John Baumgardner – Fruitcake with Nuts (2011)

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John Baumgardner’s Fruitcake with Nuts, which joins a teetering stack of Christmas-themed recordings, nevertheless finds a way to stand out in the crowd. Some of that is due to the pianist’s choice of material, which doesn’t always hew to conventions. He also does a terrific job of tinkering with the arrangements on more familiar sides, adding new crackle to several time-honored chestnuts.

The album starts, though, in the most straight forward of ways: As a wintry wind encircles everything, Baumgardner and and the Paper Doll Baptists begin playing a lilting rendition of the traditional “Good King Wencelas,” drawing the listener into the album’s Yuletide atmosphere with a sense of childlike wonder. “Love and Joy (the Wassail Song)” adds a marching band rhythm by drummer Darrel Cotton, as Baumgardner gathers himself a series of spritely runs at the keyboard. As a full complement of strings and bells joins them, Amy Hueneman makes her first appearance as a vocalist – singing with an open-hearted, hand-clapping joy. The track is as propulsive as it is spirit filled.

Baumgardner’s actually three tracks in before he begins switching things up – first by settling into a kind of twilight remembrance at the piano for an interesting take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” a song typically so upbeat that it threatens to send you to the dentist for a cavity. Hueneman downshifts into a quieter, more emotional place, too, and the track’s late-night mood is complete. Just that quickly, though, upright bassist Steve Hall helps propel the group into a jazz-inflected swing on “Come On-a My House,” perhaps most famously done by Rosemary Clooney. Markita Conner takes over on vocals, singing with a fleet sense of purpose, even as Baumgardner – ever the smart companion – matches her stride for stride. Conner again handles the lead on “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” Baumgardner and Co. begin with a delicately wrought opening refrain, before ramping up into a pop-rock sizzle that at first completely modernizes this traditional gospel tune – until a misplaced synthesizer solo, straight out of the shag-carpeted 1970s, slows things to a crawl. It’s one of the rare stumbles on Fruitcake with Nuts.

The ship is righted quickly with “The Hallelujah Chorus,” as Baumgardner’s circular piano shapes are perfectly completed by a well-placed string arrangement and Conner’s oaken turn at the microphone. Hueneman returns to sing a soaring background accompaniment, and their voices intertwine with a perfect symmetry. The chorus also includes Sherrie Philpot.

“Christmas On TV,” the Chris Isaak track, is given a tender-hearted update – with Hueneman’s lead joined by Baumgardner’s contemplative piano asides. Becky Miller sings in soft duet, making the second of three appearances on Fruitcake with Nuts. The violin solo, which echoes the traditional composition “Silent Night,” only adds to the note-perfect elegiac tone. Baumgardner then abruptly switches gears, as sleigh bells herald the arrival of the joyously upbeat “Zat You, Santa Claus?,” perhaps most famously performed by Louis Armstrong. Conner’s vocal can’t approach Satchmo’s twinkling humor, but she sings with a fun efficiency. Baumgardner plays with a pounding delight.

Hueneman returns for the “Grinch” favorite “Welcome Christmas,” another rocking redo that starts with this very traditional introductory segment. After the expected holiday bells, and a showy dusting of organ fills, the track bursts out of its shell with a limber rhythm led by electric bassist Matt Hueneman, who co-produced Fruitcake with Nuts alongside Baumgardner. Not sure how the Whos would feel about this Whoville-shaking update, but it sure is entertaining. On the other hand, “The Christmas Tree That Ran Away,” memorable from the Fisher Price record-player days as performed by the Peter Pan Caroleers, is approached with a kind, irony-free reverence. Hueneman approaches the lyric – told from the point of view of a Yuletide tree that, at first, doesn’t get selected – without any artifice, echoing her similarly sensitive reading of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”

“Waltz of the Angels,” with a lead by Philpot and a French spoken interlude by Barry Comer, is so finespun and twinkly – with Baumgardner doubling his own keyboard signature at the toy piano – that you’d swear there were sugarplums dancing over their heads. The album closes, perhaps as expected, with “Auld Lang Syne,” but again Baumgardner’s arrangement keeps even this choice from feeling rote. Linda Stark’s lonely turn on the violin is paired with another of Conner’s darkly intriguing vocals.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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