Louis Armstrong: Louis Wishes You a Cool Yule (Verve/UMe CD). This is the late Armstrong’s first Christmas album, although some of his recordings have been included on seasonal compilations for decades. There are 11 tracks, including six singles from the 1950s, among them “Cool Yule,” “Christmas Night in Harlem” and the swinging, humorous “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” There also are two duets: a fun one with Velma Middleton on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” performed in front of an audience, and a masterful Ella Fitzgerald one on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”

The opening “Cool Yule” has a big band arrangement, while his version of “Winter Wonderland” is more intimate. A toast to his home city is “Christmas in New Orleans,” with his joyful trumpet and a swinging sound. String-filled is his version of “White Christmas.”

Less to do with Christmas are Armstrong’s classic “What A Wonderful World,” which always raises the spirits, and the nostalgic “Moments to Remember.”

The album closes with a previously unreleased track. A few weeks before he passed in the summer of 1971, Armstrong turned on the tape recorder in his home in Queens, New York and twice recorded a spoken-word version of Samuel Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” aka “The Night Before Christmas.” One version was released previously on a 45-rpm single. The version here is underscored by Sullivan Fortner’s newly recorded piano accompaniment, which is unnecessary and obtrusive at times. The set lacks any recording credit information. Grade: A-

Jane Monheit: The Merriest (Club44 CD). This is the second Christmas album for jazz singer Monheit, as she also released “The Season” in 2005. Produced by Rick Montalbano, the songs were handpicked by Monheit. The album serves up a blend of well- and lesser-known holiday standards, performed by her warm, inviting voice.

The more well-known standards, such as “The Christmas Song,” “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland,” presented in their own special way. She scats on both “Let It Snow” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Her voice also soars on the latter, one of the album’s best tracks. There is a lighter touch on “The Christmas Song” and a sweet take on “Christmastime is Here,” from the Peanuts’ TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Many of the highlights, though, are the lesser-known songs. “That Holiday Feelin’,” composed by Joe Guercio and Bill and Patty Jacob, rose to fame around 1964 as performed by Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme (aka Steve and Edie). Here the duet is with John Pizzarelli. “(Christmas) Stay with Me,” originally composed by Cy Coleman and David Zippel for the 1989 Broadway musical, “City of Angels,” features lush orchestration.

The album ends with an upbeat “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” featuring an alto sax solo by Joel Frahm. Grade: A

 

Holiday cheer comes with a new Neil Diamond compilation. Courtesy Capitol/UMe

 

Neil Diamond: A Neil Diamond Christmas (Capitol/UMe, 2 CDs). The compilation features a disc of 11 secular songs and another of 12 religious songs, with each disc also having a medley. All tracks are previously released, with 13 from coming from “The Christmas Album” (1992), six from “The Christmas Album II” (1994), with both albums produced by Peter Asher, five from “Acoustic Christmas” (2016)” and only “A Cherry, Cherry Christmas” from the 2009 compilation of that name.

The secular disc is Diamond at his best and includes his own “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” and “Cherry, Cherry Christmas.” There is a punchy, upbeat “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with harmonica, a sax driven “The Christmas Song” and choirs on “Morning Has Broken” and “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” the latter with children as is customary. “Silver Bells” is given a different flavor with pedal steel and “Winter Wonderland” features both a guitar solo and horns.

Choirs also are used on “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and O Come All Ye Faithful” on the more traditional-sounding religious disc. In fact, ten of the songs are traditional, most adapted by Diamond with a collaborator. There is a nice acoustic version of “Mary’s Boy Child,” while “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is sung with The 139th Street Quartet, “Angels We Have Heard on High” with the Ambrosian Singers and the upbeat “Joy to the World” with the Soul Children of Chicago. Also nice is Diamond’s own “Christmas Prayers.” Grade: A+

Original Broadway Cast: A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical (UMe CD). When looking at Diamond’s discography for the Christmas album review, I was struck by how many wonderful memories I had of his early albums and songs. Emphasizing that point is this fine original cast album of the new musical made up of Diamond-penned songs and based on his life and career, with the book by Anthony McCarten (screenwriter of “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Directed by Michael Mayer, the song arrangements are by Sonny Paladino and the orchestrations by Bob Gaudio, Paladino, and Brian Usifer. Gaudio, of course, was a member and songwriter for the Four Seasons and produced six Diamond albums and his “Jazz Singer” soundtrack.

The excellent Will Swenson (“Lestat,” “Hair,” “Assassins”) plays and sings, with a suitable low voice, the younger Diamond, and that means he performs the bulk of the songs. The first act is a hit parade, within a dramatic retelling of Diamond’s 1960s beginnings. The second act features sequined, post-1960s concerts spliced, with dialogue from a broken marriage and flashbacks to a lonely childhood (during “Brooklyn Roads”). The show wraps up with emotional resolve in “I Am … I Said” ((Mark Jacoby’s sole solo number) and the ensemble “Holy.”

The older, “current” Diamond is performed by Jacoby, while Robyn Hurder plays Marcia Murphey, Diamond’s production assistant who became his second wife in 1969 and with whom he had two sons. The marriage lasted 25 years, but his constant touring put a strain on it. Bria Sudia plays fellow Brill Building songwriter Elie Greenwich, Diamond’s mentor – heard in the nicely done “Neil Pitches Songs: I’ll Come Running / I Got the Feelin’ (Oh No, No) / I’m a Believer” and, shortly thereafter, “Demo Medley: The Boat That I Row / Red Red Wine / Kentucky Woman.” Linda Powell plays the doctor whose psychoanalysis opens and closes the show.

The younger Diamond is depressed even after he achieves hits, first for other acts and then himself. He craves success on his own terms in order to feed his family. The older Diamond seeks to cleanse himself from the darkness that made his younger years so painful and ruined two marriages. Diamond goes to his therapist (Powell) in hoping to come to terms with his “demons.” His first two marriages dissolve during “Love on the Rocks,” with Jessie Fisher as first-wife Jaye Posner, and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” with Hurder. Swenson is fine in both. He also is excellent in “Kentucky Women,” “Solitary Man” and other Diamond classics.

One song with a nice new arrangement is “Cracklin’ Rosie,” while an exuberant “Sweet Caroline” ends the first act. Early in act two, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” is a vocal workout, especially for Swenson. Throughout the show, the 10-member Beautiful Noise provides backup vocals. Grade: A

2022 Broadway Cast: Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (MM Recordings/Time Life, 2 CDs). Two-time Tony, Grammy and Emmy winner Hugh Jackman made his highly anticipated return to Broadway as Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s beloved classic. Two-time Tony-winning star Sutton Foster co-starred as librarian Marian Paroo. The production was directed by four-time Tony winner Jerry Zaks, with choreography by Tony winner Warren Carlyle. With the addition of some musical numbers, the cast album is expanded over two discs. Unfortunately, the second disc stopped playing after the third selection, so this review will be incomplete.

Musical instrument salesman/con artist Hill says there is trouble in River City, Iowa, when he arrives in town. He blames pool and proposes the town start a band. His plans are spoiled, however, when he falls in love with the strait-laced librarian Marian. The classic musical features the classic songs “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Trouble,” “‘Til There Was You,” “Pickalittle” (one of several very wordy songs, along with “Shipoopi”) and “Gary, Indiana.” “Marian the Librarian” remains one of my all-time favorite songs, and the ensemble does well on “The Wells Fargo Wagon.”

This production earned Tony Award nominations for Best Revival of a Musical; actors Jackman, Sutton, and Jayne Houdyshell (as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn); Santo Loquasto for Best Costume Design; and Wayne Carlyle for Best Choreography.

The discs come with a 24-page booklet. Grade: incomplete

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

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