Chicago – Christmas: What's It Gonna Be, Santa? (2003)

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This being that special time of year and all, here’s a good occasion to tell you about my favorite latter-day Chicago album …

Trying to decipher the official numbering of Chicago albums after 19 is only slightly easier than calculating pi to its last decimal, but in 1998, the band issued its first Christmas album, dubbed 25 aka Chicago’s First Christmas. Five years after that, Chicago issued their second Christmas album, titled Christmas: What’s It Gonna Be, Santa?. Adding to the confusion, the second Christmas album isn’t fully a reissue of the first, nor is it a completely different sequel. Rather, it’s “25-plus.”

Recycling every track from the earlier release and then tacking on a half dozen newer tracks makes What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? the obvious pick of the two, as you get six more songs for the money. But I’m not here to dwell too much on a marketing sleight of hand, because it’s all about the quality of the music inside. As far as quality goes, this is actually some great yuletide music from start to finish.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Legendary jazz-rock drummer Danny Seraphine talks about the beginnings of Chicago, and the end, then how he finally emerged with a new band, California Transit Authority.]

I can come up with several reasons why this non-regular Chicago release is a sleeper pick. For one, the production by E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan for the 1998 tracks and the prolific Phil Ramone for the 2003 selections is clean as a hound’s tooth, and largely undated. They both give plenty of spotlight to the vaunted horn section (Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, Walt Parazaider), arranged some rich vocals—check out “What Child Is This”—and had most of the band members take turns at lead vocals, making this a very cooperative effort. Moreover, the songs for the most part are smartly pace at a consistently crisp midtempo vibe, enough to perk your ears up but not so much to get you too worked up; it’s the time to chill out, after all. A dollop of R’n’B, a dash of rock and a sprinkle of jazz give these old tunes a universal appeal while reminding us of what a diversely talented band Chicago has always been. To sum it up, this sounds a lot like vintage Chicago, not 1970 Chicago or 1986 Chicago…just Chicago.

Not to say this is up to the level of Chicago V, but when you hear Robert Lamm’s piano driven rendition of “The Christmas Song” with smooth horn charts swirling about you at least know right away that this is the same band that gave us “Saturday In The Park.” “Winter Wonderland” is even reharmonized to sound like a classic Lamm song, rather than a classic Christmas song. Loughnane took a rare lead vocal for a track on XXV and takes two more among the six newer tracks. Listening to these cuts, I wonder why he hadn’t been asked to step up to the mic more on record; “Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” introduces his smoky, soulful croon. He sounds even more commanding on the rollicking, finger-snapping “Sleigh Ride,” one of the best tracks of the album.

Bill Champlin’s funky-strut take on “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” fits his style to a “T”, and guitarist Keith Howland leads a rockin’ “Jolly Old Nicholas” that’s made even more fun with all the callouts to each of band members’ Xmas gift wishes. The strong choral vocals and accordion over the light hip hop rhythms “Little Drummer Boy” is a creative re-imagining of that song the comes together nicely, and amongst all the overly familiar yuletide selections is Donny Hathaway’s undernoticed holiday gem, “It’s Christmas” (YouTube above), a great soul song I could listen to any time of the year.

Freed from the pressure of coming up with another hit or rehashing old ones, Santa comes off as the most relaxed Chicago has sounded in ages. It reveals a band widely thought to be way past its prime can still conjure up some of that old magic given the right setting. Christmas is the happy time of the year and there’s nothing that sounds better than a happy Chicago band. That, in turn, makes listeners happy.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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