John Paul McGee
A Gospejazzical Christmas
Jazz Urbane (release date: November 16, 2023)
Guest review by David McGee
In A Gospejazzical Christmas, the first new recording we’ve heard from Dr. John Paul McGee, Ph.D., since his acclaimed 2022 release, Gospejazzical Vol. 1, the gifted pianist-songwriter-producer-vocal arranger (currently assistant chair of piano at the Berklee College of Music) offers his blend of gospel, jazz and classical—gospejazzical—in service to secular and sacred Christmas music, always with spectacular results.
He proves himself a wonderful crooner in the “smoky gray” style of Nat King Cole with a tender, deliberate but bittersweet reading of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” wherein a lyric such as “all our troubles will be miles away” sounds more like wishful thinking than blessed reassurance, and those “faithful friends who are dear to us” don’t really seem so dear in the moment. Actually, Dr. McGee’s ruminative take is closer to the song Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote in 1944 for Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis that was rejected as too despairing before filming began, necessitating the rewrite that became a seasonal classic.
That this was going to be no ordinary Christmas album was signaled at the start, however. The opening track, “Emmanuel,” not only has a tropical feel but darts in all directions, even quoting Chick Corea, in giving wide latitude to piano, guitar (Patrick Arthur) and the rhythm section of Larry Wilson (drums) and Joel Powell (bass), to take the melody, groove far out and then bring it back home. It’s not so Christmassy, but it gets your attention leading into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Which is followed by another surprise in the form of “Little Drummer Boy,” which goes places Harry Simeone never imagined, or if he did, didn’t have the nerve to go there. Dr. McGee serves notice from the outset of this being no ordinary drummer boy (and let it be said that drummer Wilson takes this occasion for an impressive song-length showcase of his instrument’s expressiveness rhythmically and texturally) when he interpolates the bass line from Vince Guaraldi’s ”Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, a connection Dr. McGee seems to emphasize towards the end when his flurry of glissandos recalls the falling snowflakes effect Guaraldi first employed on his tune “Ginza” and later repurposed more memorably in A Charlie Brown Christmas. And speaking of Guaraldi, “Little Drummer Boy” is followed by a lovely reading of “Christmas Time is Here,” another Charlie Brown Christmas tune turned seasonal classic, here benefitting from a sultry, throaty vocal by Lori Wilson that captures the glow of “Yuletide by the fireside” and sets up a heart tugging finish when, reaching into her upper register, she adds palpable emotional intensity to the closing sentiment, “Oh, that we could always see/such spirit through the year.”
These are unforgettable moments, and more are at hand. Consider a cool five minutes-plus workout on “What Child is This,” featuring a sensuous, probing Patrick Arthur guitar solo before Dr. McGee returns to re-establish the theme and then work his own variations on same, all in the same gentle groove. Consider a most unexpected solo piano take on “O Holy Night,” which, if one’s ears do not deceive him, incorporates Stravinsky-esque touches of dissonance and possibly a couple of fleeting interpolations of “Just As I Am,” the Christian hymn dating from 1835 that persuaded Billy Graham to convert to Christianity after first hearing it in 1934 and then adopting it as the altar call song for his fabled crusades.
Consider a majestic treatment of a modern Christmas classic, “Mary, Did You Know,” introduced in 1991 by Christian music icon Michael English on his first solo album. Dr. McGee’s solo piano version honors the haunting nature of the original vocal version, with its litany of unanswered, some would say unfathomable, existential questions, and as he improvises variations on the original theme Dr. McGee remains reverent and respectful of the song’s intent to convey, as one prominent Catholic author says, “the beauty and profound mystery of the Incarnation.” Which in turn sets up the big finish with a sprightly, swinging 4/4 treatment of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and a “Go Tell It On the Mountain” complete with ragtime flourishes in its arrangement and Dr. McGee’s committed testifying underscoring the urgency of proclaiming the moment of Christ’s birth “over the hills and everywhere.” At the same time, consider A Gospejazzical Christmas a Yuletide essential for this season and for Christmases yet to come.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Mary, Did You Know,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain”
David McGee is the founder/publisher/editor of the online publication Deep Roots (“Roots Music & Meaningful Matters”), author of three biographies (including Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly), former assistant curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and from 1975-2000 a Rolling Stone staff and freelance writer and editor.