In the dense annual blizzard of holiday albums, A VERY SPECIAL ACOUSTIC CHRISTMAS shines like a gleaming treetop star from a warm, inviting living room, thanks to its organic, no-frills approach and its remarkable lineup of performers. Dan Tyminski (of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? fame) offers up a charming version of "Frosty the Snowman," while Willie Nelson lends his legendary voice and guitar playing to a fine take on "Please Come Home for Christmas." Alison Krauss contributes her surprisingly poppy "Only You Can Bring Me Cheer (Gentleman's Lady)," Marty Stuart confides that "Even Santa Claus Gets the Blues," and Pat Green saunters through a relaxed "Winter Wonderland." Bringing the Yuletide album to an appropriate close is Norah Jones, in a beautiful solo rendition of Horace Silver's "Peace".
Building on her well-represented holiday catalog, Christmas with Judy Collins is essentially a reissue of the folk artist's 2000 release All on a Wintry Night, padded with two additional songs. All 14 tracks from Wintry Night are featured here in their original sequence with the addition of a new single, the western-tinged "Angels in the Snow" leading off the album, and a stirring, largely a cappella version of "Amazing Grace" closing it out. Fans of Collins' rich, warm voice will enjoy some of the more stripped-down arrangements, which feature her singing to a simple piano accompaniment on lesser-known carols like "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "Cherry Tree Carol." On the other hand, the dated synthesizer sounds on tracks like "Come Rejoice" and "Good King Wenceslas" sound rather homogenous and the spoken intro over the faux-strings of "Away in a Manger" is far too heavy-handed to take seriously. Fortunately, the bulk of the album's 16 tracks favor the more minimalist arrangements keeping Collins' lovely voice at the forefront without much distraction.
Recorded in 1985, The Spirit of Christmas finds Ray Charles performing a variety of holiday favorites with vocal assistance from the Raelettes and an appearance by jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The ten tracks mix standards and originals, including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and the ballad "That Spirit of Christmas," which was featured in the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. The Spirit of Christmas is perfect background music for any holiday celebration.
Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass add plenty of spice to this Christmas jazz CD, not only with superb, fresh charts but a few surprising selections. The rich brass and reeds carry the deliberate rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which segues into a perky Latin-flavored chart of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." "Away in a Manger" is not the commonly heard melody but one first written in 1887, though the music will likely be familiar, even if one doesn't associate it with the well-known lyrics. The lush setting of "The Christmas Song," which likely set Mel Tormé and Bob Wells for life with royalty checks due to its many recordings, showcases the leader's valve trombone and pianist David Restivo. "My Favorite Things," originally written for The Sound of Music, has gradually been transformed into double duty as a Christmas carol; this swinging interpretation works very well. Johnny Mandel, the composer of many memorable melodies, deserves greater recognition for his gorgeous piece "A Christmas Love Song"; this arrangement deserved to help put it on the jazz map. Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass consistently delivered first-rate music throughout their existence, this holiday CD no exception.