Review: Christmas is Here

With material as tried, true and in some cases worn smooth as Deanna Reuben tackles on Christmas Is Here, the focus quickly shifts to her own approach – and Reuben, a former classical and opera singer, delivers the goods.

Christmas Is Here features a slate of expected Yuletide chestnuts, from “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “Silver Bells” and “The Christmas Song.” The revelations, however, come early and often – beginning with Reuben’s joy-filled, yet delectably measured delivery. Very much in the style of a June Christy, this Pennsylvania native interprets these songs in an approachably learned manner that will delight fans of both jazz and pop. She’s able to project a whisper of winking sensuality without damaging the setting’s wholesome atmosphere, no easy thing.

The album is also pushed along, often with fizzy delight, by a crack team of Philadelphia-area musical vets – notably saxophonist Larry McKenna. Reuben’s band is rounded out by Paul Colombo on guitar, Steve Varner on bass and Jason Long on piano, Long also handled the arrangements on Christmas is Here. The bulk of the drumming duties were handled by Dan Monaghan, with Byron Landham sitting in on a trio of tunes.

Together, they breathe new life into songs that, on the face of them, would seem to have little tread left after countless readings.

For “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Long’s spritely, West Coast-inspired asides are brilliantly countermanded by Monaghan’s insistent clatterings. Reuben, whose classical career was cut short by a vocal injury, moves with a witty grace through the proceedings, ramping up for a bold finish. They then combine Ted Shapiro’s “Winter Weather” with the Stein-Cahn classic “Let It Snow,” making a connection that should have been there all along. “A Christmas Love Song,” the Johnny Mandel favorite, finds Colombo’s guitar moving to the fore – and his ruminative lines only add to the smoky intrigue of Reuben’s loving take on the lyric. Glenn Barratt – the engineer and mixer on this date – then adds a cheeky background vocal as Reuben appropriates Eartha Kitt’s devilish whisper on “Santa Baby.”

McKenna’s brawny intro to “Silver Bells” is then the latest signal that Reuben isn’t about to settle for the rote route. They swing this song with a feverish delight. Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song,” on the other hand, is given a more straight-forward reading, though Monaghan remains active with the brushes, giving the song a quiet propulsion. Colombo’s Wes Montgomery-style riffs imbue “The Christmas Waltz” with a cool modernity, before Long and Varner tangle through a brilliant improv section. Reuben’s performance smoothly moves from a child-like innocence to a battered adult hopefulness on “My Grown Up Christmas List,” a track from David Foster and Linda Thompson Jenner that represents the album’s least-known moment.

McKenna’s retorts on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and a wonderfully flirtatious version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” give both songs a deeper emotional resonance – and Reuben matches him stride for stride. Long’s crystalline intro to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” shimmering and direct, then sets the stage for one of Reuben’s most controlled performances. There’s plenty of room for the treacly here, and she walks that fine line like a circus acrobat.

Not everything connects. Barry Ciabattoni joins Reuben in a game, but ultimately too safe, update of the Ray Charles-Betty Carter favorite “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” They simply don’t share the same chemistry. But far more often, as on the closing “Silent Night,” Reuben and Co. find new corners to explore even in a house of songs so familiar as to be navigable even amidst a Christmas Eve slumber. The song unfolds like a loving embrace, the perfect ending for an album of sugar-plum surprises.

  • Artist: Deanna Reuben
  • Album: Christmas Is Here
  • Reviewer: Nick DeRiso
  • Rating: 4 stars

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