december 2008

Fernando Ortega
Curb Records

Reverential, thoughtful and evocative, much like his other albums of hymns and songs of worship and praise, Fernando Ortega's Christmas Songs is a beautifully crafted collection of Yuletide meditations, some familiar ("Joy To the World," "O Little Town of Bethlehem"), many ancient and some rarely heard ("Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent," a fourth century carol). His own tender, searching piano support is the dominant instrumental element, but the soundscape is captivatingly fleshed out with guitar, bass, discreet drums and percussion, violin, cello and accordion in various combinations. Sometimes Ortega uses almost every tool at his disposal to create a sense of grandeur, as in the touching version of "What Child Is This," which begins with his piano and voice bolstered only by the low-droning cello but intermittently opens up into a surging, soaring exultation when the guitar and violin add their voices (and kudos to Ortega for singing all the song's verses, too). Other times he'll opt for a folk-flavored arrangement defined by piano, guitar, drums and violin, as he does on a sprightly instrumental treatment of "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella," featuring not only his bright, trilling piano runs but also Charlie Bisharat's tender violin as a duet voice, before the whole ensemble breaks into a jolly, Irish-flavored passage. Ortega reconstitutes "O Little Town of Bethlehem" as a pop-folk ballad, much in the style of James Taylor, with his warm tenor voice joined in affecting, measured harmony by Cathy Schreiner, whose earth, comforting tone evokes that of Alison Krauss. "Angels We Have Heard On High" is rendered in a gentle, swaying arrangement with percolating percussion adding the tastiest bit of Latin flavor to the track, as Ortega and Schreiner again join their voices in smooth harmony on the magnificent choruses. The album closes in quiet contemplation with Ortega's original hymn, "Jesus, King of Angels," sung with an abundance of restrained emotion but persuasive conviction, buttressed and given added presence by the lone instrument behind it, the artist's stark, understated piano. The album title describes the content, but Ortega has in fact crafted a statement for all seasons here in both mood and meaning. Looking inward is a strategy for all seasons.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024