With the season of Fall just barely coming to pass last week and many still rocking summer gear, it's probably hard to even think about Christmas, much less the music. But when someone conveys the sentiments of the season with the fervor and finesse of Jonathan Butler, listeners might be tempted to warm up the cocoa anyway while absorbing what he brings to his first-ever holiday recording, Merry Christmas To You.
After over a dozen studio CDs and collaborations on-stage and in the studio with the best and brightest of the music industry, Jonathan pours those enviable gifts of production, songwriting, guitar virtuosity and vocal instrumentation into traditional favorites and two self-penned performances. The presence of some very high-profile players certainly doesn't hurt (Rick Braun, Dave Koz, Dan Lutz and his own daughter Jodie, to name a few), but his unique talents remain the most prominent: Jonathan's South African roots are prominently at the top of "Little Drummer Boy," riding hearty chants and a powerful percussive wave into a mid-tempo sway of a groove, while the typically droll "First Noel" glides in via eloquent acoustics and soars throughout. "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" isn't as well-known as the others, but the sparing conveyance provided with just his emotive tenor and that trusty guitar could easily make it new holiday favorite.
Thanks to the spirit that Jonathan pours into the project and the glistening, glib tones of his voice, even the songs you might be the weariest of get new life: Butler's instrumental version of "Sleigh Ride," for example, is earnest and energetic, and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is poignantly rendered with just enough creaks to keep the saccharine at bay. Some of Merry's greatest moments come from the originals, such as the lovey-dovey 1950s-recalling title track (think poodle skirts, horn-rimmed glasses and penny loafers) and another instant earworm, "Happy Holidays": both of them are sweet enough to play around kids and sensual enough to keep "the mood" right long after they're tucked in and dreaming of St. Nick.
Despite the occasional skip-worthy numbers---Jonathan sounds downright rudderless on the opening Donny Hathaway cover, "This Christmas," and "O Holy Night" is about two minutes too long---Jonathan Butler demonstrates why he's such an enduring force in contemporary jazz and soul and yes, even how it's never too early to curl up and chill out with some audible holiday cheer. After all, didn't he keep us waiting long enough?Highly Recommended.
By Melody Charles