Bluegrass ensemble John Reischman and the Jaybirds and solo guitarist Sean McGowan offer new albums that you’ll return to for many holiday seasons to come.
by Dan Gabel
December 22, 2014
Holiday music can be tricky. One schmaltzy rendition of any holiday song and the spirit is crushed. But discovering tasteful versions of Christmas classics or rare holiday gems brings me right back to my ho, ho, ho. Fortunately, there are talented roots artists jumping into the holiday music fray this season. My two heavy-rotation albums of the past month are John Reischman and the Jaybirds’ EP On a Winter's Night and Sean McGowan’s Thanksgiving and Christmas Tidings.
Reischman and the Jaybirds are a regular fixture on the bluegrass and old-time touring circuit, bringing their mix of traditional tunes, songs, and original compositions to stages for the past several years. The eight-song EP On a Winter's Night has deep folk-music origins, inspired by the book American Folk Songs for Christmas written by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the classic CD of the same name recorded by Ruth’s children: Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger.
Here, Reischman and the Jaybirds (Trisha Gagnon on bass, Nick Hornbuckle on banjo, Jim Nunally on guitar, and Greg Spatz on fiddle) rotate in various small ensembles to fit the spirit of each of the tracks. This ranges from the beautiful opening spiritual, “I Heard from Heaven Today,” featuring Gagnon on vocals, to the lilting instrumental “Christmas Eve,” featuring Hornbuckle’s banjo lines weaving with Reischman’s mandolin, to the full band on the bluegrass take on “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby.” It’s a wonderful mix that highlights a versatile, sophisticated band digging into material that they clearly respect. thejaybirds.com
Fingerstyle jazz guitarist Sean McGowan’s Thanksgiving and Christmas Tidings is a 16-track solo guitar outing. McGowan, who serves as the Guitar Program Director at the University of Colorado Denver, tackles some infrequently heard melodies, like “We Gather Together” and “The Cutty Wren,” and mixes them with some holiday giants. In McGowan’s hands, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is a beautiful jazz piece, with inventive runs punctuating the swinging chord-melody arrangement. His opening descending line in “Jingle Bells” is an immediate cue that this is a fresh take on the classic. And McGowan carries his loose, blues-inspired preamble to “Go Tell It on the Mountain” throughout his take on the tune, again breathing life into a well-known melody. McGowan has made an instrumental holiday album that I want to actively listen to, not just have as pleasant, familiar background. And, he’s made a great album that makes me appreciate all that can be done with the combination of familiar tunes, a single guitar, and supremely talented hands. seanmcgowanguitar.com
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