Marcus Johnson

Smooth Jazz Christmas

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His smooth jazz contemporary Dave Koz may be a better-known multimedia sensation, but keyboardist Marcus Johnson has been at the top of his game these past years as an artist, record label executive (Three Keys Music, dedicated to a sound he calls "metropolitan smooth"), and drive-time DJ on WJZW in Washington, D.C. While the label's catalog shows an equal affinity for urban-flavored pop sounds and more straight-ahead jazz, Johnson's holiday celebration, Smooth Jazz Christmas, is decidedly on the lighter, playful side. With the exception of the atmospheric, retro-soul-flavored "White Christmas" -- which features a thoughtful Fender Rhodes melody -- Johnson sticks smartly to the crisp organic sounds of the acoustic piano, working out bright, lively elegant funk arrangements of "We Three Kings" and the Donny Hathaway chestnut "This Christmas," while going more contemplative on other tracks. For variety's sake, he spotlights the sweet-voiced East Coast crooner Keith Ailer on a restrained reading of "The Christmas Song" and, more impressively, a welcome boogie woogie twist of "Silent Night."

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