Friday, November 15, 2013

RECORD REVIEW: Mary J. Blige - "A Mary Christmas"

A Mary Christmas
(Verve / Interscope Records)

As an old school 
R&B aficionado, I've 
had a thang for Mary 
J. Blige for many 
years. And was 
ecstatic this morn-
ing to discover
her latest CD — a
collection of holiday 
classics, tucked away
in the "New Release"
box at Starbucks

A collaboration between modern-day "Queen of Soul," Mary J. Blige, and iconic producer, songwriter and musician, David Foster, A Mary Christmas is a shining musical ornament — one beaming with engaging highlights. C'mon, let's check it out!

Combining Blige's signature soulfulness with traditional choral and orchestral accompaniment, the classic "Little Drummer Boy" serves a powerful opening track.

From the arrangement to the production to the orchestration to Blige's brilliant vocal performance, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" is not only compelling, it's also one of THE brightest moments of the record.

A more contemporary number, Donny Hathaway and Nadine McKinnor's "This Christmas" has been covered over the years by a host of top-selling artists, including Diana RossPatti LaBelle, Gloria Estefan, and Christina Aguilera. However, due largely to the happy-sounding orchestration and Foster's lively piano work, Blige's version truly zings!

While maintaining the warmth and charm of the Mel Tormé / Bob Wells standard, "The Christmas Song," Blige makes it sound fresh. And it's further enhanced by Andreas Varady's "Breezin'"-flavored guitar work.

Channeling the late, great Ella Fitzgerald, Blige delivers a stunning performance on the big band-styled version of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer." While I'm not personally keen on Twinkie-type holiday music, this one simply is amazing.

Written by Buddy Greene and Mark Lowry back in the 1980s, "Mary, Did You Know?" is the newest of the record's 11 tunes. Powerful lyrics, delicate piano and violin, honest and pure vocals with mighty orchestration — now this is a Christmas song! The great I AM, indeed.

Does anybody ever really get tired of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Certainly not me! And this duet between Blige and Jessie J is a treasure. Equally magical is Blige's union with The Clark Sisters on "The First Noel."

Whether it be English or Spanish, I love hearing the name of Christ proclaimed in Christmas music. And Blige's collaboration with Marc Anthony on "Noche De Paz (Silent Night)" makes for a perfect closing track.

Given the sea of musical drivel that floods the marketplace annually, it's hard to get terribly ramped-up about yet another Christmas record. However, A Mary Christmas is a true gem — one that easily will appeal to Blige's hipster audience and traditionalists alike.

-Christopher Long
(November 2013)

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