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Bill's Holiday CD Review 2009 - Part 1
By V/A
Bill's Holiday CD Review 2009
Stanton Lanier
December Peace
Music to Light the World (2009)

The class act of this year's crop of holiday music recordings is certainly December Peace, the new album from pianist Stanton Lanier. From its cover graphics to the mixture of originals and traditional tunes to the fact that it is an Imaginary Road studios effort (featuring producer Will Ackerman and his usual suspects in accompaniment), this wonderful CD from Lanier could easily be considered the long-hoped for sequel to George Winston’s now undeniable classic December (the cover photo, layout and even font choice of Lanier's release are all eerily similar to Winston's, and of course the title isn't far off either). However, it's the music inside that distinguishes this album from the others I received this year. Whether Lanier is playing alone or is joined by Jeff Oster (flugel horn), Eugene Friesen (cello), Jill Haley (English horn), or Noah Wilding (voice), the results are uniformly excellent on both classic numbers, e.g. "Away in a Manger" or "Angels We Have Heard on High" or any of the originals compositions, such as the wonderful "Shepherds and Stars." The CD features three previously released tracks, the highlight being a remix of Unveiled’s "Awaken the Dawn." December Peace is a relatively subdued and low-key affair thus making it ideal for late-night fireside listening. This one goes into my personal annual Christmas time rotation—no higher praise, that!

Rating: Excellent

Lisa Downing
Christmas for Two
Vision Quest Entertainment (2008)

Pianist Lisa Downing is new to me but her Christmas/holiday release, Christmas for Two (a solo piano CD) sounds comfortably familiar, since it features one well-known holiday classic after another. However, the artist injects enough new wrinkles through her interpretations and arrangements that this is no mere shopping mall background, as evidenced during the first track, a medley of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Carol of the Bells." I caught snippets of jazz here and there as well as other interesting twists and turns in time signatures and moods (from gentle passages to moments of energy and dark passion). Only bona fide traditionalists will object to Downing's improvising (those folks should stick with Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Ray Conniff), although even I wished she would sometimes hew closer to the original at times. In Downing's defense, her playing is good enough that I never thought she was just messing around just to be "different." Most tracks feature two carols offered as a medley. A welcome deviation from most instrumental offerings in this genre is the inclusion of the secular "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" (speaking of which, why do so few new age/adult contemporary instrumentalists record the secular tunes, opting only for the religious ones? I long for the occasional "Winter Wonderland" or "I’ll Be Home For Christmas"). Christmas for Two is a pleasant album for when you want to hear the holiday season’s "greatest hits" done with a little style and pizzazz.

Rating: Good+

A New England Christmas
Futura Productions (2009)

My one vocal holiday music album is A New England Christmas from newcomer Noel (who also plays piano). The album features outstanding work by arranger David Grimes, producer John Weston, and the instrumentalists who contributed to the recording, as well as the wonderful voices of the North Kingstown Community Chorus. In addition, the album's liner artwork is great, filled with images that capture both winter and the holiday season. As for Noel herself, her voice is fine—more than fine, actually. When it's multi-tracked, her softly lilting soprano is spot on. However, when she sings solo, while she's always on key, her voice lacks fullness and presence, i.e. I prefer my singers have more "pipes." As long as she sings in a hushed tone and the song/carol calls for a very soft touch, everything is fine. Thankfully, the more dramatic carols have Noel being joined by that Kingstown Chorus and that fleshes things out nicely, as Noel takes the lead but the assembled other voices lend the songs the power they need. On the cuts where she goes it alone, the results (from a strictly vocal standpoint) are somewhat mixed. Her voice's thinness can sometimes detract from a piece, e.g. "In The Bleak Midwinter" wherein Grimes' superb instrumental arrangement simply overwhelms Noel's lack of "oomph." Now, it's important to acknowledge this may be strictly a reflection of what I enjoy from a singer, so take my criticism with some holiday salt. Also, while the album is dominated by traditional carols, there are two originals, including Noel's own "Wish You Were Here" which opens the album in fine fashion. In closing, I want to reiterate how great Grimes’ arrangements are—they're splendid and had me wishing for one or two instrumental only tracks!

Rating: Good
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 11/27/2009
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