By Randy Freedman
Over the years that I have written for Chicago Jazz Magazine, I think that my memory for remembering the how and where of my first meeting with jazz performers has been pretty good. But when I recently read online that the talented Chicago vocalist Angel Spiccia was about to release a new holiday music themed CD called Let lt Snow (along with members of the Millikin University Music Department) I struggled with remembering the details of our first meeting.
Fortunately, Spiccia 's memory was better than mine. I approached her with this subject. when my friend pianist Jurek Jablonski and I caught her performance at the charming Evanston hideaway Bourbon and Brass Speakeasy, which is in the same building and has the same ownership as the " Rock and Ravoli" restaurant, where we had dinner. By the way try the Toasted Ravioli Dippers, Pasta Gabriella, and Emerson, Lake, And Pot Roast. When asked Angel, she immediately offered that we first met at either 3160 (in Chicago) or Chambers (in Niles) both are currently closed and both were home at one time to jazz icon Judy Roberts. Vocalist Paul Marinaro, who used to appear with Roberts at 3160, once told me there "That all roads lead to Judy Roberts." How true that has proven to be, certainly for me. Roberts was my first mentor when I began to write for Chicago Jazz Magazine. It was with her help that I began the journey that has lead to my writing this article for my readers today.
Spiccia, a 2003 graduate of Millikin University with degrees in Commercial Music and Music Business, has more than proven herself to be one of Chicago's most versatile musical talents.
Whether Spiccia is crooning thoughtful and romantic ballads, thrilling her audience with the latest rock hit, or being cheered by thousands of the Wrigley Field faithful as she leads the Seventh Inning Stretch in "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" Angel Spiccia has made a lasting impression on all who have been privileged to hear her perform
CD REVIEW - LET IT SNOW
Vocals - Angel Spiccia
Piano - Steve Widenhoter
BasS - Christopher Nolte
Guitar - David Burdick
Drums - Brian Justison
Saxophone - Perry Rask
Trumpet - Randall Rayman
Design - Maurice Spiccia
Selecting a repertoire of often recorded holiday songs probably did not represent a particularly difficult challenge for Spiccia but making them sound as new and fresh as they do on Let it Snow certainly was. The apparent goal was to deliver satisfyingly sweet and original versions of melodies already embedded in our subconscious without radical reinterpretation.
Combining striking good looks and irrepressible musical talent with her engaging, upbeat, personality made Spiccia the perfect choice to record these year end holiday music favorites and while doing it she was able to revisit some proud Milikin roots along the way. “Celebrating the holiday spirit through jazz, it’s something we love doing,” said Brian Justison,drummer and Millikin professor in an interview with the Herald And Review.
Highlights of the new recording include:
"Let It Snow" and "The Christmas Waltz." Both songs were written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne in Hollywood, California, during a heat wave, as Cahn and Styne imagined cooler conditions. Let It Snow was first recorded for RCA Victor in 1945 by Vaughn Monroe and became a Billboard No 1 hit.
According to Wikipedia, Cahn recalled of "The Christmas Waltz", "One day during a very hot spell in Los Angeles the phone rang and it was Julie Styne to say, 'Frank wants a Christmas song.' Cahn resisted, explaining that any notion of attempting a holiday hit, so closely on the heels of Irving Berlin's hugely successful 'White Christmas' was "ridiculous" but Styne was emphatic. 'Frank wants a Christmas song.' The two met in Styne's apartment to begin work on the project, and Cahn asked the composer, 'Hey, Jule, has there ever been a Christmas waltz?' He said no. I said, 'Play that waltz of yours.' He did so" and Cahn began work on the lyrics of 'The Christmas Walttz', which many other artists, ranging from Etta James to the Carpenters, have also recorded."
Spiccia's rendition of the title song, "Let It Snow" is upbeat, joyous, and seems to revel in its own directness. Where some of the other selections on this CD may be more sophisticated and have layered meanings, in my mind there is a lot to be said, for the sheer simplicity of the "we are stuck in the snow, we might as well enjoy it", message offered here.
The lyrics of "The Christmas Waltz" offer the sharing of intimate sincerity with the listener. Spiccia's voice sounds like there is a charming smile on her lips as she sings “time of year when the world falls in love,” along with a wistfulness that give her vocals the needed gravity. When she wraps up her descriptions of “frosted window panes” and “painted candy canes” and ends the waltz with her very best wishes for the season, she sounds like she’s sending those well wishes directly to us.
“Christmas Time Is Here” originated on the animated television feature A Charlie Brown Christmas. Some listeners were originally surprised to find that that such a sophisticated jazz tune should have been written and conceived by a brilliant composer like Guraldi, for what they dismissed as a mere children's cartoon instead of the ensuing television classic it has proven to be. The slightly melancholy melody of this song, in sharp contrast to the joyful lyrics, accurately depicts the real life duality of modern society's attitude toward the Christmas holidays and their commercialization. Spiccia wisely chooses to present the song in a very hopeful, yet serious manner that allows the listener to decide for themselves if further consideration is called for.
It may not be politically correct to coyly barter “good" behavior in exchange for rings, furs, and autos with Santa Claus, but it sure is fun to listen to Spiccia do it, during one of the most entertaining Christmas standards of the 1950s. "Santa Baby," is a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the holidays’ glittery consumptions, that frolics on a not so fine line drawn between camp and sultriness. Spiccia uses tone, phrasing, inflection, and humor to maximum effect here.
As most classic Christmas music does, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" both date back to WWII, when the human race seemed to be facing a dark, uncertain future. This is why many enduring holiday songs come with a cold tendril of dread running through them.“I’ll be home for Christmas, but only in my dreams” reflected the foreboding felt by our soldiers stationed abroad. Maybe a little too well. Judy Garland insisted that some of the lyrics be lightened before the song made its movie debut in Meet Me In St Louis. Long after the war was over, in 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Hugh Martin to revise a line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." He told Martin, "The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas so you think you could jolly up that line for me?" Martin's new line was "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." It is good to be Sinatra and I think it sounded better, after the revision, anyway. Spiccia uses deliberate phrasing and a pleasing but matter of fact tone here to reemphasize the importance of the meaning of the words and the cautious optimism they suggest.
Like a beloved Christmas ornament on display in a prominent position on your Christmas tree, the piano and voice only arrangement of "Grown Up Christmas List" highlights the beautiful melody of this song. The honesty and sincerity that Spiccia delivers is rock solid and pianist Steve Widenhoter also gets a much deserved moment in the spotlight.
The slow, jazzy, tempos of “The Christmas Song,” combined with Spiccia's own natural guileless delivery bring a feeling of indoor warmth and comfort, much like sipping hot cocoa in front of the fireplace.
If you have come away from this review with the idea that I think Spiccia can sing just about anything, in any style, and make it sound great, you would be correct. Combined with stellar support from the Milikan music department, Let It Snow is the Holiday CD for the person who has long since grown tired and bored with Holiday CDs.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.