Michael Feinstein, Dave Koz, Johnny Mathis, Pentatonix, Idina Menzel, and more
by Gregg Shapiro
For his first holiday album, A Michael Feinstein Christmas (Concord), Great American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein doesn’t stray too far from his roots. Accompanied by acclaimed jazz pianist Alan Broadbent, Feinstein’s renditions of Christmas classics are sources of endless joy. The arrangements allow both Feinstein and Broadbent to shine like the lights on a Christmas tree. Sure, we know these songs by heart—including “The Christmas Song,” “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”— but Feinstein touches our hearts with these simple and pleasing renditions. Leave it to a nice Jewish gay boy to refresh these timeworn classics in the way that Feinstein has.
Gay smooth-jazz sax man Dave Koz’s annual holiday music tour, billed as Dave Koz & Friends, is hitting the road this holiday season. Some of Koz’s friends, musicians, and singers join him on his latest holiday recording, The 25th of December (Concord). In fact, a cover of the Beatles standard “All You Need Is Love” features Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Richard Marx, Heather Headley, and Mr. Christmas himself, Johnny Mathis. Mathis can also be heard on “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” India.Arie is joined by Trombone Shorty on “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” And it’s a battle of the nice Jewish boys on “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow,” with Koz going toe-to-toe (or is that horn to horn?) with Kenny G.
The Classic Christmas Album (Columbia/Legacy), by the aforementioned Mathis, consists of selections from his considerable cache of Christmas albums, dating as far back as 1958’s mega-bestselling Merry Christmas. It also features Mathis’s duet with Bette Midler on the “Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow!” medley, as well as two previously unreleased numbers, “Ol’ Kris Kringle” and “Give Me Your Love for Christmas,” both from 1961.
Australian vocal group Human Nature will be familiar to anyone who watches PBS and has seen its Motown show featuring Smokey Robinson. The foursome, featuring gay member Toby Allen, gets festive on The Christmas Album (HN Entertainment). With the exception of a pair of a cappella numbers, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the bonus track “Mary’s Boy Child,” Human Nature is backed up by a band on holiday favorites such as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Winter Wonderland,” and “This Christmas.” The guys are joined by HLN anchor Robin Meade (!) on “Sleigh Ride” and the previously named Robinson on “Please Come Home for Christmas.”
Human Nature isn’t the only vocal group to feature an out gay member. A cappella favorite Pentatonix boasts openly queer Mitch Grassi among its ranks. For the quintet’s first full-length holiday album That’s Christmas to Me (RCA), they give their vocal muscles a workout and throw in a few delightful surprises. A cover of “Let It Go” from Frozen is a pretty inspired choice. The group also earns points for including an original tune—the cheerful title track—that’s a nice addition to the holiday songbook. Pentatonix spark “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” into a hand-clapping, foot-stomping gospel experience and take “Silent Night” to church.
Gays love their divas, and this year the hottest diva around, Idina Menzel, releases her first Christmas album, Holiday Wishes (Warner Brothers). She makes sure we hear her on “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and out-Mariahs Mariah Carey with a blazing rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Menzel raises the standard on the holiday standard “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” adds her own touch with the original “December Prayer” (co-written with Walter Afanasief and Charlie Midnight), tips her fur-lined hat to her Disney clan with a cover of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and adds her name to the list of artists who have interpreted Joni Mitchell’s modern Christmas classic “River.”
Hipster gays love their divas, too, and they have four to choose from when it comes to The Living Sisters. Growing from a trio (Inara George, Eleni Mandell, and Becky Stark) to a quartet with the addition of Alex Lilly (of Obi Best), The Living Sisters present Harmony Is Real (Vanguard), the best holiday album of 2014. What makes it so? First, the Sisters’ harmonies are pure perfection. With the exception of their interpretations of “Jingle Bells” (which must be heard!) and “Little Drummer Boy,” Harmony Is Real is a stellar set of new songs for the season, as lovely and lively as the Sisters themselves. Mandell’s “Kadoka, South Dakota,” “Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas,” “Hanukkah,” and “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve” are especially brilliant.
Gregg Shapiro also writes the GrooveOut column in this issue of OutSmart magazine.