New Christmas CDs showcase Barbara Cook, the Philly Pops (with Ann Hampton Callway), and the Broadway Inspirational Voices.
Given the extraordinary warmth of Barbara Cook's voice and personality, it's surprising that this musical theater legend didn't get around to a Christmas album until now. Barbara Cook: Count Your Blessing is brand new from DRG. Arranged and conducted by Cook's longtime collaborator Wally Harper, the CD benefits from a 38-piece orchestra, including 10 strings. (I counted!) But, of course, its main attraction is Cook's gorgeous, inimitable soprano. To be 100 percent honest, that voice has finally begun to betray some signs of age in recent years; after all, Cook is now 76. But she still sounds a good 20 years younger, and Cook at near-80 is still better than most other singers at 30.
The album begins with a serene, comforting rendition of Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)" -- and it's safe to say that many listeners count Cook among their blessings. The rest of the program consists of wonderful old chestnuts ("The Christmas Song," "Silent Night," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," etc.) plus a few less familiar items, among them the lovely "May You Always" (Dick Charles/Larry Markes) and the haunting "Breath of Heaven" (Amy Grant/Chris Eaton). Singing backup for Cook on four tracks, including "May You Always," are members of the Broadway Inspirational Voices (see below). This may well turn out to be one of those Christmas albums that are recognized as instant classics; the final track is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and the CD will help anyone who purchases it to do just that.
Although Ann Hampton Callaway's amazing abilities as a vocalist and songwriter has become less of a well-kept secret in recent years, the woman is still not as big a star as she deserves to be. It's great to have her as the guest soloist on Holiday Pops!, the new DRG album by the Philly Pops with Peter Nero as music director, conductor, and pianist.
The cuts that feature Callaway are "Christmas Lullaby" (a song of her own composition), "The Christmas Song" (Mel Tormé/Robert Wells), "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (Gannon/Kent/Ram), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Hugh Martin/Ralph Blane), and "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (Eddie Pola/George Wyle). All are sung to perfection, as is this artist's wont. The orchestra sounds great in these selections and in such other perennials as "White Christmas," "Jingle Bells," and "Sleigh Ride."
Haters of the sort of Christmas muzak heard in stores at this time of year will be happy to know that the album's arrangements and orchestrations are eminently tasteful yet exciting. The opening "Celebration of Christmas" medley includes one of my favorite Christmas tunes of all time, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" If it doesn't get you in the holiday mood, you should probably just hibernate until spring.
Led by the super-talented Michael McElroy, the Broadway Inspirational Voices Choir has become a musical force to be reckoned with over the past several years. In the new Sh-K-Boom album Great Joy: A Gospel Christmas, the group sheds new light on Christmas classics ranging from "Joy to the World" to "Go Tell It on the Mountain" to "Away in a Manger."
A perusal of the list of those who lend their voices to the choir will impress any Broadway-savvy listener; included are such familiar names as Shoshana Bean, Adriane Lenox, Sharon Wilkins, Marva Hicks, Capathia Jenkins, Darius de Haas, Gavin Creel, Billy Porter, Clarke Thorell, and Norm Lewis. You'll even find Phylicia Rashad listed among the altos! Equally impressive is the instrumental accompaniment, provided by the Nashville String Machine augmented by brass, woodwinds, and a full rhythm section. The variously moving and thrilling arrangements the work of Joseph Joubert, McElroy, and Buryl Reid.