastered, most of these carols are low-key affairs, which makes the album a good choice for late night playing or de-stressing during this hectic/frazzled time of year. While Kern does hew close to each piece's core melody, there is enough variation that the album will sound good from Thanksgiving through year's end. I particularly like In the Bleak Midwinter which glows like a candle in a window on a cold night while Kern's sensitive playing of The Holly and the Ivy is another album highlight.


Embracing Winter

Brainstorm Records (2012)

Going in a decidedly different direction from Kevin Kern, Jim Hudak (piano, synth, guitar, bells) slants his choices for Embracing Winter on the secular side of the season (although some religious carols are present as well). He also brings along some accompanists (on just a few select tracks, though). Mostly it's just Hudak, and he gives these tunes a truly unique rendition, sometimes by jazzing things up. Winter Wonderland has a jaunty air to it, almost giddy at times, while Sleigh Ride which typically is already energetic, gets dialed up even more (not in a bad way, though). Those horses are not just trotting through the snowy streets, apparently. Hudak composed three of the tunes, including the closing vocal track, Remember the Child (with him on lead and Mary Mac Propersi backing vocals). Wait for December shows Hudak to be as good on guitar as he is on piano. Let's Trim the Christmas Tree with its happy-go-lucky mood is perfect for doing just that. Finally, just for sheer bravado, how can you not like a holiday CD that includes a version of The Chipmunk Song? (ALVIN!!!).


O Christmas

Mainya Music (2012)

Isadar's considerable piano talents make his holiday release, simply titled O Christmas a sonic delight if you are seeking traditional carols played in a way that explores a nuanced approach with more unexpected wrinkles than one might expect. He also plays at least one wholly unexpected selection, that being "Teddy Bear's Picnic/March of the Toys." That particular track is second on the disc and it's utterly charming, expertly blending the innocence of the composition with the march-like cadence of the composition. "O Christmas Tree" may be the best example of how Isadar spins off from the original version, retaining a "snapshot" of the familiar while taking the listener down some intriguing twists and turns. In the end, you arrive at the same place, but you "see" different things along the way. In the liner notes, Isadar states that his rendition of Greensleeves (here titled "Greensleeves 2012") was inspired by and pays homage to Liz Story's version of the same – and it shows. It's one of the best pieces on the album.
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 11/30/2012
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