Fantasia - Christmas after Midnight

Fantasia
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’Tis the season to add some holiday spirit to your soul-music diet. Although full-length Christmas albums by modern R&B artists don’t come as regularly as they once did, us grown folks have been treated to more than a few memorable yuletide sets in recent years by the likes of Kenny Lattimore, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Butler, Maysa, and Marilyn Scott. This year, we can add Fantasia’s Christmas after Midnight to the stocking stuffer lists, as the ever-adventurous vocalist has unleashed a 12-song collection which captures both the comforts and excitement of the 25th of December without frills or pretension.

’Tis the season to add some holiday spirit to your soul-music diet. Although full-length Christmas albums by modern R&B artists don’t come as regularly as they once did, us grown folks have been treated to more than a few memorable yuletide sets in recent years by the likes of Kenny Lattimore, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Butler, Maysa, and Marilyn Scott. This year, we can add Fantasia’s Christmas after Midnight to the stocking stuffer lists, as the ever-adventurous vocalist has unleashed a 12-song collection which captures both the comforts and excitement of the 25th of December without frills or pretension.

Produced by the venerable Ron Fair (Natalie Cole, Macy Gray, The O’Jays), who also helmed Fantasia’s 2016 set, The Definition Of…, Christmas after Midnight works especially well thanks to a thoughtfully sequenced selection of both the expected and the unexpected. The tracklist ranges in timbre from a take on James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” that is at once endearing and gritty, to the gently nuanced, sassy interpretation of Ray Charles’ “The Snow Is Falling,” and a sweet and jazzy delivery of the standard, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” The common denominator of these selections and others—in addition to Fantasia’s adept stylistic choices—is a remarkable live rhythm section that truly reverberates calm and cheer in a manner that few albums these days (holiday-themed or otherwise) possess. Pianist/organist Jim Cox, guitarist John Goux, upright bassist Darek Oales, and drummer Gary Novak are a few of the players through the majority of cuts who maintain the traditional qualities of the material while injecting festive sparks on a regular basis to complement Fantasia’s emotional shadings.

Christmas after Midnight opens with Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” which has gone far beyond “standard” status to being a “standard opener” on countless holiday albums. While this version doesn’t break down any walls or turn the song around in any way, the arrangement is authentic in its vibrancy and Fantasia’s vocal is more colorful and gutsier than many of her peers’ adaptations. A duet with Ceelo Green on another perennial favorite, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” strikes a nice balance of understatement and zeal. Ceelo wraps laid back phrasing around her coquettish tones, resulting in a lucid, unaffected give and take that’s most likable.

For full-fledged purists, there are stylishly palatable readings of “The Christmas Song” (enhanced by Dan Higgins’ subtle flute harmony lines and a tenor sax solo by Gary Bias); “Give Love on Christmas Day” (presented in an endearingly simple piano-vocal arrangement); and a short and feisty, fittingly bluesy “Merry Christmas, Baby,” which embellishes Fantasia’s rousing touches with zesty piano fills and sprightly horn bursts. Furthermore, her treatment of “Silent Night” is nothing less than majestic, abetted by Larry Koonse’s stunning string guitar strummings and Ron Fair’s enrapturing vibraphone and glockenspiel ornamentation.

With Christmas after Midnight, Fantasia and her talented backing musicians have rendered a well-rounded, soul-satisfying set that never feels forced or rushed. The chemistry she shares with the band makes for a timeless batch of recordings that should set the bar a bit higher for fellow contemporary artists looking to infiltrate the Christmas music market. Whether with family or alone, during the holiday season or any other cold time of the year, the album exudes an unmistakable warmth in which listeners can bask. Highly recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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