Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve 2020

It's Christmas Eve, and this year will be quite different for us, as it is for nearly everyone.  Although our Christmas Eve traditions have changed a bit from time to time over the years, we have always enjoyed Christmas Eve services at church, and a family dinner, either preceding or following church.  Then a quiet evening at home to wind down the day in anticipation of Christmas day.  

Today we will be staying home, and the children who don't live here will just do a drop-by to exchange Christmas presents and take their already-filled stockings home with them.  This evening we will join the church service via livestream, then order Chinese food, then Zoom with the absent children for some Charlie Brown Christmas Bingo, and then settle in for that quiet evening, watching "A Christmas Story" for the zillionth time, enjoying it just as much as ever.

On Christmas morning we will open stockings via Zoom (three children are here in our home, two aren't), and probably do some gift opening.  We may save some for New Year's Day in hopes that we are able to get together.  In the immediate family we have one hospital pharmacist (who got her first COVID vaccine dose this morning), two autism agency workers, and three teachers.  Lots of contact with lots of people in the outside world.  So we are doing our part to minimize risk.  And, we look at it as just extending the Christmas season for a few more days :-)

Until my Mom moved to Tennessee three years ago, we spent Christmas Eve with her in her apartment. Being part of the normal Christmas hoopla was a bit much for her, so Christmas Eve with her was the right thing to do and was part of our tradition for several years.  Mom passed away earlier this year, at the grand age of 100, having seen 101 Christmases.  Fortunately, she was not a victim of COVID, passing due to just living a life of over 100 years.  So we will not be able to call and wish her Merry Christmas this year, but she is surely still part of our celebration.

So, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.  Please stay safe, and please help to keep others safe as we go into 2021.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas with Gisele

Today's share is one that I consider a classic of vinyl Christmas music collecting - "Christmas with Gisele".  Canadian born Gisele MacKenzie delivers an album full of Christmas classics sung in both English and French.  The French twist to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" adds a jolt of freshness to the song, and the French medley of "In This Stable", "The Angels in Our Fields", and "The March of the Kings" is a highlight of the twelve songs on the album.

I especially appreciated "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers", "The Night Before Christmas Song", a unique version of the classic story, and the rarely-recorded "Too Fat for the Chimney".

Gisele has a warm voice, well complemented by the creative arrangements.  "Christmas with Gisele" will be a welcome addition to your collection.

Enjoy!  "Christmas with Gisele" download link

Monday, December 21, 2020

New Music: "Amid the Cold" by Evan Mazunik

"Amid the Cold" by Denver-based pianist Evan Mazunik brings Merry & Bright's new music posts to a conclusion for this season.  Released on October 30, 2020, "Amid the Cold" is a gorgeous collection of music.  

Sixteen tracks of some familiar melodies arranged by the talented Mr. Mazunik interspersed with original compositions are delivered on "Amid the Cold".  The songs' heart is Evan's piano, and the soul is the inclusion of electronica, spoken word, and even sound samples from outer space.  The result is a dreamy, ethereal journey into Christmas music.  Christmas music indeed, wrapped in celebrations of the solstice.  This a refreshing, jazzy, surreal, and wholly unique album.  

And it's purely coincidental that I am publishing this on December 21, 2020 when we are witnessing The Great Conjunction in the night sky as Jupiter and Saturn align to form a modern-day Christmas Star, and Evan's album includes a song titled "The Great Conjunction".

If you are looking for something different, joyful, and moving, please do yourself a favor and listen to "Amid the Cold".  I think you'll like what you hear.  This is another superb example of Christmas music that fills a void in my collection. 

"Amid the Cold" on Bandcamp

Evan Mazunik website

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Christmas in San Francisco

Tonight's share is one of my favorites this year.  It's "Christmas in San Francisco", a live recording from the Embarcadero Center's Living Arts Program.  The album includes members of many performing arts groups across the bay area, including the San Francisco Symphony, Oakland Symphony, San Jose Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and many more.

The album includes music "from 1382 to 1974", giving us a wealth of songs from across the history of Christmas music.  Magnificently performed, this is sure to be a favorite of yours as much as it has become one of mine.

This was one of my best finds on my Orlando excursion with Ernie this past March, in a fine little record shop somewhere in central Florida.

Please enjoy "Christmas in San Francisco"  download link

Friday, December 18, 2020

Lotsa New Music for 2020

Every year I receive a Santa's sack-full of new music from the musicians and promoters out there in the big ol' world.  Time enough to cover it all thoroughly just isn't available, but I'd like to at least give them a quick shout-out.  So, here's a rundown of some of the new Christmas music in 2020, and by the way, many of these are in my Spotify Playlist (right over there <-- in the left panel).

Please scroll through, check out the amazing music these artists have shared, watch a few videos, sip on some eggnog, and enjoy!  And if you like what you hear, a little googling will find the artist and all their info.  

Loop Line - "The Small Hours" - Pretty terrific new tune from geographically challenged indie-rock band Loop Line, complementing their previous Christmas catalog (which are all well worth your time and attention).

The Powers - "If We Don't Have Any Snow" - new music from The Powers, a husband and wife led Americana/Alt Country band from Idaho.  They also have a splendid version of "O Come O Come Emmanuel".  Great sound from The Powers!

"If We Don't Have Snow" - stream on Spotify

"O Come O Come Emmanuel" - stream on Spotify

Wolf Blitzer (the band) - "Bliitzmas"

 The Merry & Bright Award for album title of the year goes to Wolf Blitzer (the band) with "Bliitzmas", a followup to their 2016 holiday EP "Blitzmas".  Their band self-description brought a smile to my face too: "We are Wolf Blitzer, a band from MA that is now pretty defunct but still gets back together for Christmas to make some music."  Love it man, love it.

And I'm really digging their music too.  "Bliitzmas" is a 4-song EP, all originals.

Wolf Blitzer (the band) Bandcamp

Wolf Blitzer (the band) Facebook

Monkton - "Monkton Christmas Volume One"

An eight song album of "Christmas music in unique jazz oriented original arrangements" from Monkton.  Available on Bandcamp.

Surf School Dropouts - "The Man in Red"

Christmas EP from the indie-pop band from Denmark Surf School Dropouts.  Get it on Bandcamp.

Nina Baumer - "O Christmas Tree"

Nina Baumer website

Nina Baumer Facebook

Katie Garibaldi - "Auld Lang Syne"

San Fran gal Katie Garibaldi returns with a new single "Auld Lang Syne"

Nadia Vaeh - "Christmas Cards"

Kira Rizavi - "Tiny Dancers (Can't Wait for Christmas)"

Stream "Tiny Dancers (Can't Wait for Christmas) on Spotify

Leah Belle Faser - "I Wonder What You Got for Me"

Ice Island - "The Little Drummer Boy"

Available on Bandcamp or Stream it here on Spotify

Jack Blackman and the Beautiful Wreck - "I Wish It Was Summer (at Christmas Time)"

Maxine Linehan  - "This Time of Year"

Stream it on Spotify

Maggie Szabo - "Come Celebrate Christmas"

Karen Hitchcock and Deron Reynolds - "Bells are Ringing (Hallelujah)"

By the way, and I'm sure that most of you know this, there are other blogs that cover all the new music, including my friends at:

Christmas Undergound



Hip Christmas

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Trappist Monks of Gethsemani

 Tonight's share is "A Child is Born", a recording of selections from the Advent-Christmas Liturgy sung by the Trappist Monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.  The Abbey was founded in 1847 near Bardstown, Kentucky and is still active today, with around 40 monks in residence. 

The album "A Child is Born" was recorded in 1955 and released in 1956.  It includes extensive liner notes and a transcription of the Advent-Christmas liturgy.  It was a Columbia Masterworks album, catalog ML 5310. 

I love albums of this sort for their historical value and deeply spiritual presence in the performances.  It's an experience with an aspect of Christmas that we don't get to include in our typical celebrations.

Liner notes insert page 2

Now, the bad news.  😟  The album has some unrecoverable scratches, and I was not able to rip all of the tracks.  What I could get transferred is presented in three segments:  Side 1 tracks 2-13, Side 2 tracks 1-2, and Side 2 tracks 4-5.  The rest were just not repairable.  If you like the segments that you hear, I'm sure there are other sources of the album somewhere.  I felt that it was a notable enough record to go ahead with a partial share, along with the usual album artwork and the four pages from the inner sleeve.

And as you can see, the front cover has some damage as well.

So, I hope you enjoy selections from "A Child is Born" by the Trappist Monks of Gethsemani.

download link

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Ein Anteil zum Mitsingen!

 According to my good friend Google Translate, this is a Share to Sing Along!  Tonight's share is "German Christmas Sing-Along", Choir and Orchestra conducted by Jean Jakus.

Many of these tunes will be familiar to you.  Of course "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum" we all know and love.  How many of us learned it in grade school as a first introduction to the German language?  And then there's "Stille Nacht, Helige Nacht!"  (yes, complete with exclamation point).  "Still, Still, Still" is one of the most beautiful Christmas carols ever.  

There are many more, 13 songs in total.  In the 2020 holiday season where many of us can't travel at all, take a caroling journey to Germany, and, as the title says, Sing Along!

Enjoy "German Christmas Sing-Along"  download link

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Sunday Spotlight: Checking in with Rehya Stevens

California musician Rehya Stevens is a favorite here at Merry & Bright.  Since her 2018 Christmas album "Celebrate", Rehya's music has been featured in movies, television, and commercials, and she's picked up some awesome recognition along the way.  We can officially refer to her as 'award-winning artist Rehya Stevens', thanks to the Hollywood Music in Media Awards.

Rehya graciously agreed to spend some time to catch up with us about this challenging year, some good things that have come her way, plans for a future Christmas album, and more.  As I've gotten to know Rehya over the past couple of years, I've learned that she is one of the kindest and most genuine people around.  I hope you enjoy my chat with Rehya, as a special treat for the 2020 holiday season.

*****  SPECIAL OFFER  *****

Just for readers of Merry & Bright!  Rehya has set up a special discount code for her music!  At her music website, use the discount code DERBINGLE for 50% off your purchase.  The code expires on Jan 15th, 2021, so hurry on over there and give yourself a special musical treat!

Photography by Katie Kennedy

Rehya Stevens website

Rehya Stevens on Facebook

Checking In with Rehya Stevens

Merry & Bright:
Hello Rehya! Thank you for spending some catch-up time with us. It’s been such a year for all of us – doing our parts to help manage the pandemic, staying safe, and you California folks have had so many terrible, tragic fires in your state. So how are you doing as we approach the end of 2020?

Rehya Stevens:  Fortunately, my home in Los Angeles is safe and sound - and everyone in my family is healthy, and Covid-19 free. I feel blessed to have made it to the close of 2020 relatively unscathed. Quarantine has had its challenges, but in comparison to what the front line workers have been dealing with, my experience is a tiny hiccup in the big picture. Right now, I’m bundled up in Northern California with my family until mid January, writing new songs for a Christmas album planned for release next October. Honestly, It’s so nice to make Christmas music in cold weather, surrounded by the beauty of nature and stillness -- (you can hear a pin drop at night up here, aside from the train that rolls through the middle of town at 4 am). My niece and nephew are doing online school, so I’m like the old guard - making sure they do their homework, feed the animals, unload the dishwasher, etc. I’m sure they love it (wink)! No one is getting away with anything around here for awhile:)

MB: How has the pandemic affected you as a musician?

RS: Well, I miss performing. We all do. I miss being onstage with colleagues. The pandemic has really highlighted how much I’ve relied on performing live as a social outlet! But the trade-off has been having incredible, deeply concentrated hours, days, weeks and months in the studio working on a new album. It’s been such a peaceful, surrendered process. I think it’s because I haven’t felt like I’m missing out on anything. Everyone is celebrating birthdays, weekends and holidays in quarantine, so there hasn’t been the need to deep clean the house, get the hair done, wax the eyebrows, fill up the car, pick up a few bottles of wine, or prepare for much of anything. It’s just been writing and recording, and keeping a keen vision of the project intact. Time with loved ones also feels richer. There’s kind of a no-fuss, distraction-free presence that I deeply appreciate, and would like to continue from now on.

MB: Well, I don’t want to make this check-in all about our 2020 worries. Let’s talk about your Christmas music. Celebrate, your album of all original Christmas songs, and “‘Tis the Season,” your single released last year, have had some great exposure through placement in various movies and tv shows, while “Jingle Jangle” and “‘Tis the Season” were featured in the Netflix movie Noelle with Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader (and it was a really great movie!). What’s it like to hear your songs in these movies?

RS: It’s a blast! I loved making those songs, and adore how they turned out production wise. When music supervisors and fans respond to the music the way I do, I feel like I’m making the music that I’m meant to be making. There are so many choices, colors and concepts to choose from when you pick up your paintbrush. I happen to love Christmas music, and feel compelled to write and record seasonal songs that might provide a fun, cozy space for our holidays throughout a lifetime. These movies are all lovely, unique, and special. It’s an honor to have my songs in a merry satchel of Christmas films that people will be watching over and over again, year after year.

MB: And “Jingle Jangle” is in a new Robert DeNiro movie, right?

RS: Yes! It’s in a movie called War with Grandpa, which hit the big screen in October. I love Robert DeNiro. His expressions are priceless! What a fun curmudgeon he is. “Jingle Jangle” is quite the buoyant contrast to his “I’m-over-it-and-I’ve-got-your-number” disposition. 

Photography by Katie Kennedy

MB: I am thrilled that your songs are featured in these movies. I love pointing them out to my family as we’re watching. You’re also on a nice little run with the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, winning the “Best in Holiday” award last year, and having “‘Tis the Season” nominated for a Holiday award this year. That’s pretty fantastic!

RS: I’ve been making music forever, it seems. I’ve swung and missed many times! No matter the outcome of any project, I just get up and make another song - another track, another album - because I’m compelled to see what’s next, and create the music I hear in my head, and express the things that are stirring in my soul. I’m well accustomed to not being on anybody’s radar, so I had no expectations! I was all the way up in the cheap seats at the HMMA’s, so when Brent Harvey announced that “Jingle Jangle” won Best in Holiday, I ran like a mad woman in high heels down what seemed like the world’s longest, winding staircase, and just barely made it to the stage in time to rattle off an impromptu acceptance speech. I was THRILLED! All these years later, and it’s this little independent Christmas album ‘that could’ that receives so much love. How cool is that? It makes me so happy!

MB: I’m not a musician or a songwriter, but I think that writing songs is hard, writing good songs even harder, and writing good Christmas songs even harder still. You’ve written some truly great Christmas songs. Can you tell us a little about your process? Do you have collaborators that are part of your magic?

RS: I’ve been writing songs since I was a child. While all the other kids were playing together in the neighborhood, or in the school yard, I was under a tree somewhere lost in my creative process. I wrote songs about my animals, how I imagined romance would feel, I wrote about my struggles, and curious things observed that I was trying to understand emotionally. I spent countless hours alone, studying my favorite songs, and trying to to find my own voice through not just singing, but through songwriting. It’s an outlet that I’ve always felt blessed to have.

My Dad is a brilliant keyboardist and composer - he worked with Bobby Caldwell, Bill Medley, Diana Ross, and was a composer for Disney’s ‘New Mickey Mouse Club’ back in the day. Music was 24/7 in our household, and my Dad instilled a work ethic in me that went very deep. He is a committed musician, and observing him taught me how to faithfully chisel away until something sounded effortless. He would tell you that I was somewhat of a “musical pest,” and borderline obsessive with my songs, but I think he knew that I was bitten pretty hard with the music bug, so he invested a lot of time, love and energy into helping me to bring my vision to life. He would sit with me, or we’d drive around together - and teach me what he knew. We’d study great songs. We’d talk about how to develop perspective in a lyric, and within a track. He taught me to not just “sing,” but to live inside the song while singing it. To imagine the story while telling it. Those formative years fine-tuned so many tools in my kit.

Today, my process is pretty simple. I bring my whole self - body, mind, heart, spirit - to my piano, and play with melodies, concepts, arrangements - and tell stories! My antenna is open day and night, tuned into song possibilities. Last December, I took a long bike ride near my home, and wrote an entire song in my head, called “The Old Red Sleigh,” which will be on the next Christmas album. I haven’t struggled with writing a song for many years. At this point, they seem to flow pretty naturally. But I enjoy the process so much, that even if a song takes weeks to complete, I trust that the outcome will be something I’ll be proud of, so I just ride the inspiration wave, and keep working on it until it’s ready to be recorded. I love writing songs - whether it’s laborious or swift, it’s what I feel I was made to do.

I’ve been writing by myself lately, but I love collaborating! Jon Kubis and I collaborated on most of the songs on Celebrate. He is absolutely brilliant, and our partnership on that project was such a blessing. I’m forever grateful to him. We had a ball writing together, and he is such an imaginative person. He has 3 kids, so his perspective as a father was such a fun thing to bring to the recipe. For example, the lyric in “‘Tis the Season” - ‘Johnny wants a scooter and a choo choo train… Mom and dad wish the kids were back in school again…’ That’s Jon’s experience all the way. I hope his kids get a good chuckle out of those songs one day, because they’re in them!

MB: So Rehya, what’s coming next? Anything exciting in the works?

RS: I can’t wait to release the new Christmas album next year, but in the meantime, I’m excited to release a few songs that I’ve written for other artists in the early part of 2021. The first is a Big Band song that I wrote with a brilliant arranger named Steve Lang. The others are pop tracks - and full of sass! I don’t want to say too much, because I want to save the surprise! I have a non-seasonal album that is 75% complete, and I’m looking for a great producer to finish the rest of it with. If that person presents themselves soon, I may release the album in the summer of 2021. My fingers and toes are crossed! I want to release this album NOW!! 

MB: Well Rehya, thank you for spending some time with us and giving us a quick update. 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us, but your positivity and energy are certainly infectious. Hmmm… maybe ‘infectious’ isn’t quite the right word this year 😊 Let’s go with, your music and positive outlook make every day a little brighter!

RS: Contagious? Nah… that’s no bueno. Positive is good. Unless we’re talking about a Covid test… :)

MB: Have a wonderful holiday season Rehya!

RS: You have a wonderful holiday too, Aaron. And Happy holidays to all of your readers! Hang in there everyone! We’ll get through this together. Wear your mask, and take good care of each other. This too shall pass. Xoxo

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Two Sides of Christmas: More from the USAF

 Today's share is another very fine record courtesy of the US Air Force.  "Two Sides of Christmas", like "An Old Fashioned Christmas" shared previously, is a promotional record from the Air Force featuring an excellent lineup of performers and songs.  Also like its predecessor, this one is best heard as uninterrupted sides, so I've provided the album in that way.

Side 1 features the great Rosemary Clooney, the Falconaires, and the Jack Halloran Choir singing favorites like 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", "Jingle Bells", and "White Christmas".  The performance of "Mary's Little Boy Child" is a very pleasant surprise.

Side 2 is "Christmas at Opryland", and is an all A-List lineup of musicians from the Grand Ole Opry.  Dottie West, Archie Campbell, The Jordanaires, and harmonica master Charlie McCoy play familiar classics, closing with the whole Opry gang singing "Silent Night".

Many thanks to the US Air Force for producing all these great Christmas albums over the years.  

Enjoy "Two Sides of Christmas"  download link

This is another treasure from my day record hunting with Ernie this past March.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Winter Music from Jason Beers

 Jason Beers is a Kansas City musician who has released 22(!)  (I think) records in the last two years.  In 2019 he set a goal to release an album a month.  Check.  Exhausted, he said something to the effect of "Never again!  Off to enjoy life to its fullest!  Ahoy!".  And then came 2020.  Stay at home.  Quarantine.  Not going anywhere.  No live music anywhere.  No Rural Grit Happy Hour.  So whaddya do - make some music.

Still, Jason, the man behind the curtain of the mirthful "Having a Marfy Christmas!!!" and "Still Having a Marfy Christmas!!!", pronounced that he was not doing another Christmas album this year.   Well, time goes by.   Then I hear though the grapevine that a Winter-themed album is in the works.  Cool!

And here it is:  "Music for Seasonal Affective Disorder".

Artwork by Hank Tilbury

As you might expect from the album title, this is not a record of frollicking sleigh ride songs, apres-ski sing-alongs, and cozy sipping-hot-chocolate-by-the-fire melodies.  And if the album title didn't give away the theme of the record, the song titles do:

"Temperature Drop"
"Sleigh Ride To Hell"  (well, there is a sleigh ride song...)
"Lost in the Wilderness" (featuring great whistling)
"The Snowman Speaks"
"Angry Cold"
"Hope for Warmth"
"The Fool Waltz"
"Spiraling Towards Death"
"What Can One Do?"

Although the tenor and tone of "Music for Seasonal Affective Disorder" may not be your typical Christmas-time fare, it absolutely has its place in a Winter music collection.  For one, it's a counterpoint and indeed an antidote for hearing Mariah Carey's "Al I Want for Christmas is You" or Kelly Clarkson's exploration of vocal volume "Underneath the Tree" one time too many.  But mainly, it's a normalizer, a balancer on the other end of the spectrum of wintertime music.  It serves as a reminder that Winter brings short days, long nights, and cold.

A few years back, I reviewed "The Longest Night: Christmas Songs of Lament and Longing" by Russ Hitt, which was a musical observation of the emotions that can take hold in the darkness of Winter.  While "Music for Seasonal Affective Disorder" is quite different musically, in a way they are similar.  They both present the sounds of a different Winter season, a parallel that most, if not all, of us experience to some degree each year as the long dark nights come.  And, especially in this, our generation's plague year, "Music for Seasonal Affective Disorder" images* this holiday season and is a perfect component of the soundtrack for December 2020.

Jason approaches his music with a wry sense of humor, a quick little wink to those who are paying attention (disclosure: I've never actually seen him wink).  Or sometimes with overt absurdity (take "Banjo Music from Schrodinger County" - a super-glued-shut CD case that might or might not contain a CD with music).  "Music for Seasonal Affective Disorder" is no exception - the Jason Beers creativity and sense of humor is there, in the framework of a frowny cold winter season.  And it's just the exact right thing for this 2020 holiday season.  With exceptional banjo.

One more note: check out the amazing album art by Hank Tilbury.  I'd buy the album just for the cover.

I've had a whole lotta fun reviewing Jason's albums over the past couple of years, and no exception here, but this one is a bit less tongue-in-cheek than past efforts.  Love the record, and love the theme.

"Music for Seasonal Affective Disorder" on Bandcamp

Jason Beers Bandcamp home page - hours of great music lives here, including the Halloween-themed "Even More Ghoulish Songs for Cretins", featuring an Aztec Death Whistle.

*Yes, I used "images" as a verb.

Monday, December 7, 2020

A Special Offer from 23rd Hour

Our friends 23rd Hour have a special offer just for all the readers of Merry & Bright.  Until December 31, 2020, you can enjoy a 50% discount on all purchases from 23rd Hour on their website.  Just use the discount code "MerryAndBright" when you check out.  50%!  Wow! 

23rd Hour website

I think we all appreciate, y'know, folks being nice :-)  This is a very nice thing for Sherry-Lynn and George to do for us.  It feels so.... Christmassy. So hop on over there and maybe show your support for a couple very cool musicians.

You can explore all their music, or go straight to their Christmas catalog - they've made it easy for us!

23rd Hour Complete Holiday Playlist

Thanks 23rd Hour!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Featured Artist: 23rd Hour

One never knows what an open mic night will bring.  You get seasoned veterans and rookies, folks working out new originals and others playing their favorite covers, and styles of all kinds.  For Sherry-Lynn Lee and George Paolini, an open mic night in a Silicon Valley venue back in 2014 led to an enduring partnership, and ultimately their band 23rd Hour.  Taking their name from a 23-hour jam session that cemented their musical relationship, 23rd Hour uniquely blends pop and jazz into a very fresh, contemporary sound.

We love it when great musicians come together and let their creative forces combine; we love it even more when those forces channel into Christmas music.  23rd Hour has two Christmas music releases: the 9-song album "Let a Day Together Be Christmas" (2018) and a 7-song EP "Get Me Home for the Holidays" (2019).

The two records feature Christmas standards such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and the strikingly beautiful solo guitar instrumental "Silent Night/Away in a Manger".  The original compositions "Let a Day Together Be Christmas", "Get Me Home for the Holidays", "Have You Noticed the Season?", and "Christmas Feels Lost Without You" are strong highlights, showcasing the songwriting talents of Sherry-Lynn and George.  

The arrangements are wonderful.  There is not a bit of over-orchestration, yet the jazz combo sound is full and satisfying.  Sherry-Lynn's vocals not only do justice to the standards, she embraces them with the reverence they deserve.  I can sum up my impression of these albums concisely:  They make me very happy 😀

23rd Hour can be found at the usual digital media outlets, and at their website.  You can check them out on Spotify, and I've added a few of their songs to the Merry & Bright Spotify playlist (link is in the left-side column).

The Christmas albums from 23rd Hour will perfectly fill a niche in your Christmas music listening this season, and in seasons to come.  Check them out!

23rd Hour website

23rd Hour music page

Friday, December 4, 2020

An Old Fashioned Air Force Christmas

Tonight's share is one of those awesome Christmas albums produced by/for the US Armed Forces, in this case the US Air Force.  "An Old Fashioned Christmas" features Sonny James and Connie Smith on Side 1, and the Ray Conniff Singers on Side 2.  Interspersed within each side is dialogue with the artists and the Air Force representatives.  All in all, it's a lovely Christmas record.

For this share, I've left each side as a single audio file.  Separating the tracks and working out the breaks for the conversations would have given it a very choppy feel, so I decided it was best to present them as intact sides for a better listening experience.

I was particularly pleased to hear Connie Smith singing "A Christmas Lullaby".  I had not heard that by anyone other than Cary Grant.  It's one of my very favorite songs.

For your listening pleasure, "An Old Fashioned Christmas"  download link

And don't forget, if you like what you read and hear, please leave a comment!

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Merry and Bright Spotify Playlist

 Pssst.  Hey.  Look over there.


Right over there, in the left side column.

There's a new section, with a link to the Merry & Bright Spotify playlist.

I've created a playlist featuring many of the artists that have been featured here over the years, including Ren Geisick, Candace Lynn Matthews, Rehya Stevens, Russ Hitt, NOLA Players, Jenna & Martin, Jillaine, Elizabeth Chan, and many more.  Follow the link, open Spotify, and enjoy!  I'll be adding more to the list every now and then, and it'll grow to have even more favorites from Der Bingle.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Artist Interview: Ren Geisick

Merry & Bright is thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with Ren Geisick, the San Jose-based singer-songwriter that graced our blog last year with the premiere of her single "Feels Like Christmas".  Ren has a very merry history with Christmas music.  Before "Feels Like Christmas", she released the single "'Cause It's Christmas" and two albums recorded at her live "Ren's Winter Wonderland" shows in 2016 and 2018.  Ren's Christmas shows feature a wide variety of songs - standards, her originals, and some surprises that are true standouts.  

2020 has thrown down a challenge to Ren's Winter Wonderland, with performance venue and gathering limitations in effect, but Ren has persevered.  She is going full ahead with Eight Reindeer power for a 2020 edition of Ren's Winter Wonderland, coming to you through the miracle of live streaming.  Her show is Sunday, December 6 at 7:00PM Pacific time (8 Mountain, 9 Central, 10 Eastern).  Links to the events on Youtube and Facebook are below.

Ren is an amazing singer, adopting multiple styles - poppin' it, jazzin' it, bluesin' it - and her love for Christmas music shines.  Her smile, which might be the best smile in showbiz, tells it all.  Please enjoy our interview with Ren, and I hope that many of you can join her for "Ren's Winter Wonderland" on Sunday December 6.

Ren's Winter Wonderland 2020 - Youtube livestream link

Ren's Winter Wonderland 2020 - Facebook event link

Ren Geisick website

Ren Geisick Bandcamp page

Merry & Bright Interview with Ren Geisick

Merry & Bright:  Hello Ren!  Thank you for spending some time with Merry & Bright.  I’m excited to learn more about you and your music, and I think our readers are in for a real treat.

Ren Geisick: Thanks so much for having me!

MB:  Let’s start with a little about you.  You’re currently a California bay-area musician.  Are you a native Californian? 

RG: I am a native Californian. I grew up in San Jose. My parents have lived here in the same house for about 45 years.

MB:  Can you tell us a little about your journey as a musician?

RG:  My family listened to a lot of music growing up and my mom was always singing around the house.  I grew up singing in church and actually, one of my first memories of singing in front of people was singing “Silent Night” at my church when I was about 8 years old. From there, I was in some school plays, and school choirs. After high school, I went to Cal State Long Beach where I studied Jazz Vocal Performance. After college, I worked on a cruise ship for 6 months which was really fun and a total trial by fire… I gained a lot of needed confidence on that cruise gig. All the while, I  was still singing at church and I still volunteer and sing at that church to this day. I’ve sung “Oh Holy Night” on Christmas Eve for probably 15 years. When I returned from the cruise ship gig at the end of 2011 I decided to move back to San Jose and pursue music closer to my family. I’ve been playing shows big and small throughout the bay area ever since. I released my debut album, “Ren, Love Song” produced by Jesse Harris in 2017 and last year I released a few singles including two Christmas songs one written by me and one written by my pianist, Jon Dryden.

MB:  Who are some of your musical influences?

RG: Have you ever heard of Eva Cassidy? She is one of my all-time favorites. I also love Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline… Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan are two songwriters I really like. I’d say my taste is pretty old school. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz, classic country and 90’s country, motown, blues, doo-wop… I loved that Amy Grant Christmas album when I was growing up, too!

MB:  You’ve written some great original Christmas songs, and covered (in your live shows, which we’ll talk about later) some that aren’t typical cover-fare, which all of us Christmas music aficionados really appreciate.  What’s your personal history with Christmas music? 

RG: Thank you! I mentioned this in a previous answer but my first experience singing in front of people was singing “Silent Night” at my church. I think singing at church and in choirs has added to my love for Christmas music. Also, I grew up listening to a bunch of great jazz Christmas compilation CD’s from Starbucks… remember those? I think that’s how I first heard “That’s What I Want for Christmas” by Nancy Wilson. It’s not a super common tune but one of my all time favorites. For me, it doesn’t feel like the holiday season unless I’m singing these songs. I actually wrote my song, “Feels like Christmas” with that in mind. If I don’t sing “Oh Holy Night” on Christmas Eve or “Silent Night” with the whole congregation and candles then it just doesn’t feel like Christmas. Once I started my “Ren’s Winter Wonderland” shows 6 years ago, I got to have an excuse to dig up even more great holiday tunes!

MB:  A couple outstanding songs from your live shows are “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, most notably performed by Elvis, and “Eight Days of Hannukah”, brought to amazing life a few years back by the incredible Sharon Jones.  Why did you pick these to perform in your shows?

RG: oh yes! I love those songs!  I love doing “Santa Claus is Back in Town” because it’s so bombastic and the lyrics crack me up! It’s silly and sexy and fun and allows me to really use the full power of my voice. Also the full band sounds so great on that tune! When I first heard “Eight Days of Hanukkah” I knew I had to do it for the show. Even though many of the best Christmas songs were written by Jewish people, there just aren’t as many awesome Hanukkah songs. “Eight Days of Hanukkah” has such a great groove and we do a really cool samba style arrangement by Jon Dryden. The song has great energy and a really nice message about love and family.

MB:  There’s a great energy that comes through in your music, and it sounds like you and your band are always having a great time.  Can you tell us about your band and musical collaborators?

RG: Yes. I love playing with a full band! I really miss it. For my Winter Wonderland Show, I am lucky to pull talent from a deep well of great South Bay musicians.  My pianist Jon Dryden and I are frequent collaborators and we have similar taste. He helps out with some of the arrangements and has written some super awesome Christmas tunes like “Cause it’s Christmas” and “Comin Down Christmas”. I usually have Scott Sorkin or Chris Motter on guitar, Chris Davies on bass, Jim Kassis on drums, John Worley on trumpet, and Kris Strom or Oscar Pangilinan on saxophone. My close friend, Amy Dabalos has been joining me for duets and background vocals since the very first Winter Wonderland Show and we always have a blast planning out our duets.  A fan favorite is our crazy medley of songs from the movie White Christmas (arranged by Jon Dryden) which, of course, includes the very cute song “Sisters” with a full on dance routine.

MB:  Let’s talk about Ren’s Winter Wonderland, your annual Christmas music show.  How did it start, and how has it evolved over the years? 

RG: Back in 2015, a friend of mine was helping a local theater called “City Lights Theater Company” with a Sunday night concert series and I had the opportunity to pitch a holiday show. I had always wanted to do a big festive concert and City Lights was up for it. I was pretty stressed out the first year because I was hiring the band and basically producing the show and I didn’t know if anyone would show up! City Lights is a 100 person theater and I hadn’t had an opportunity to sell tickets for an event of that size. To my surprise, tickets were completely sold out a week in advance of the show! Since that first year, many people in the area have made it one of their holiday traditions and the past two years I was able to sell out the show for two consecutive Sundays. Over the years, the band for the show has grown and I’ve added some singalong elements and other little twists. Also, Jon and I have written more Christmas songs so we are able to add our own original Christmas music to the show.

MB:  The music from the show is fantastic.  What are the plans for Winter Wonderland 2020?

RG: This year we are going virtual. I was chatting with Amy Dabalos back in July and she encouraged me to figure out a way to do the show despite the current circumstances, so I started to come up with a plan. I reached out to my community for support and was able to book a studio session, hire my band, hire a videographer and film a number of songs in the studio with social distancing and custom holiday masks. I have been editing those videos and the show will consist of me hosting the live streamed show in front of my parents fireplace where I’ll perform a few songs on guitar and ukulele and with Jon on piano and I’ll be introducing the full band tunes that were recorded in advance. There will also be a cooking segment where I will share the recipe for my family’s  traditional Christmas treat called nut coils. I’m hoping it can bring some joy to the end of a tough year.

MB:  2020 has been a challenging year for all of us, and especially for musicians, actors, and everyone in the performing arts.  How have you managed the obstacles that have come this year?  Have you been able to find positives and high notes amongst the hurdles? 

RG: Yes. This year has definitely required that I find new ways to connect. At the beginning of quarantine, I decided to get serious about learning how to play the ukulele so I decided to go live on Facebook everyday, play a few songs, and connect with people. I did that for about 30 days and even got to the point that I could put on a whole show playing ukulele and doing most of my original songs. I get a bit down if I’m not able to sing so learning ukulele and now guitar has helped me to keep singing despite not being able to get together with my bandmates. I had picked up and put down the guitar so many times in my life and the sudden jolt of this pandemic led me to realize that all the excuses I had made over the years were just me being afraid to fail. I feel lucky to have finally realized this but I do wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic to figure it out.

MB:  A standard question for artists visiting Merry & Bright:  Do you have a favorite Christmas song?

RG: I think it has to be “Oh Holy Night”.  But, if I had to pick a non-church song it would be “That’s What I Want for Christmas” by Nancy Wilson.

MB:  Who are some of your go-to favorite musicians that everyone should be listening to?

RG: Eva Cassidy, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald… I love all the classics. Some other people I like to lift up are fellow musicians in the scene who are my friends and are also awesome: Socorra, Amy Dabalos, Emily Cavanagh, Adira Sharkey, Steely Nash, and James Lanman who came out with a really nice Christmas album last year… just to name a few.

MB: What is one of your favorite bay area hot spots for great food and/or music?

RG: The Art Boutiki is my favorite local venue. They have been putting on some great live stream shows and I really hope they make it through this time. The best sound in the south bay!

MB:  Ren. Thank you so much for answering a few questions for Merry & Bright!  Do you have any final thoughts for your fans? 

RG: Thank YOU! I know this year has been intense but we can still spread joy this holiday season. Please join me for the virtual Ren’sWinter Wonderland show on December 6th at 7pm! The best thing about going virtual is that anyone can watch regardless of location! 

MB:  Have a very Merry Christmas Ren!

RG: Merry Christmas!!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Noel Noel! Sharing Season Begins

 Sharing season kicks off this year with "Noel Noel: A Musical Christmas" from Hans Carste and his Orchestra with Organ and Bells.  

"Noel Noel" is a splendid record to start your holidays.  Now, if you're like me, you started the Christmas music season in dear ol' 2020 about, oh, late August.  (I know for a fact that at least a few of you are indeed like me).  But if you are waiting until after Thanksgiving, or until the calendar flips to December, I have just what you need.

The track list is intriguing.  There are a few standards, like "White Christmas", "Silent Night" (the album opener - always a gutsy move), and "Winter Wonderland".  Spiritual A-Listers are here, such as "Adeste Fideles" and "The First Noel".  And, as is not unusual for a '60s-era album, there are a few songs that may be new to you, namely "The Snow Falls Quietly" and "From Heaven Above To Earth I Come".

The music is quite competently arranged and performed.  It is a very pleasant, unassuming yet comfortable record.  Quite nice, Mr. Carste.

Of note:  the back cover has a drawing that is reminiscent of Salvador Dali's Don Quixote.  It is probably the three magi on camels, although they appear to be wearing cowboy hats.  Maybe it's the Three Godfathers instead of the magi.  And on my album cover, it looks almost hand-drawn with a thin Magic Marker (no Sharpies in the '60s).  So, perhaps someone embellished the back cover?  Perhaps Salvador Dali himself?  Well, doubtful, I suppose.

Please enjoy "Noel Noel" by Hans Carste and his Orchestra with Organ and Bells

By the way, this album was one of the fruits of my crate digging expedition with the legendary Ernie in Orlando this past Spring, a few days before the world shut down.  I don't recall whether this was a find that day or if it was part of the Welcome to Florida! record tote that Ernie brought me.  Either way, it was a great day spent with a Christmas music buddy.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Artist Interview: Candace Lynn Matthews

 Christmas music is an ever-expanding genre.  It is growing and blending, with new niches being created within the domain of Christmas music, nearly constantly it seems. Candace Lynn Matthews, with her debut album "Baking Spirits Bright", has, to me, popped open a new little space in the vast realm of holiday music.

Candace Lynn Matthews is a Bronx, New York native, of Puerto Rican and Chilean descent, with serious musical cred - degrees from the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase and from the Aaron Copland School of Music in Queens College.  Candace is a soprano with a performance portfolio mainly in opera, even performing as a soloist at Carnegie Hall.  

Candace, with all her classical training and opera background, approached "Baking Spirits Bright" as, of course, a traditional jazz record.  What?!!?  So here's that new little pocket of Christmas music brilliance - Candace's gorgeous soprano voice and opera style nudged into a classical jazz sound, with a great jazz trio backing her (plus a guest trumpet on one track).  This all comes together into something just different enough to gain your attention, yet sustaining the comfort we feel from the Christmas standards Candace has chosen for the album. Standards, yes, with one notable and marvelous exception, which you'll learn about my interview with Candace Lynn Matthews.

To preview and purchase "Baking Spirits Bright" and to learn more about Candace, follow these links:

Merry & Bright Interview with Candace Lynn Matthews

Merry & Bright:  Hello Candace!  Thank you for spending some time with us.  I’m excited to learn more about you and about your new Christmas album “Baking Spirits Bright”.  Let’s start with a little but about you.  You have a Bachelor’s degree from the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase and a Master’s from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.  Where did your passion for music come from?

Candace Lynn Matthews: I have been surrounded by music my entire life, primarily thanks to my father, Louis Matthews. I have many fond memories of us singing and dancing along to Elton John, George Michael and ABBA just to name a few. I didn’t starting singing (or really know I could sing) until I auditioned for the school musical “Footloose” in 6th grade. To my surprise, I got the lead and my entire family was shocked on opening night to discover that I had a voice. I then became fascinated with musical Theatre and wanted to be on Broadway someday. When it came time to apply to College I had a wonderful chorus teacher and mentor, Mrs. Harel, who suggested I audition for a conservatory as she noticed my voice began to develop and change to a classical sound. I applied to SUNY Purchase and so began my operatic training!

MB:  And your career has primarily been in opera, is that right? 

CLM: Yes, my professional career has primarily been in opera, although I did get to perform one of my dream roles “Maria” in the iconic musical, “West Side Story” with Opera North (A young Artist Program location in Lebanon NH). It was wonderful getting the opportunity to combine my passions for musical theatre and Opera in this production. Being of Puerto-Rican descent, and growing up in the Bronx, I was very proud to be able to represent my Latin heritage. 

MB:  Let’s talk about “Baking Spirits Bright”, your new Christmas album that is also your first release.  Why did you choose a Christmas album for your debut?

CLM: This is indeed my first full-length album release, but I did release an EP about 10 years ago, with music written by a wonderful song-writer Vincent James. I collaborated with him while getting my Undergraduate Degree. Now a decade later, and during a pandemic lockdown, like many artists, I was struggling to create as all of my performance opportunities were cancelled. Fortunately my wonderful partner, composer/instrumentalist Sammy Wags, is a co-owner and engineer at The Koop Studio located in Irvington, New York and we were able to use the space as a creative outlet. I knew this year’s holiday season would look very different, and that led me to the idea of recording a Christmas Album, and Sammy was excited to join the project as producer!

MB:  The title, “Baking Spirits Bright” is unique and catchy, as a play on a traditional Christmas phrase.  It really stands out among all the new Christmas releases this year, or any year for that matter.  What’s the story behind the title?

CLM: Thank you so much for the kind words! Actually, besides singing, I am a very active baker. I worked at the renowned “Magnolia Bakery” for two years in the heart of the Upper West Side and it was there that I learned how to bake more professionally and make classic desserts. It was such a lovely (and delicious) environment to be a part of. During the quarantine in Spring I had more time to bake things like cupcakes, breads, and banana pudding, and hone my craft. I decided to start an Instagram page to share and promote my creations called Candys__cupcakes. I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot of time baking this Holiday Season for friends and family, and of course I love me a good martini, as you can tell from the cover of my album. So Baking Spirits Bright seemed like the perfect soundtrack and album title. 

MB:  You approached “Baking Spirits Bright” in a traditional jazz vocal style, although I can hear your opera background coming through.  I might describe your sound as opera-flavored classical jazz.  It’s a really beautiful style that works well for Christmas standards.  Was jazz part of your musical academic background?  Why did you choose this approach to the songs?

CLM:     Jazz was not a huge part of my musical background, although I was surrounded by it quite a bit since both opera and jazz departments shared a building at SUNY Purchase.  I have always admired jazz standards and classics, especially when performing classic musical theatre even as far back as high school productions of “Anything Goes” and “Kiss me Kate”. There are so many wonderful songs from the great American songbook, especially when it comes to holiday music. I’ve always listened to Christmas jazz around the holidays, it just seems to fit perfectly with good food, company and spirits. Working on a record in this style, I didn’t want to ignore my operatic roots, but also wanted to expand my palette and better appreciate vocal jazz, through learning the techniques and trying a new challenge for my voice and musical sensibilities.

MB:  I love your song selection for the album.  It’s a mix of true standards like “White Christmas” with other seasonal comfort songs that everyone will recognize, such as “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”.   How did you select the songs for the album?

CLM: I actually started with about 20-25 songs and began the challenge of narrowing then down. It’s so hard to not do them all! But once we chose the overall style, sound and vibe we were going for, it helped to guide us to the final 9 songs on the album seemed to be the best fit. 

MB:  “Sally’s Song” is a brilliant selection to include on the record.  [Note: “Sally’s Song”, by Danny Elfman, was featured in “The Nightmare Before Christmas”].  This is a first for me - I’ve never seen it on a Christmas album before, and you sing it beautifully.  Can you tell us the story behind “Sally’s Song”?

CLM: Gladly! I am a “Nightmare Before Christmas” fanatic! It was my favorite VHS tape as a kid and I would watch it for days pretending to be Sally and never got tired of it. Tim Burton is one of my favorite filmmakers and Danny Elfman is simply a genius with an incredible body of work. “Sally’s Song” was the first song I wanted to do, and in some ways helped inform the sound of the record and the other arrangements. Recording Sally’s Song was a very special experience. I began to tear up during the recording process because I had truly always wanted to sing this song and finally found the perfect musicians to collaborate with and come up with an arrangement that is a bit different, but still a loving tribute to the original. Now I know I can never surpass the iconic original Catherine O’Hara version, but I am thrilled with what we came up with and think It turned out better than I could have ever have dreamed. That was one take in the studio, and we all looked up after the last note and felt that we got it, and it was something special. That alone was worth it all for me.

MB:  “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” is an instrumental piece that showcases your band (Tom McDonough on piano, Chris Conte on bass, and drummer Sammy Wags).  Can you tell us a little bit about your band?

CLM: I LOVE THESE GUYS. I am a little biased when it comes to Sammy, but besides being a wonderful partner, he is a man of many musical talents. He indeed played drums on this album, but also did many of the arrangements, and mixed and mastered the recording. He spent countless hours on the mix, making sure the final product was perfection! Chris Conte is a very well known Westchester-based Upright Bassist and truly an exceptional Jazz Vocalist as well. He was incredibly helpful working with me to better learn the Jazz vocal idiom and recording techniques. Tom McDonough has played with Chris and Sammy for many years (he met Chris when they were both in the band for the Ringling Bros Circus!) and has an incredible list of credits to his name. Most of all he is an incredibly sensitive and supportive accompanist, which I knew would be paramount for this project. So I knew very early on these were the guys I wanted to work with. 

MB:  You used Kickstarter to help make “Baking Spirits Bright” a reality that can be shared with your backers, and the rest of the Christmas music community.  How was your experience with using a crowd-funding platform as a way to bring your album to life?

CLM: I must admit, I was a bit hesitant to use a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter to help fund my album. I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but boy was I shocked with the outpouring of support! I was overwhelmed by how many of my friends, family, no matter how distant, and even complete strangers were willing to help and support this project. We reached the goal with time to spare even though I knew I wasn’t the only person having financial difficulties at this time. I am so incredibly grateful for the generosity and support.

MB:  Who are some of your musical influences?

CLM: Musical influences start with my father. He never sang or performed professionally, but I believe I was blessed with his ambition and passion for music. He taught me to enjoy my talent and use it to spread love and joy to others. I have to also mention the most renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century, the one the only, Maria Callas. She was known for her wide-ranging and extraordinary voice. When learning a new song or aria, I always look for a recording of her interpretation. She was an icon and the definition of a “Diva”. If you haven’t already look her up on YouTube, you will not regret it!

MB:  Do you have any favorite family Christmas traditions you’d like to share with us?

CLM:     I have so many great memories celebrating Christmas with my family. Growing up in a Hispanic household, there are so many wonderful traditions during the Holidays. One tradition is celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. The family and extended family gathers and basically has a second Thanksgiving, but with presents. There is a huge feast of Rice and Beans, Turkey, Ham, Chicken and one of my favorites; Pasteles. This consists of grated green banana, plantains, taro root filled with meat, olives and spices. Another Tradition is a Spanish version of Egg Nog called Coquito. With ingredients of condensed milk, cream of coconut, evaporated milk and of course Rum! After the feast we listen to music and stay up until midnight to open the presents, just thinking about it now warms my heart.

MB:  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York City twice during the Christmas season and take in the whole holiday experience the city has to offer.  As a Bronx native, do you have a favorite NYC Christmas experience?

CLM: NYC during the holidays is truly a magical thing to behold. I am so blessed to have grown up here and currently reside just north of the city. I have wonderful memories of watching The Macy’s Day Parade in-person and of course, the classic, Ice skating at Rockefeller center underneath the giant Tree. New York City is just so gorgeous during the Holidays! 

MB: Candace, I’d like to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us.  “Baking Spirits Bright” is a wonderful Christmas album, and is a bright spot as we come into the holiday season of a very challenging year.  It is sure to bring many smiles 😊 I wish you great success with “Baking Spirits Bright”, a wonderful and safe holiday season, and a prosperous career!

CLM: It is my honor and pleasure to answer these questions, thank you for taking the time to explore the record in such depth, and for your kind words. I hope it can be an uplifting and fresh addition to the soundtrack of this holiday season. I simply adore Christmas, creating this record has been an incredible journey for me, and I especially felt the need to spread some extra Holiday cheer this year!