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Music Review: Maria Muldaur – Christmas at the Oasis

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For many listeners, the song title “Yule That’s Cool” could be a good summation of Maria Muldaur’s new Christmas collection, Christmas at the Oasis. It’s cool alright–it’s hip from the first track to the last. On the other hand, that’s a hot band behind her, and this CD could warm up any holiday gathering whether there’s two of you in the room or the full office staff.

Recorded live at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco, this concert had a limited release last winter. But for 2011, Global Recording Artists is hoping for a wider distribution, and you’re invited to the party. According to Muldaur, there were several reasons for this set. First, while she’s been doing Christmas songs live for years, she was reluctant to put out an album, wanting to be the only artist who never did a Christmas record. Then Bob Dylan released his, and that seemed to inspire her.  She became annoyed with the “onslaught of the same old sentimental, sappy, overdone, pedestrian Christmas tunes” we hear every year. So Muldaur decided to offer her personal favorite songs using her very jazzy stage band as an “antidote” to all that sap.

Gratefully, she found all the right ingredients for that antidote. Much of the recipe is revealed on the opening instrumental “Sleigh Ride,” led by musical director Jim Rothermel. He also plays all the Dixieland-flavored horns and woodwinds, including saxophone and clarinet. He’s joined by John R. Burr (piano), Jeff Massanari (guitar), Ruth Davies (bass), and Kent Bryson (drums). All get extended solos and featured spotlights throughout the selections. In fact, even without a lead singer, this would be a holiday jam that cooks!

But this is a Maria Muldaur concert, and we first hear her on the shuffle “Boogie Woogie Santa,” sending the unmistakable signal this will be an evening of swinging entertainment with no sap allowed. As usual, Muldaur’s performance runs a wide range of moods. In just one song, a world weary lyric starts off “Christmas Blues” before the band kicks into another jumping shuffle. Muldaur is sultry (“Santa Baby,” “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You”) and humorous (“Zat You Santa Claus?”). She draws from a very rich well of influences, notably Louis Prima in “What Will Santa Claus Say” and Charles Brown (“Merry Christmas Baby”).

At Muldaur’s party, Santa is the man who gets around. He’s watching you “At The Christmas Ball” and staying up till 3 am during “Christmas Night In Harlem.” The ride concludes with “Winter Wonderland,” another extended instrumental jam, and “Christmas At The Oasis,” a seasonal re-write of Muldaur’s signature hit “Midnight at the Oasis.” For this one, longtime Muldaur guitarist Craig Caffall adds some touches along with Rothermel’s flute flourishes.

It’s hard to imagine an audience who wouldn’t enjoy this holiday treat. As Muldaur intended, it’s seasonal music, but far from the overdone tracks of the usual December radio playlists. Some songs are recognizable standards, others more unfamiliar, but all are performed with a sauciness and sex appeal that will get your Yule log cracklin’.  Decorate your oasis—Santa Muldaur is coming to town.

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About Wesley Britton