- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

As soon as the carving knife hits the turkey today, the sleigh bells start jingling and the cash registers start ringing: Christmas season has officially begun.

Those who want to get an early jump on the Christmas spirit this week have a few family-friendly options such as the holiday parade, tree-lighting and singalong at the Reston Town Center tomorrow, beginning at 11 a.m., as well as live holiday entertainment at Dulles Town Center at 1, 3 and 5 p.m.

Adding to the cheer are two evening Christmas concerts: one a soulful, smooth jazz spin at the Warner Theatre tomorrow night, the other a spirited night of holiday-themed folk music at the Birchmere on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, vocalist Will Downing released “Christmas, Love and You,” a 10-track collection of Christmas standards and original songs. He celebrates his first Christmas CD tomorrow night with Will Downing and Friends’ Soulful Christmas, featuring performances by Kirk Whalum and Vesta. Washington’s Warner Theatre is one of a handful of venues Mr. Downing chose for his first-ever Christmas tour.

“D.C. has shown me a lot of love since day one,” Mr. Downing says when asked why he chose to start the six-city tour here. “If I sold 20,000 copies of my first record, I think 15,000 of them were sold here. From the first moment that I released a record, the radio stations, the promoters and the fans have all been there for me.”

“Christmas, Love and You” sparkles with guest appearances by saxophonists Mr. Whalum, David Sanborn and Gerald Albright. Also contributing to the festivities are Joe Sample (keyboards), Jonathan Butler (guitar) and Najee (flute).

“All the covers we did are songs I’ve grown up with, like from the Nat King Cole Christmas records or the Temptations,” Mr. Downing says. “These songs have been done more times and in more ways than you anyone can count. I’m just trying to find a way to put a different spin on it and make it unique.”

Standards such as “The First Noel” and “White Christmas” benefit from Mr. Downing’s velvety voice and jazzy touches. He adds a Caribbean rhythm to “The Little Drummer Boy” and enlists reggae star Jabba for a joyful rap solo.

In the liner notes to “Christmas, Love and You,” Mr. Downing writes that even though “Drummer Boy” was the last to be recorded, he wanted it to be the first track on the CD.

“You listen to the lyric on this song that paints an image of a little boy who has nothing but love in his heart and a drum, then says, ‘I have no gift, but can I play for you?’” he wrote in the liner notes. “It kinda makes you look at this Christmas thing a little differently.”

For the Soulful Christmas concert, he says, he’ll be doing holiday songs as well as some of the hits from his 20-year career.

Vesta and Mr. Whalum will each perform solo sets as well as join him for a few songs.

Onstage, Mr. Downing exudes a vibrant energy that nicely complements his smooth grooves. He loves to interact with his audience, enjoying the emotional reaction he gets from performing.

“I think musically you have to see me. Those who haven’t seen me, they only know what they hear on the ‘Quiet Storm,’” he says, alluding to the now-generic name for an evening radio program of slow, romantic R&B; songs.

“It’s funny, the women will drag their men to see the show, and the men end up having a good time, too. We all have fun with it.”

• • •

Singer-songwriter Judy Collins spreads her Christmas cheer Wednesday night with a concert at the Birchmere.

The former child piano prodigy began performing publicly at 13; fell in love with the guitar and folk music in her midteens; and released her first album, “A Maid of Constant Sorrow,” in 1961, when she was 22.

By the ‘70s, Miss Collins had become world-famous for her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” (which won a Grammy for song of the year) and her chart-topping cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

Among the 25-plus albums she has released in her more-than-40-year career are a live double album of greatest hits recorded at Wolf Trap in 2000 and two collections of Christmas songs, 1994’s “Come Rejoice! A Judy Collins Christmas” and 1997’s “Christmas at the Biltmore Estate.”

Her career is still going strong. Her annual Wildflower Festival tour, which stopped at Wolf Trap this summer, is thriving and was the subject of a film in 2003.

Last year, she also earned strong reviews for her book “Sanity and Grace,” a personal and revealing chronicle of her son’s suicide in 1992. In August 2004, Miss Collins released “Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy” a commemoration of her career-long collaboration with the songwriter-poet-performer.

The Birchmere show will feature renditions of traditional and original holiday songs by Miss Collins backed by the Georgetown Chorale.

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