Stubbys House of Christmas       
1.  O Christmas Tree
2.  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
3.  Silent Night
4.  It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
5.  The First Noel
6.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
7.  We Three Kings
8.  Hark The Herald Angels Sing
9.  O Little Town Of Bethlehem
10. Angels We Have Heard On High


Eric Essix grew up in Alabama during the turbulent 60s.  There were the Beatles spearheading the British Invasion on one side, and the Gospel music within his hometown church on the other.  He grew up listening to Motown and Jimi Hendrix, but also to Wes Montgomery.  Essix began playing professionally in the 70s, cut his first national release, "First Impressions", in 1988, signed with WB/Zebra in 1998--topping the Smooth Jazz charts with "For Real" (from "Small Talk"), and started his own label (Essential Recordings) in 2002.  He's tried his hand at festival production, founding the annual Preserve Jazz Festival in Hoover, Alabama, spent a good deal of time working as a sideman in recent years for artists like Jeff Lorber and Peabo Bryson, and is helping to guide the career of Cece Phillips, the first artist signed to Essential in 2007.  In 2008, Essix recorded perhaps his best record to date, "Birmingham", bringing together all of the influences of his life.  Last year, he started yet another career as Artist Coordinator for the Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  Eric is also an inductee in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, entering in the same class with Pinetop Smith and Cootie Williams.

Fans had been asking Eric to record a Christmas album for a very long time and, last year, Eric finally thought the time was right.  So, in the midst of a triple digit July heatwave, Eric set out to record a solo guitar Christmas album.  Records have a way of determining their own path and, along the way, Eric added a few full ensemble pieces and invited percussionist Darrell Tibbs to work his magic on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  The decision to add the full ensemble pieces and some bells here and percussion there serves the album well, giving it balance, depth, and texture.  The end result is a very special, very intimate, and deeply spiritual Smooth Jazz holiday set.

You get an idea of how proficient Essix is from the fact that your ears would indicate that there’s a bass on nearly every track.  But, outside of the 3 tracks featuring a full band and one track where he plays bass himself, all those bass tracks you think you hear are simply Eric on the guitar, without any overdub.  

The album opens with "O Christmas Tree", which showcases well just what Eric can do with only his guitar.  Eric's take has a gentle bounce, reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi's work on piano, and understated soul.  Eric turns in a virtuoso jazz performance with echoes of Wes Montgomery on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" which manages to be very spiritual without ever being overtly gospel.  And Darrell Tibbs' percussion adds just the right touches and does it so well that he merely accentuates Eric's guitar work--pushing it even further to the fore--in a way that you almost don't notice he's there.

"Silent Night" is one of two ensemble pieces which previously appeared on the 2005 collection "A Soulful Christmas" and is a nice piece of Smooth Jazz, but not quite as spiritually invested as the rest of the album.  Eric starts the next track with an easy soulful sway which ultimately ascends into a dazzling yet, again, gentle jazz guitar solo.  After opening "The First Noel" by the book, so to speak, Eric takes the path less trod exploring a tributary of that stream with a solo that recalls some of Pat Metheny's "New Chataqua" playing.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is the other track dating back to 2005, but struck me as more soulful than "Silent Night".  Here Eric displays a bit of George Benson influence, but also hints of Miles Davis, surprisingly enough.  "We Three Kings" is another simple solo guitar piece, reminiscent of the album's opening number, while "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" shares the quiet spirituality of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel".

The third full ensemble piece, the newly recorded "O Little Town Of Bethlehem", finds Eric sharing the spotlight with sax player Melvin Butler and keyboard player Matt Rhode.  And the album closes with "Angels We Have Heard On High", which seems to bring all of Eric's influences and styles together in one softly and gloriously uplifting finale.

You won't find "My Gift To You" at Amazon or iTunes.  The album is only available at select outlets in Alabama (including online at Alabama's Guiding Light Church Bookstore) and through the Eric Essix web site.  But it's well worth seeking out.

Part of the proceeds of each disc sold will go to The Salvation Army and Fox Gifts for Kids Angel Tree.
1. A NOT Orindary Christmas......Alyssa Thompson
2. Impossible To Resist......Benny Moore 
3. This Thing Called Love......Raul Rodriguez, Jr. 
4. Christmas Lullabye......Christina Britton 
5. Dolly Llama’s Christmas Ramba......Richard Del Val
6. Gimme Toys......Ian Burrage 
7. Christmas Baby Blues......Inge Jave 
8. I'm A Snowman......Ray Sharp
9. Christmas Angel......Judy Teo 
10. Write You A Love Song......Dean Leo
11. List For Christmas......Yolande Strauss
12. It Only Takes A Second......Sarah K. Holaway


It's a tragedy that I haven't gotten around to reviewing this album sooner.  I think this is among the best of the year and I'll tell you why I believe that.  First of all, while (as it says to the right) readers should assume that everything reviewed on the site has been provided in exchange for promotional consideration, I'll tell you flat out that this one wasn't.  I have a limited budget and a lot of Christmas releases to choose from, OK?  I first bought the download of this album.  When the hard copy CD became available, I immediately bought that.  Once I had the hard copy in my hands, listened to it again, saw how beautiful it was, I bought 2 more copies.  I don't often buy multiple copies of CDs (vinyl, sometimes), except as gifts.  These were for me.  This is the kind of release, printed in small numbers, that will be available in hard copy for another year, maybe.

Not enough evidence that I truly think this a great album?  Since the hard copy CD arrived, I go to bed every night with the song "Impossible To Resist" in my head.  And I wake up every day with either that one or "This Thing Called Love" in my head.  And it's a good thing.  I don't plan it that way, but those songs are upbeat and positive and put me in a good frame of mind.  I'm listening to a ton of Christmas music and those are the songs in my head. 

"A Not Ordinary Christmas" is the brainchild of Casia, the lyricist for all of the songs on the album (You may or may not recall my little rant about the rise of the new paradigm).  Casia collaborated with the writers of the music over the Internet, and the artists collaborated with each other via the Webs as well.  Roughly 40 musicians took part in the effort (I think 38 was the official count) and multiple genres and countries are represented here. 

The album leads off with the title cut, a bouncy Adult Contemporary number that probably would have been glorious with the budget to hire a full-on 500 voice gospel choir.  As it is, it comes off as more of a show tune (not my genre of choice), though a pretty good one.  Then comes "Impossible To Resist", sung by Benny Moore, which is just a perfect hooky Top 40 tune--the kind of Pop song that would dominate the hit radio stations if a performer or band with a name were releasing it.  And there's just a touch of sleighbells, here--barely noticeable, but enough to subtly shift your brain to a winter frame.  Two songs in and we already know this album is not going for "that Indie sound".  This is mainstream stuff, exceedingly well produced and engineered.  

Raul Rodriguez, Jr. gives us a nice Folk/Pop/Adult Contemporary reading of a well written song, "This Thing Called Love".  For all the time wasted every year adding up the cost of the absurd "12 Days" gifts, no one spends any time thinking about the one priceless thing mentioned in the song--"true love".  Here, Casia writes, and Raul sings, about just that in a winning way that will have you singing the song in your head as you do your holiday shopping.

The tempo slows for the very pretty "Christmas Lullabye".  Musically, it's got a bit of a New Age tint to it, though Christina Britton's vocals give the song more soul and warmth than would the wispy little girl vocalists featured in so much of today's indie fare.  Then comes a bit of fun, suitable for children of all ages, with Richard Del Val's jazzy Latin spin on "Dolly Llamma's Christmas Ramba".  One of the album's favorites is the New Wave/Pop Punkish "Gimme Toys", performed with tongue firmly in cheek by UK singer Ian Burrage.  "Gimme Toys" features one of the best lines on the album and possible the only line Casia didn't write: "And get that snappin' reindeer off my roof".

Then comes the song I'm completely in love with.  "Christmas Baby Blues" is a potential Jazz/Blues standard, done up here in an immensely accessible and soulful arrangement.  Belgian vocalist Inge Jave has just the perfect balance of heartbreak and hope in her performance of this lament about a Christmas date that wasn't.  The instrumentation and production on this one is totally dreamy.  We take a small break for a blues flavored rockin' 50s number from Ray Sharp (featuring both saxaphone and harmonica), "I'm A Snowman".  And then we come to one of the album's most radio friendly tracks, "Christmas Angel".  Judy Teo's performance has more than a bit of Ronnie Spector about it and the easy but steady rhythm is just perfectly inviting--magnetic and soothing.  It's not my favorite on the album--though I can't come up with a good reason why--but I suspect it will be most everyone else's.

"Write A Love Song" is a pretty mid-tempo number with some nice lyrics, though the talking section in the middle seemed a bit treacly to me.   A music box opens "A List For Christmas", another of my favorites.  The song compares a lover to a pair of blue jeans.  The beautiful melody and Yolande Strauss's vocal performance not only sell the analogy completely, but actually made my eyes water up a bit.  This is one song where everything came together perfectly and the only one that sent me to the credits to see who wrote the music.  Son of a gun if it wasn't Raul Rodriguez, the vocalist from "This Thing Called Loved" (which he didn't write the music for).  The album closes with a message song, "It Only Takes A Second", about the differences we could make with just a kind thought or word.  In the context, here, it works well and, by bookending the set, actually helps to make the opening number sound better (to me anyway, since it wasn't my favorite).

This album serves as a showcase for the talents of those involved, from musicians to composers, and especially Casia who wrote all the lyrics.  Such a project is bound to cover lots of diverse ground and could easily sound disjointed and "all over the place".  But this collection has a cohesion and flow that allows the whole to be at least the equal of it's parts, if not exceeding them.  It works as a showcase, but it works as an album, too.  There's not a bad song on the album; even the songs I didn't love, I liked.  And there are just certain songs on this set that will not only become a regular part of my annual holiday, but have obviously already become a part of my daily life.  As a Christmas album, specifically?   It's very hard to do an album of originals and still sound like Christmas.  It just is.  Opinions might vary on this point, but I thought the album succeeded at this as well.

It is likely that millions of people will buy the latest album from tired superstar performers (who I won't name here) trying to fulfill their label commitments or revive sagging careers, covering the same old ground in the same old way.  And many of those people will likely listen to that album once or twice and then never again.  But a very few people will find this tiny project from a group of people they've never heard of doing songs that have never before been done by anyone anywhere.   As "A Not Ordinary Christmas" was invested with great love by people who really cared about what they were creating, and given the top-notch mastering, production, and final appearance as well, I suspect those very few people will be very happy they took the road less traveled and found this rare treasure.