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Santa's Got a Brand New Bag

Picks and pans in this year's holiday releases

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Will Christmastime 2001 erase the memory of Sept. 11? Of course not. What the holiday will do, however, is allow America a moment to pause and catch its breath. Our families will gather, talk and touch. We'll sing the blues, say a prayer and collectively sip from the cup of redemption.

Accordingly, I propose a Christmas toast and hoist a symbolic glass filled to the brim with a mixture of sweet honey and salty tears. Drink up, friends, and celebrate the art of living by re-enacting all the chestnut-warm rituals of December, American-style, like exuberantly chanting the love mantras contained within the lyrics of yuletide carols. Enjoy the sonic tonic of such seasonal classics as "Jingle Bells" and Irving Berlin's wistful warhorse, "White Christmas," along with newly anointed standards like "Christmas Time is Here," popularized by a chrome-domed comic-strip boy with an ego-crushing case of self-doubt. Good old Charlie Brown, the stumble-bumble beneficiary of pianist Vince Guaraldi's jazzy soundtrack, will reprise his role as the ultimate Christmas anti-hero, dancing in spite of himself.

As usual, this year's sack of holiday wax is a mixed bag. High-profile Scrooges include .38 Special (A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night, CMC) and Destiny's Child (Eight Days of Christmas, Columbia). One recycles limp cock-rock in need of Viagra; the other trades bootyliciousness for bah-humbuggedness. Warning to DC fans: This slick-but-shallow disc ain't about funk but floss, starring Beyoncé as a one-dimensional Material Girl.

In fact, DC's Li'l Miss Knowles could learn a thing or two from a pair of old-school divas with just as much attitude--and heaps more soul: Nancy Wilson, 64, has waited a lifetime to fashion a full-length holiday disc: Barbra Streisand, 59, recorded her first holiday album 35 years ago. Not surprisingly, both Wilson's (A Nancy Wilson Christmas, Telarc) and Streisand's (Christmas Memories, Columbia) are major new works, artfully crafted and fueled by seasonal spirit.

Wilson's loose-limbed recital is a bona fide jazz record--straight, no chaser. Recorded at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh, her sassy warble benefits from top-drawer accompaniment, including the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band, flutist Herbie Mann and pianist Monty Alexander. "Let It Snow" and "Silver Bells" bookend gut-bucket swing. "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" goes to church, while "White Christmas," recast as a samba, visits the Deep South--Brazil! Even Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" customarily a polite proposal, burns with the potency of a double scotch at closing time. When Wilson wraps her come-hither oohs and ahs around Darmon Miller's molasses-dipped tenor, the mood suggests the romantic push-pull of a late-night rendezvous.

Streisand's offering, Christmas Memories, is more formal by a mile--a limousine of a disc motored by a heavenly orchestra and the cream of the L.A. studio Mafia. Always a sensitive interpreter of lyrics, Streisand employs stunning virtuosity to ornament her storytelling. Part singer, part actor, she can seemingly italicize a word with a cracked whisper, or deliver a shout that cuts like a bugle call. Every syllable, no matter how insignificant, is delivered in service to the song.

And what fantastic songs these are: Besides evergreens like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Ave Maria," Streisand commissioned several works by her composer pals, Alan & Marilyn Bergman. She also unveils a retooled interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's poignant "I Remember," replete with detailed images of Decembers gone by.

One new ballad, "Closer," rides a simple but irresistible piano motif over which Streisand croons couplets comparing flickering firelight and black midnight. With this intimate arrangement, peppered with pockets of silence, Streisand may have created a new chapter in the songbook of holiday tunes.

Christmas Memories fails in only one respect: It's not a dance record. So for you diehard terpsichoreans, there's Playboy's Latin Jazz Christmas (Playboy Jazz/Concord), which serves up a combustible cocktail of rumba and cha cha cha. The 11 sleek charts are dance-floor ready, propelled by congas, timbales and some of the hottest salsa-jazz players on the Left Coast. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval burns like una casa en fuego. Sheila E rekindles Eartha Kitt's hot-cat act on "Santa Baby," while her papa, Pete Escovedo, stacks mambo beats atop "Feliz Navidad."

For fans of spirited improv, there's more: If you're partial to Vince Guaraldi's sugarplum piano on the Peanuts 'toons, you'll dig Jazzy Christmas (Vertical Jazz), a bubbling jam session showcasing five different all-star bands. Piano trios fronted by David Benoit and Patrice Rushen effervesce, lifting "O' Tannenbaum" and "Christmas Time is Here" straight off Schroeder's music stand. Later, the jazz and Christmas repertoires get all mixed up when a snippet of Benny Golson's streetwise "Killer Joe" threatens the purity of "White Christmas." Such inside jokes make Jazzy Christmas a groovy find for the beatnik on your list.

Several freshly assembled compilations of vintage seasonal tunes also make for cool gift giving. Rhino Records, whose catalog is rife with holiday cheer, unveils Swingin' Christmas, an anthology of big-band nuggets waxed between 1942 and '95. The joint jumps when gravel-voiced Louis Prima growls "Shake Hands with Santa Claus." Then Muzak-maestro Esquivel shows up, juxtaposing jaunty slide guitar and sleigh bells. Louis Armstrong, a prolific caroler, appears thrice and crooner Jack Jones, twice.

The neatest cut, however, highlights one Bob Francis, a Sinatra knock-off who plays rough with the Baby Jesus in "That Swingin' Manger": "The cows, they went moo-moo," rasps Francis, "and woke up the kid. But that little trooper didn't flip his lid." Francis' mocking Vegas-strip shtick is livelier than Rip Taylor's rug--and twice as hip. EndBlock

A Treasury of Golden Christmas Songs (Koch). A bland title for a riveting gospel-flavored "best of" rescued from the vaults of the Vee-Jay label, the busy Chicago-based indie of the '50s and '60s. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama quake, while Jerry "Ice Man" Butler--years before he crossed over as a soul-music icon--shakes.

VH1: The Big '80s/Christmas (Rhino). Despite bogus liner notes and generic packaging, this is a rollicking 15-cut nostalgia trip through the punk and New Wave eras. Natch, it's heavy on the mousse and eyeliner, featuring Queen, The Waitresses and the notoriously odd coupling of Bowie 'n' Bing (sans makeup!).

MAXJAZZ Holiday (MAXJAZZ). One of the best-kept secrets in jazz is this tiny St. Louis-based imprint that specializes in contemporary vocal discs produced with big-time pizzazz. If you haven't yet met the label's expansive roster of singers, including ex-Count Basie songstress Mary Stallings and saucy Christine Hitt, it's time to get acquainted. Because of MAXJAZZ, the "St. Louis Blues" has a whole new meaning.

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