In 2013, Jonathan Butler delivered a holiday collection, Merry Christmas to You, rich with emotional tunes, internationally spiced melodic arrangements, and seasonally strong vocal prowess. The South African purveyor of spiritually charged vocal soul and jazz-inflected guitar mastery has made a career of fusing memorable R&B with jazzy undertones and gospel influences both in his singing and playing, and he rarely lets up on any end of the musical paradigm.
Butler’s new holiday set, Christmas Together, shows evidence of each of these qualities, if not as fully and memorably as fans might be accustomed to. There are several noteworthy moments which conjure the kind of soulful yuletide found on Merry Christmas to You; yet, despite an array of high-profile, highly proficient guest musicians, the overall effectiveness of Christmas Together is not up to par with the care and effort that typically resonates from Butler’s albums.
The disc opens with a rendition of “Winter Wonderland” that is smooth and pleasant, but fails to register any excitement or contentment with its stretched-out choruses and overly understated vocal performance. The mood quickly shifts to melancholy with a take on “Mary Did You Know?” featuring vocalist Shelea duetting with Butler. The live drums and strings here make for a more comforting vibe; but once again, Butler doesn’t seem as invested in his vocal presentation as usual. Shelea, however, adds a boldly textured element, delivered with gentleness.
Keiko Matsui contributes her piano prowess to a serviceable instrumental rendering of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” while Dave Koz blows his soprano sax on a mellow treatment of “Joy to the World” (splitting the melody with Butler’s guitar). It makes for a pleasing contemporary jazz moment, if not particularly evoking any distinct holiday spirit. Contrastingly, a groovy adaptation of “Deck the Halls” (spotlighting Gerald Albright’s ever-reliable alto and tenor sax talents) makes for a merrier listening experience; but at just over two minutes long, its effect is akin to a last-minute ornament addition to the Christmas tree.
More impactful is the version of “We Three Kings”—the strongest instrumental entry on Christmas Together—featuring Rick Braun on trumpet and trombone. Rusian Sirota’s piano nuances are a stylish complement to Butler’s pensive strumming, while Gorden Campbell’s drum groove is right in the pocket. Meanwhile, the set’s lone original tune, “Love Is,” makes for relaxing background music—if not particularly memorable solely on the merits of a cozy melody.
Butler’s reading of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is certainly the centerpiece of the album. Singing accompanied only by Sirota’s piano and Adrienne Woods on cello, he conveys a natural vulnerability and earnest emotion that is convincing in each note. Subsequently, an instrumental interpretation of “Away in a Manger” (also featuring Koz on sax) stands out thanks to the rich concert between the rhythm section players alongside Koz’s delightful harmony with Butler’s guitar. Closing out the set, a festive “Jingle Bells” finds Butler letting loose a bit vocally atop a funky arrangement decorated with Kirk Whalum on soprano and baritone sax—punctuated by the rhythmic sousaphone riffs of Stephen Oberheu towards the close.
In all, Christmas Together is an agreeable collection of holiday standards rendered with reasonable feeling and color, but generally without the attention to detail and diversity that makes most of Butler’s work especially vibrant. With a few exceptions that tap deeper into the emotive well of both merriment and soberness behind the Christmas holidays, it will likely find a welcome home in the collections of devoted fans—but perhaps not be convincing enough to recruit new listeners. Moderately recommended.