Richard Nisley


Holiday Cheer III
Pop Culture Released - Dec 11, 2019
Reviewed below are seven Holiday releases: one movie, and six CDs

(1) HOLIDAY AFFAIR (B/W, DVD, 1949)

Blend toy trains, children, the bustle of the New York City Christmas season, then add a touch of romance, stir well, and you have the makings of a magical Holiday movie. Starring Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, HOLIDAY AFFAIR didn't exactly set the world on fire when first released; in fact, it lost money. Not until TCM (Turner Classic Movies) began airing it some years ago did the movie find an audience. It's not exactly a Christmas classic, but worth seeing for Robert Mitchum's way with wooing a young, starry-eyed boy and his winsome mother.

Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) is recently widowed, and protective of her young son (who reminds her of her late husband). To make ends meet she becomes a comparative shopper, and buys an expensive toy train from a rival department store, where she meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum, at his most charming and debonair). That night her curious son discovers the train and naturally thinks it's for him. He's deeply disappointed when his mother returns the train the next day. Mitchum's character suspects she is a comparative shopper and says he should report her to the store detective, which she says will get her fired. She explains she is a war widow with a son to support, and Mitchum relents; he refunds her the money, which, ironically, gets him fired.

One thing leads to another, and Mitchum shows up at her apartment, where he meets her son and her fiancé (played by actor Wendell Corey, who in the movies never gets the girl; he doesn't get the girl this time either). In the end, the son gets the train he wants (thanks to Mitchum's generous spirit), and of course Mitchum gets the girl. The film features a cameo appearance by Harry Morgan as a harried police chief. His comic timing is priceless, and reminiscent of grumpy Colonel Potter he would play in the 1970's sitcom "Mash."

(2) JACK JONES–"CHRISTMAS IS" (CD, 1969)

Jack Jones’ warm baritone was made for the holidays. "Christmas Is" is the 1969 followup to "The Jack Jones Christmas Album" from 1964, which was a very special holiday album, indeed. Rather than repeat himself, Jones tries a new tact, blending familiar holiday classics ("Silver Bells", "O Holy Night" etc.) with tunes not usually associated with Christmas but religious in nature ("Oh, Happy Day", and "Little Altar Boy") which are given a gospel treatment that Jones handles with convincing ease. Throw in a contemporary tune ("Christmas Is") and this 1969 recording is a successful change of pace. I particularly like his version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that features the original bitter-sweet lyrics and a modern arrangement. If you enjoy Jack Jones' singing Christmas tunes you'll get infinite pleasure from his decidedly different approach to Holiday music. The feeling I get listening to this album is that the forces at work were not merely trying to make a great Holiday album, but rather a great album.

(3) THE COUNT BASIE BAND: "A SWINGIN' BASIE CHRISTMAS" (CD, 2015)

Yes, the Count Basie Band is back (minus the Count, who passed away in 1984), making one wonderful Christmas album. This is jazz in the big band tradition–robust, tasteful, brimming with Holiday joy. And featuring a number of special guests. Who knew Johnny Mathis could swing this hard, as he does on "It's the Holiday Season"? And saxophonist Plas Johnson, who lit up so many Sinatra/Riddle albums back in the day, performing his magic on "I'll Be Home for Christmas." And Ellis Marsalis on keys, livening up "Let it Snow" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas." And Ledisi with her miraculous voice, singing "The Christmas Song" (the only version I know that rivals Nat Cole's classic account). And Llew Mathews on keys doing one of my favorite numbers of the set–"Good 'Swing' Wenceslas." And Carmen Bradford singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". Cheers!

(4) THE JOY OF CHRISTMAS (CD, 1990)

Leonard Bernstein’s homage to classic (and mostly English) Christmas carols, augmented by the lush voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Perfection. Added to this release is Tchaikovky’s "Nutcracker Suite" (minus “Waltz of the Flowers”); “Children’s Prayer” from the opera “Hansel and Gretel”–which fits the Christmas mood perfectly–and the capper, the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah." An hour and fifteen minutes of Christmas joy, imaginatively arranged and beautifully performed, in sparkling sound, and bargain priced. What’s not to like?

(5) THE NUTCRACKER (Excerpts) (CD, 1964)

There’s “The Nutcracker,” “The Nutcracker Suite” and this, “The Nutcracker (excerpts).” There is a difference: “The Nutcracker” is the entire “Nut,” an hour and 20 minutes of holiday joy. The Suite, compiled by the composer, lasts of all of 22 minutes. The "excerpts" falls somewhere in between, and consumes 48 minutes. This release, conducted by Eugene Ormandy and the resplendent Philadelphia Orchestra, is a performance of the excerpts, and a glorious performance it is. Ormandy was something of a specialist when it came to Tchaikovsky's music, with legendary accounts of Tchaikovsky’s 4th, 5th and 6th symphonies. Which makes this holiday music special indeed. I should mention the advantage of the “Nutcracker (excerpts)” is that it showcases only the most memorable tunes from Act I and features nearly all of Act II–in other words, all the good stuff. Unless you're a completist, you will not miss what has been cut. I have all three accounts and listen mostly to this one. Bottom line: if you’re looking for a wonderful account of the Nutcracker (minus the humdrum music of Act I) this will do splendidly. The sound has been refreshed thanks to a digital remastering.

(6) THE SNOW MAIDEN (CD 1995)

Christmas music? Not really, but it is winter music, and worthwhile because it's Tchaikovsky at his melodic best, with noted conductor Neemi Jarvi at the helm, who was born to celebrate music dismissed by jet-set conductors. Leave it to Neemi Jarvi to resurrect "The Snow Maiden" from years of neglect, and to record it with a major orchestra (The Detroit Symphony) on a major label (Chandos) in sparkling digital sound. Was it worth the fuss? Absolutely. This is wonderfully evocative music, gentle as the falling snow, and biting as the chill winter wind. It's an early piece by Tchaikovsky, but amply displays his genius: rich melodies, haunting themes, and a talent for composing for voice. The composition mixes long orchestral passages with sections for choir and vocalists. I listen to this music while making lunch, balancing my check-book, and driving my car. And each time I hear something new, and wonder why "The Snow Maiden" is not performed more often.

(7) CRESCENT CITY CHRISTMAS CARD (2002) – WYNTON MARSALIS

Are you tired of hearing Bing, Perry, Andy and Johnny singing familiar Christmas standards every Christmas season? Want to add some zing to your holiday music? Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his merry band of jazzy elves provide a welcome alternative. On "Crescent City Christmas Card," the old and familiar are retooled and made shiny-new again. This is cool jazz New Orleans style–spritely, in your face, at times dissonant, at times bluesy, and always bursting with freshness. Marsalis swings on "The Carol of the Bells" while he gives "Silent Night" a sweet bluesy feel, and on "Let It Snow!" an all-out big-band arrangement. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Little Drummer Boy" are pure instrumental genius, while the arrangement and vocal recitation of "T'was The Night Before Christmas" sounds like something from Aaron Copland's clever book of music. Let Wynton Marsalis spice up your holidays, and hear Christmas music in a whole new way.

Merry Christmas! - Rich
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