Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Richard Williams: “Hollywood Christmas” (2022) CD Review

Composer and pianist Richard Williams’ new album, Hollywood Christmas, feels like it contains an entire holiday celebration in its seventy-four minutes of music, with its joyful big band and orchestral sounds, and the way certain songs flow one into another. The songs chosen are mainly the cheerful holiday favorites, including several that are about Santa Claus and snow and all the trappings of the season. Then, as the album progresses, and perhaps the children go to bed, we get into a few of the more serious songs. These tracks feature several vocalists, and the music was arranged and conducted by Richard Williams.

The album opens with “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” and the way this rendition sounds, I nearly believe it. This track features Alex Stiles on vocals, and he delivers an earnest and smooth performance. And backing him, the musicians at times seem ready to burst into tinsel and candy canes themselves. The sound of this track is exactly what many think of when they think that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. And don’t you just want to let the feeling wash over you? Don’t you want to take part in the celebration? Listening to this music certainly makes me want to. Then Nate Bryant delivers an equally bright vocal performance on “The Holiday Season,” with backing vocalists adding to the joy. This track is quite a bit of fun. “So whoop-de-doo and dickory-dock/And don’t forget to hang up your sock/‘Cause just exactly at twelve o’clock/He’ll be coming down the chimney, coming down the chimney.” That leads straight into “Happy Holiday,” which starts with a good deal of energy, and then eases out. Alex Stiles then returns to provide lead vocals on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).” This one eases in with some nice work on strings. Obviously, a good deal of thought went into the overall flow and effect of this album. This track features some good work on piano.

Richard Williams’ rendition of “White Christmas” begins with the orchestra, and once the beautiful, peaceful tone is established, Rebecca Lopez comes in on vocals. I love that section in the second half when it builds in power. That’s followed by “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” featuring both Evon Collett and Connor Ross on vocals. There is a playful bit of banter near the beginning between the two vocalists, which leads straight into the lyrics. That works because, hey, this is one of the goofier holiday songs, and it makes good sense to just completely dive into the playful aspect of it. And this track ends up being great fun. The band offers lots of joyful, bright bursts. Then we get a totally delightful rendition of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” featuring Taylor Miranda on vocals. She gives a lively, happy, excited performance, one that will likely get everyone into the spirit of the holiday. Plus, this track features a delicious lead on saxophone. And it does start to rock a bit, which is great. This is one of my personal favorites.

“Here Comes Santa Claus” is another of those songs that is mainly for children. This version features Hayley Kirkland and Connor Ross on vocals. It leads straight into “Jingle Bells.” “Jingle Bells” has never been one of my favorites, but this is a fairly enjoyable rendition, in large part because of the backing vocals. The backing vocalists then they dip into “Frosty The Snowman,” but just for a few seconds, and then it’s back into “Jingle Bells.” Then we get into more serious holiday material with “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which features an excellent vocal performance by Dmitry Noskov. Sadly, it contains the “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” line instead of the much more better and truer original lyric, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Still, this is seriously good rendition. Things then get fun again with a really nice rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” featuring Hayley Kirkland on lead vocals.

Benny Benack III joins the group on vocals for “Let It Snow,” keeping the festivities going. This one gets lively as it develops, then suddenly drops into “Up On The Housetop.” They wisely don’t stick with this one too long, for it’s not one of the best Christmas songs. Soon they are back into “Let It Snow.” That’s followed by “(There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays.” There is a dramatic swell at the beginning, feeling like an important moment in a film score. Then after forty-five seconds, Chelsea Brooke Olson comes in on vocals. Her approach at the beginning makes home seem like a magical place. After a bit, the song kicks in to become light and fun. Chelsea Brooke Olson also sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and again she creates a sort of magical land as she sings of home. Originally, this song was about soldiers wanting to be home for the holiday; now, we can imagine people all over the world, engaged in whatever activities they are busy with, thinking of home.

“Coming Home” is a beautiful instrumental piece that begins gently on piano, then starts to swell. It feels like we are coming around the bend to see our home all decorated and lit up, welcoming us. And as we reach our home, it goes right into “Somewhere In My Memory,” which then leads straight into “Someway, Somehow,” another pretty instrumental track featuring gorgeous work on strings. Both “Coming Home” and “Someway, Somehow” are original compositions. That leads back into “Somewhere In My Memory,” building wonderfully, and this time with vocal work by Julie Seechuk.

Those are the only tracks listed and named on the CD case, but there are actually eighteen more tracks on this disc, all instrumentals (more or less). We go back to the beginning of the disc, and start with “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” though this track isn’t entirely instrumental. The backing vocal work is still present, the “ding dong, ding dong” bit and even the song’s title line. And the album follows in order, going into “The Holiday Season,” which again includes the backing vocal work and leads straight into “Happy Holiday,” which also features the backing vocalists. The instrumental rendition of “The Christmas Song” gives us a chance to better appreciate the bass work, and the overall arc of the arrangement. And the instrumental version of “White Christmas” is a beautiful, peaceful track. Toward the end, the backing vocalists come in.

I particularly like the instrumental rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” After all, the lyrics to this song are nothing special. I love the drum work on this track. However, toward the end, the backing vocalists do come in to sing, “He sees you when you’re sleeping/He knows when you’re awake.” I wish this track were completely instrumental. That’s followed by “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” which also includes the backing vocal work. Then as “Here Comes Santa Claus” begins, the bass is clearly the star. It is a cool version, and it leads into “Jingle Bells,” which features the backing vocals, and then into “Frosty The Snowman” (this version exactly the same as the first version), and back into “Jingle Bells” with the backing vocalists.

The instrumental version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is sweet and intimate, and it builds into something beautiful. Near the end, we hear a bit from the backing vocalists. Then the piano is at the center of the instrumental version of “Winter Wonderland.” In the second half, the backing vocalists come in. That’s followed by “Let It Snow,” which goes into “Up On The Housetop” and back into “Let It Snow.” This version of “(There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays” has a warm and cheerful vibe. And again, the backing vocalists come in. The disc concludes with the instrumental rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Since that final medley is largely instrumental already, there was no need to include it a second time. Besides, this is a beautiful track with which to conclude things.

CD Track List

  1. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
  2. The Holiday Season >
  3. Happy Holiday
  4. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
  5. White Christmas
  6. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
  7. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree
  8. Here Comes Santa Claus >
  9. Jingle Bells >
  10. Frosty The Snowman >
  11. Jingle Bells
  12. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
  13. Winter Wonderland
  14. Let It Snow >
  15. Up On The Housetop >
  16. Let It Snow
  17. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays
  18. I’ll Be Home For Christmas
  19. Coming Home >
  20. Somewhere In My Memory >
  21. Someway, Somehow >
  22. Somewhere In My Memory
  23. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (instrumental)
  24. The Holiday Season (instrumental) >
  25. Happy Holiday (instrumental)
  26. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (instrumental)
  27. White Christmas (instrumental)
  28. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (instrumental)
  29. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (instrumental)
  30. Here Comes Santa Claus (instrumental) >
  31. Jingle Bells (instrumental) >
  32. Frosty The Snowman >
  33. Jingle Bells (instrumental)
  34. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (instrumental)
  35. Winter Wonderland (instrumental)
  36. Let It Snow (instrumental) >
  37. Up On The Housetop (instrumental) >
  38. Let It Snow (instrumental)
  39. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays (instrumental)
  40. I’ll Be Home For Christmas (instrumental)

Hollywood Christmas was released on October 21, 2022.

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