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REVIEW | Some Holiday Music by Jeff Cebulski

Hundreds of artists present Christmas/Hanukkah recordings each year, so many that it is impossible to cover them sufficiently. Here are two Chicago-area offerings, plus one nationally recognized singer’s release.

Markus Rutz, Moods & Spirits of the Season. (

This EP features the soulful, bluesy trumpeter Rutz in a cozy gathering with bassist Clark Sommers and pianist Adrian Joel Ruiz. The music is properly subdued to be quality background for holiday festivities. While the arrangements stick to the familiar melodies for the most part, each piece gives the musicians a chance to riff on them accordingly. Check out Sommers’ solo on “Christmas Time is Here” and a swinging part on “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and Ruiz’s Guaraldi-like expression on “Blue Christmas” as well as his musings on “Hanukkah” and “Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Meanwhile, Rutz once again offers his bright toned playing on every piece, including a lyrical passage on “Hanukkah.”

Other songs included are “Oh Holy Night,” and “Winter Wonderland.”

This very comfortable, softly swinging session is a welcome addition to any jazz-oriented holiday collection.

Katie Kadan, “Christmas in Chicago.” (

The robust-voiced Kadan, finalist on The Voice, graces our urban holiday scene with a swinging, R&B-arranged tribute to our fair city, complete with bells, wailing sax, and accompanying choir. If you like dancing around the tree, this is your music.

Samara Joy, A Joyful Holiday. Verve, 2023.

This acclaimed rising star is certainly taking advantage of her new-flung fame. Shortly after offering an extended version of her hit album Linger Awhile, Verve released A Joyful Holiday, which features her Sarah Vaughan-like delivery on one new song (“Warm in December”) and several classics, while pairing her with artists like everybody’s favorite pianist Sullivan Fortner, singer Antonio McLendon, and The McLendon Family.

Accompanying her are Fortner, Pasquale Grasso on guitar, David Wong on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums.

Features of this release include two versions, studio and live, of “The Christmas Song” and a new duet (with Fortner) rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me.” And I enjoyed Fortner’s organ work on “O Holy Night.”

She may be too old to be called a prodigy, but Samara Joy’s rise in the past two years does make her precocious, relative to a great number of singers. This lovely album only cements that notion during her breakout year, 2023.

Gregory Porter, Christmas Wish. Blue Note/Decca, 2023.

Ms. Joy joins the dulcet baritone Gregory Porter on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, part of Porter’s latest release, Christmas Wish.

Beginning with a reverent, string-arranged “Silent Night,” Porter crafts a classic pop album mixing ancient and modern classics with three Porter-penned originals. Throughout, Troy Miller’s production keeps Porter in a generally relaxed mood, sprinkling strings with Crawford’s well-mixed piano.

The closest thing to jazz is “Christmas Waltz,” with his regular band of Chip Crawford on piano, Jahmal Nichols on bass, and Emmanuel Harrold on drums.

“Someday at Christmas” is a soul music wish for peace on earth. The title song, nostalgia-packed, is gospel-infused, with Ondre Pivec on organ with that chorus coming on strong behind Porter’s most energetic delivery.

Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” has an Anita Baker-vibe; “Cradle at Bethlehem” has some elements of Nat King Cole’s productions; the original “Heart for Christmas,” with an emphasis for children’s joy, begins with a sedate longing for a selfless spirit that leads to a dramatic interlude that emphasizes the point.

Porter also tackles other classics, with his deeper voice adorning “Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

But the original “Everything’s Not Lost” is unadorned with artificial glad tidings; instead Porter identifies with the struggler, with a chorus-backed proclamation that “Christmas and New Year is comin’ on strong.” Porter exclaims “Comfort and joy!” several times, as if hoping the repetition will lift one’s spirit. It’s part of the “balance” Porter wants in his expressions.

If you like Everything Gregory Porter, this new holiday album will not disappoint.

Happy Holidays to all of you!

About Jeff Cebulski

Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at


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