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CD Reviews: Diana Krall, Jane Monheit – Battle of the Christmas Jazz Divas

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Ho ho ho, what do you know… the two “it girls” of vocal jazz both released holiday CDs this year within days of each other… first it was Jane Monheit with the ambiguously titled The Season … then came Diana Krall’s aptly named Christmas Songs. So who emerges victorious in this battle of the Christmas jazz divas?

The first thing to consider, of course: who has the most gratuitous glamour shot on the album cover? Diana‘s suggestive and/or very uncomfortable pose in some kind of lawn chair wearing a billowy shiny green dress (strategically revealing as much leg as possible) is a real contender… but Jane‘s heavily airbrushed/photoshopped snow bunny/nymphette get-up (complete with floating bubbles for no apparent reason) is the clear winner in this category.

On to the tunes… I have to look closely at Jane’s disc before putting it in the CD player… it’s one of them newfangled “DualDisc” deals with a CD on one side and DVD on the other — you can only tell the difference by looking closely at the tiny little print around the hole in the middle… once you’ve figured that out, you know you’re in for a rocky ride when the soft-rock contempo-easy backbeat of “This Christmas” kicks in… you gotta give Ms. Monheit credit for trying to come up with some fresh material here, but this is some really cringe-inducing stuff… things don’t get much better with “Merry Christmas Darling,” a comatose, melody-free bit of nothing featuring a tinkly electric piano solo and overdubbed backing vocals. Things pick up on the more jazzy swingin’ tracks such as “Man with the Bag” and “Sleighride”… however on ballads like “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Have Yourself a Merry Litte Christmas,” Jane reveals a disturbing tendency toward Mariah-esque melisma that will make your skin crawl. The guitar/vocal rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is nice, but next thing you know you’re awash in the treacly jazz/pop crossover of “My Grown Up Christmas List” and heading straight for the eggnog… I do give Jane a lot of credit, though, for including the somewhat neglected holiday classic “The Christmas Waltz” (one that Diana apparently overlooked or just doesn’t like…)

What about the DVD side of this “revolutionary DualDisc,”? Wow, folks… it’s amateur hour at Epic Records… a faceless actor in the shadows pretending to be a radio host interviews Jane (looking refreshingly like a normal person) about a few of the songs on the album, interspersed with badly lip-synched “videos” of those songs which consist entirely of soft-focus waist-to-head shots of Ms. Monheit uncomfortably hamming it up for the camera.. yikes… oh, and you can also listen to the entire album in “enhanced stereo” (whatever that is)… the best plan is to simply skip the flip side… better yet, save yourself a few bucks and get the normal CD version if you intend to buy this album despite its weaknesses (when it’s available again, that is: the original discs were recalled as part of the Sony copy protection “rootkit” debacle…)

So what does Ms. Krall have in store for us? No videos, for starters… in fact, Diana’s no frills approach pays off here with a surefire holiday hit parade backed by no-nonsense solid swinging arrangements performed by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Most tunes are of the light and fun variety, and the ballads are sentimental without being maudlin. The only “surprising” selections are the always welcome “Christmas Time is Here” from everyone’s favorite Peanuts TV special and the thoughtful “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” as a closer. Diana’s subdued, effortless, and lightly orchestrated “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the perfect antidote to Jane’s self-consciously melodramatic and over-precious version of the same song on The Season. Overall… no clunkers, no shockers, all cozy and cheery, just as a Christmas album should be.

Decision: Diana Krall over Jane Monheit by a (gentle) knockout…

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  • John

    Very true… Here’s my list of christmas jazz songs.