December 14, 2020. La Lucha’s Everybody Wants to Rule the World—with its ensemble cast and eclectic mix of Klezmer-flavored cumbias, Columbian bambucos, anthemic post-bop originals, and Jukebox Jazz-flavored covers—is among my favorite albums of 2020. So, imagine my delighted surprise to learn that they’ve taken it upon themselves to do for the Christmas album what Everybody Wants to Rule the World did for “Lullaby of Birdland.”
Every classic eventually needs a makeover, and if these guys can make George Shearing look good in clothes from Tito Puente’s closet, then they’ve earned the right to take a crack at rejuvenating the beloved yet not-always-easily borne concept that is the holiday album.
The effort here, New Holiday Classics, is co-led by vocalist and woodwinder Adrian Cunningham and, like Everybody Wants to Rule the World, features a robust ensemble of guests. As for the tunes themselves, the songwriting duo of Gloria Muñoz and Mark Feinman (La Lucha’s drummer) aimed for a collection that truly reflected a year that’s been unlike any other.
“We listen to the same holiday songs year after year after year,” Muñoz wrote in the album’s liner notes. “But this year is different because we are different. 2020 changed the world in unimaginable ways.”
That means instead of lovingly restored and reconsidered hand-me-downs this season, Cunningham and La Lucha have opted for a full paradigmatic shift, a 10-song set entirely composed of originals.
Are they really “new holiday classics”? Perhaps a tad presumptuous. But, hey, if you can’t believe in yourself at holiday time, when can you?
The jazz purist might be disheartened by the record’s relative scarcity of straight-ahead repertoire; that’s not to say it isn’t there. With Cunningham’s light vocal touch and playful runs on flute, the woody bounciness of Alejandro Arenas’ acoustic bass, and the warmth coming from John O’Leary’s piano and Feinman’s brushes, “Florida Holiday,” is the perfect opener: light, agreeable, and faintly nostalgic—like a Christmas-themed version of La La Land.
The penultimate “It’s So Good to be Bad” is another one that will scratch the itch for light holiday cocktail jazz. Cunningham’s vocals are endearingly sinister to match cleverly misanthropic and antagonistic lyrics. This Cunningham’s out to make sport of ruining your holiday, and he intends to enjoy himself. Somebody call the authorities; this crooner means business!
Other redeeming cuts include the closer, “Snowfall,” which seems specifically designed evoke the holiday seasons of my adolescence, sounding very much indeed like the emo-heavy songwriting of early 2000s Guster, complete with the earnest march-like drumming that once imbued legions of suburban teenagers with a sense of exaltedness far beyond their usually modest self-concepts. If the idea was to get me to admit that, yes, those really were the best of days…well, then, you got me, Mr. Cunningham. King’s to you! Everyone else is crying too, right?
“New Year’s Day” may also get to you, but this one’s less overtly maudlin and more clear-eyed about the emotional ambivalence most people are experiencing this holiday season. Backed by an arrangement for string quartet by NEA Jazz Master Dick Hyman, guest vocalist Clairdee fronts a powerful ballad anchored melodically in “Auld Lang Syne.” The lyrics nod solicitously to a collective weariness while underscoring the innate resilience of the human condition. As Clairdee takes a breather, Cunningham takes up the cause on clarinet, reiterating the fortitude of the human spirit for those listeners who only understand woodwind.
Those same folks will almost certainly enjoy exuberant turns from Cunningham on both clarinet and flute on the whimsical, almost Hamilton-like, “Dapper Winter’s Best”— even if they don’t quite grasp the full effect of Muñoz’s comedic premise. Cunningham sings about being the type of character who prefers the cold, gray winter days because the weather better suits the full-coverage character of his wardrobe. This was no doubt a fun one for the guys of La Lucha, not just because they’re a South Florida-based trio but because they make their vocal debut here, too.
But if there really is one tune here with a snowball’s chance in warm weather of becoming a “new classic,” it’s “Nochebuena,” a vallenato cha-cha showcasing the ascendant Chilean singer and guitarist Camila Meza. Accompanied by a quartet of strings, vibes (Marty Morell), multiple percussionists (Michiko Ohta and Patrick Hernly), and Cunningham on flute, this one readjusts the thermostat so that you might feel your hips enough to, perhaps, shake them.