Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues – Bullseye Blues (1994)/Craft Recordings CR002386 (2020) stereo vinyl, 50:25 *****1/2:
(Charles Brown – piano, celeste, vocals; Clifford Solomon – tenor saxophone; Dannon Caron – guitar; Ruth Davies – double bass; Gaylord Birch – drums; Johnny Otis – vibes; Bobby Forte – tenor saxophone)
Christmas music has always been synonymous with a very specific time of year. From the sublime recordings of symphonies and choirs to mainstream cultural oddities, each year a carved out six-week time portal would overwhelm our senses with holiday spirit. Among the uplifting standards like “The Christmas Song”, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and even “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, occasional melancholy seeps into the culture. Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas”, Simon & Garfunkel’s “ 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” and Leon Russel’s “Slipping Into Christmas” are examples of this. The blues context may be the perfect vehicle for distilling the ambivalence of this season. The legendary Charles Brown recorded “Please Come Home For Christmas” in 1960. This single was the antithesis of Christmas cheer, but is a classic.
In 1994, Brown released an album of holiday songs, Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues. Craft Recordings has come out with a first-time ever vinyl. The smooth, low-keyed delivery and solid arrangements are a great fit for this classic quintet (Brown/piano, Clifford Solomon/tenor saxophone, Dannon Caron/guitar; Ruth Davies/double bass and Gaylord Birch/drums). Side 1 opens with the relaxed flow of “Merry Christmas”. With a first-line verse repeat, Brown’s dulcet baritone voice washes over the listener. Guitarist Dannon Caron and tenor saxophonist Clifford Solomon effortlessly solo as Brown fills in adroitly on piano. This has become a standard, recorded by many singers, including Otis Redding and Bruce Springsteen. In up tempo West Coast swing (“Santa’s Blues”), Brown laments his missing lover and implores Santa to…”make me happy on Christmas day”. Brown’s piano run is concise and executed with flair. Whether it’s Kris Kringle or the local bartender, a blues singer can get their message across. Slowing things down, “Blue Holiday” exudes loneliness in the plaintive vocal translation. Brown’s minimalist piano and sultry tenor lines add to the somber mood. Taking on the churchly “Silent Night” is an interesting choice. Brown reinvents the song as gospel-infused soul with jazzy chords and a deft piano solo. Reverting to swing again, “Christmas Comes But Once A Year” percolates with Johnny Otis on vibes (who has a great solo) and another saxophone (Bobby Forte). The muscular arrangement is a raucous, show-stopping jam. Brown eschews the ruminative gloom for joyful (for the blues) celebration. The side concludes with the definitive “Please Come Home For Christmas”. Brown intones”…Bells will be ringing, the sad, sad news. Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues…”) in the greatest ode to holiday depression in history. It is timeless, quintessential blues!
There is musical texture throughout Cool Christmas Blues. “A Song For Christmas” has a delicate shading in the nearly two-minute intro. Brown shines on his piano solo with nimble eloquence. His vocals are tender with just the right amount of emotion. On “Stay With Me” the band rocks out, led by Brown’s muscular lines.. This is a straight-forward call out to his woman in blues-speak. Caron’s’s sprightly guitar licks and Solomon’s soulful accents contribute to this festive jam. The instrumental cohesion of the group is at an optimal level. Not surprisingly, there is a segue to a ballad (“To Someone I Love”). It is indicative of the vocal flexibility of this performer. In another “late-night.” translation, Brown croons with jazzy nuance as Caron and Solomon set the proper mood. Good albums usually have a big finish…this one is no exception. After a tiny “Auld Lang Syne” reference, hand-clapping breaks out on “Bringing In A Brand New Year”. The dual saxophones trade off solos exuberantly with harmony. Ruth Davies gets a well-deserved solo before handing if off to Caron. The repeat-filled coda is terrific!
Craft Recordings has done an outstanding job in re-mastering Charles Brown’s Cool Christmas Blues to its vinyl debut. There is minimal surface noise and no hisses or pops on this pressing. This is a Christmas album that you can listen to anytime.
Side 1: Merry Christmas Baby; Santa’s Blues; Blue Holiday; Silent Night; Christmas Comes But Once A Year; Please Come Home For Christmas
Side 2: A Song For Christmas; Stay With Me; To Someone That I Love; Christmas In Heaven; Bringing In A Brand New Year
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