Sounds of the season abound on CD ‘Christmas in the D’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 19, 2017

METRO DETROIT — ’Tis the season to be playing holiday music, but if you’re looking for something new to spin at home or in the car this year, look no further than the funky, jazzy sounds of “Christmas in the D,” by trumpeter and vocalist James O’Donnell.

With a lineup that includes O’Donnell, John Barron on string bass, RJ Spangler on drums and congas, and Michael Zaporski on piano, the CD boasts some of the area’s most in-demand musicians.

Recorded in only a few hours Sept. 17 at Rack ’Em Up Studios in Clinton Township, “Christmas in the D” includes “Winter Wonderland,” “What Child is This,” “Christmas Time in New Orleans,” “O Christmas Tree/O Tannenbaum,” the Barron original “Christmas Time in Detroit City” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

To bring a festive vibe to the recording session, Spangler, of Grosse Pointe Park, said O’Donnell dressed for the occasion.

“James was wearing a Santa hat … when we recorded it,” Spangler said.

O’Donnell, who grew up on Detroit’s east side — in the Jefferson Chalmers area — recently moved from Clinton Township to Lake Orion. He said he and the other musicians on “Christmas in the D” wanted to put their own spin on classic holiday songs, so they added a New Orleans flavor to “Winter Wonderland,” a funky vibe to “O Christmas Tree,” and a Latin flair to other tracks. O’Donnell said they wanted to “just mix it up a little bit.”

He said Barron wrote the arrangements for the CD. Scott Strawbridge was the executive producer, while Barron and O’Donnell served as co-producers and Spangler was the associate producer.

While the arrangements might be fresh, the traditional sentiment of the songs shines through.

“It evokes the feeling of Christmas,” O’Donnell said. “That’s what I like about it.”

Spangler and O’Donnell, who perform together in Planet D Nonet and other bands, have worked together since about 1976. Both are east side Detroit natives.

“We are old buddies,” Spangler said.

O’Donnell echoed that.

“It’s a great musical friendship,” he said.

Although O’Donnell has recorded with many other artists, this is the first CD under his name, and Spangler said it’s long overdue.

“James is a journeyman trumpeter,” Spangler said. “He is a trumpet stylist with his own vocabulary. He’s an original. He has his own style.”

Spangler said O’Donnell is also a “charismatic entertainer.”

“He’s funny,” said Spangler. “He brings a great spirit to things. But he also knows how to sing and engage an audience.”

O’Donnell, 57, has been playing trumpet since he was 9. He said he’s been making a living as a professional musician since he was 20. He admits that there’s something special about finally releasing a CD with his name on it.

“It’s exciting,” O’Donnell said. “It’s nice to have.”

The musicians have been playing songs from the CD — along with other holiday favorites — at recent gigs around town, where they’ve also been selling the CDs. “Christmas in the D” is available online at www.eastlawnrecords.com, but for those who’d like to purchase it in time for Christmas, it’s also being sold at Pak Mail, 23210 Greater Mack Ave. in St. Clair Shores, near Nine Mile Road. For hours or more information, call Pak Mail at (586) 773-3377.

“They make great little stocking stuffers,” O’Donnell said.