Monday, November 13, 2023

Bryan Lubeck: “Welcome Winter” (2023) CD Review

Bryan Lubeck is a talented jazz guitarist who delivers some traditional holiday fare on his new album, Welcome Winter. While the songs he’s chosen are traditional and popular numbers, his approach takes some of its inspiration from the work of pianist George Winston and other Windham Hill artists. For a long time, my favorite holiday album was another Windham Hill release, A Winter Solstice, which contains some beautiful music that leads us away from the hustle of ordinary life. This is a time of year when we need music that will soothe us, that will help us step away from the stress and cares that seem to want to consume us. Bryan Lubeck’s album offers music that is comforting as well as uplifting and joyful. It is not his first holiday album. He teamed up with Johannes Linstead and Tomas Michaud in 2006 to give us We Three Strings, which features tunes like “The First Noel,” “Little Drummer Boy” and of course “We Three Kings.” Bryan Lubeck does revisit a couple of songs that they included on that album, but for the most part on this new release he presents different material. He plays both lead guitar and rhythm guitar on this album. Joining him are Ryan Herma on rhythm guitar and mandolin (Herma also produced the album and did some of the arrangements), Nick Bisesi on flute, Erik Rumsa on violin, Katherine Hughes on violin, Lewis Hul Stahl on violin, Matthew Agnew on cello, Ted Yoder on dulcimer, Joel Norman on vibraphone, Luke Ratley on percussion, Nate Lacny on percussion, Jon Paul on bass, John Erickson on melodica, Eric Salazar on clarinet, Neil Artwick on piano, and Don Stiernberg on mandolin.

He opens the album with a popular Christmas song, “Deck The Halls.” This rendition establishes a sweet, light feel as it begins. The guitar then takes what would be the vocal part. I’ve often found that the instrumental renditions of certain holiday songs are far superior to the vocal versions, because the lyrics are just not that great. This song certainly fits in that category, and Bryan Lubeck’s rendition features some good work on piano and flute, in addition to his strong guitar work. The work on strings is moving, and it is that part that is the most soothing, while the main body of the track helps to lift our spirits. That’s followed by “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a song that was included on We Three Strings. The version here is quite different vibe. It has a more somber sound at the start, and the guitar soon becomes the focus, while that serious atmosphere remains below it. There is some beautiful work on strings, and the song takes on some power in the second half. This is an excellent rendition.

My personal favorite from this album is the title track, “Welcome Winter,” a beautiful, gentle, warm and friendly number. Its main theme on guitar has me close to tears, as it conjures up childhood memories and feelings, invites us to revisit some of the most comforting moments we’ve experienced. And who doesn’t wish for that? This is a gorgeous and moving piece. It is a great choice to add to your holiday play list, but is also one you’ll be happy to return to throughout the year. That’s followed by a pretty rendition of “The Christmas Song,” the song written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells. This track also makes me think of home, and those quieter moments of the holiday when everyone is relaxed, when a peaceful and loving feeling overtakes the house. I suppose we’re always trying to recapture those beautiful, fleeting moments, but we also keep them with us by remembering them. Bryan Lubeck then gives us “Jingle Bells,” a holiday song that is always better without its lyrics. Still, during an instrumental rendition like the one offered on this album, it is difficult to keep those vapid lines from running through our heads. The interesting thing about this rendition is that at the end Bryan Lubeck includes a nod to Wham’s “Last Christmas.”

“What Child Is This” is a song that was included on We Three Strings. Of course, as an instrumental, it is “Greensleeves.” It’s a song that was included on that Windham Hill album, A Winter Solstice, and one that I’ve loved since my childhood. This version by Bryan Lubeck begins with some wonderful work on guitar before getting more solidly into that familiar theme. This rendition has kind of a cool vibe, while retaining the song’s inherent beauty. That’s followed by “Mary Did You Know,” a song I really don’t like. It’s a more recent holiday song, and it has been undeservedly covered by several artists over the last few decades. It is much better as an instrumental, as delivered on this album. This track has a more serious vibe, and features some excellent work on guitar and strings. The album then concludes with “Carol Of The Bells,” ones of the best of the classic tunes heard during the holidays. Bryan Lubeck delivers a good rendition that is somehow both exciting and soothing.

CD Track List

  1. Deck The Halls
  2. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
  3. Welcome Winter
  4. The Christmas Song
  5. Jingle Bells
  6. What Child Is This
  7. Mary Did You Know
  8. Carol Of The Bells

Welcome Winter was released on November 3, 2023.

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