Now, Baker has recorded her first Christmas album, and it too benefits from her unique way of shaping a song to the good will of her intentions. Working with her friend and keyboardist Barry Eastmond, Baker has developed arrangements that borrow from her family’s experiences during the year’s most personal of Christian holidays.
Immediately, Baker veers toward the quirky and the so-unlike-her-or-so-we-thought boisterous as she converts "Frosty the Snowman" into "Frosty’s Rag," a ragtime version of the song too often derivative of Burl Ives’ traditional version in which he inhabits the character. Well, Anita Baker can’t really do that, but she can sing her observations about the snowman. Aided by clarinetist Gene Lobionco, Baker goes for the soul, combining a barroom feel with her blue-note-ness in which she uses the written melody of a tread-worn path for further exploration, rather than following a Mapquest route for unswerving adherence. In any case, "Frosty’s Rag" is one of the happiest and most carefree recordings yet of Baker, perhaps an omen of recordings to come.
Baker includes some originals on Christmas Fantasy, including her and Eastmond’s "Moonlight Sleighride," which involves jazzier Christmas glad tidings as Bakers sings its spare lyrics that basically consist of an invitation to a sleigh ride. However, Eastmond’s R&B-like vamping provides the opportunity for Baker to delve into the soulful type of song that she does best, Christmas-oriented only by its title, words and packaging. More thematically expressive is their "Family of Man," which presents universal inclusiveness in the face of tragedy and loneliness as "We’ve got a union / Beyond all color and race / Each of our journeys is unique / But leads up to a common place." And so, we receive the wished-for synthesis of Baker and Christmas emotions as she perceives the essential meaning of the holiday and delivers it in a way that no other singer could imitate. A Christmas wish may be that one or all of Baker’s originals become Christmas classic heard during the incessant week-before-Christmas airplay every year.
As far as the familiar Christmas songs go, Baker, as executive producer, recruits several like-minded jazz musicians, such as: Joe Sample on "Christmas Time Is Here," with an introduction that suggests it will lead into "Just the Two of Us" instead; The Yellowjackets on "O Come, All Ye Faithful," with Russell Ferrante, in a turnabout, playing acoustic piano while Eastmond plays keyboard, and with Baker providing a religious feel over flowing accompaniment; and George Duke, a long-time accompanist of strong singers, on "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," on which he takes a solo of gradually rising buoyancy before Larry Carlton’s.
It appears that Anita Baker took seriously the opportunity to record her Christmas album. For she has applied hard work and much imagination to her re-harmonized interpretations of classic songs, as well as her own original compositions consistent with her irrepressible spirit.... and that of the holiday.