New Holiday Fare in Take Five, From Keb' Mo', Ana Gasteyer, Dave Stryker and Barney McAll

Dec 8, 2019

Have you broken the seal on Christmas music yet? Because we sure have.

We’ve already talked here about Big Band Holidays II, the latest season’s greeting from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Here are selections from five more spirited new Christmas releases — and one welcome reissue. Consider it fodder for your holiday playlists, if not your wish list. And keep an ear out for these and other Yuletide favorites on the air at WBGO.

Keb’ Mo’, “Christmas is Annoying”

Keb’ Mo’s first holiday album, Moonlight, Mistletoe & You, could hardly be faulted for a dearth of sincerity. Along with the title track, an imploring ballad with a sax solo by Gerald Albright, it includes several new songs of joy and peace — and hope, on a ballad called “When the Children Sing,” featuring a choir that does just that. (“La-la la, la, la, la, la, la-la,” goes one of their answering refrains. If only they could have started with a “Fa.”)

But it isn’t all gingerbread and candy canes. The album has a prowling take on “Merry, Merry Christmas,” by Koko Taylor, and a rip-roaring “Santa Claus, Santa Claus,” made famous by Louis Jordon. In a more playful and Grinchy mode, Keb’ Mo’ offers an original with a winking premise: “Christmas is Annoying.”

A light, jaunty tune that finds Keb’ Mo’ backed only by acoustic bassist Scott Mulvahill and drummer Neil Tufano, “Christmas is Annoying” invokes a handful of holiday hassles: incessant advertising, maxed credit cards, crass commercialism.

The magic of Christmas, per the logic of the song, loses its luster as one enters adulthood. The video turns this tongue-in-cheek complaint inside out, with Keb’ Mo’ behaving like, well, a kid on Christmas morning — while a couple of actual children look on with jaded disapproval. Go on, spike that punch, kids!

Keb’ Mo’ performs on Tuesday in Albany, N.Y.; on Thursday in Salisbury, Mass.; on Friday in Portland, Me.; and on Saturday in Collingswood, N.J. He performs in Newton, N.J. on Dec. 19. Visit his website for details and more dates.

Ana Gasteyer, “Sugar and Booze”

Speaking of spiking the punch, Ana Gasteyer — Saturday Night Live alum, Broadway vet, and according to internet rumor, the Christmas tree on The Masked Singer — has a new album called Sugar & Booze. As you’d expect, it’s a zippy, irreverent ride, with Gasteyer often dialing up the camp. But she is the real deal as a singer, and the loungy big band charts are smarter than they strictly need to be. 

Consider the title track, which could soundtrack some (hopefully harmless) indiscretions at your next office holiday party. “Once a year we all deserve some fun,” Gasteyer sings in the bridge. “Life is short, so why live like a nun?”

Dave Stryker and Eight Track, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

Earlier this year, guitarist Dave Stryker released Eight Track III, the latest album by a soul-jazz combo whose ranks include vibraphonist Stefon Harris, organist Jared Gold and drummer McClenty Hunter. All of those players are back on deck for Eight Track Christmas, which Stryker made after recognizing a niche to be filled. 


Some of the tunes, like Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” seem almost predestined for this album’s track list. A bit more surprising is Stryker’s reharmonized funk arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which captures this band at its most relaxed and grooving.

Dave Stryker and his Eight Track Band will be at Jazz on the Mountain, at the Mohonk Mountain House on Jan. 11.

Dave Koz, “Last Christmas”

If ever there was a musician to make a cottage industry out of Christmas, it’s smooth-jazz saxophonist Dave Koz, who recently embarked on his 22nd annual Dave Koz and Friends Christmas tour, and released Gifts of the Season, his seventh Christmas album.

Let me say for the record that I have no problem with any of this; the solicitous gleam in Koz’s music is a natural fit for this time of year, and he knows how to tie a familiar melody in a bow. For a case in point, look no further than his version of “Last Christmas,” by Wham! — a near-perfect pairing of musician and material, from the opening wah-wah slide to the closing fade.

The Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour stops in North Bethesda, Md. on Monday; in Columbus, Oh. on Wednesday; in Cleveland, Oh. on Thursday; and in Chicago on Friday. Visit his website for details and more dates.

Barney McAll, “Deep River (ft. Rita Satch)”

Of course, Christmas also invites reflection of a spiritual sort. That can be true even for those who aren’t observing it as a religious holiday. I can’t say where Barney McAll stands on the issue of faith, but he’s certainly on the side of introspection. Take his new album, An Extra Celestial Christmas, which he’ll release on Friday. As the title somewhat cheekily implies, it’s an album on which McAll plays celeste (along with organ, keyboards and percussion), in a kind of far-out spiritual mode.


On “Deep River,” an African American spiritual with a storied pedigree, McAll’s twinkling chords can call to mind the lullaby of a windup baby mobile. But the song has a deeper resonance that its guest vocalist, Rita Satch, carefully delivers — with understatement, with patience, and eventually with an overdubbed choir. (An actual choir, the acclaimed University of Houston Chorale Choir, graces another track on the album, which McAll composed for a six-channel sound installation in partnership with artist Janet Biggs. This is that kind of album.) 

The Barney McAll Trio performs on Friday at Uptown Jazz Club in Melbourne, Australia.

Ramsey Lewis Trio, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Finally, as we all know, sometimes the best gift is a vintage classic. Ramsey Lewis made More Sounds Of Christmas in 1964, as a follow-up to his successful Sound Of Christmas, from a few years prior. Somehow it hadn’t been reissued as a standalone album until this year, when Verve put out standard editions on CD and LP. On “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the action starts with trio alone — Lewis on piano, Eldee Young on bass and Red Holt on drums — before a bluesy build-up involving orchestral strings, with a trombone solo by John Avant.