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Liz McComb Explores The Holiday Season In Latest Album

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's almost Christmas, which makes it the perfect time to listen to Liz McComb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR")

LIZ MCCOMB: (Singing) Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Doesn't that just put you into the Christmas spirit? Liz McComb's latest album is called simply "Merry Christmas." And it's a mix of gospel, her true love, with some jazz and the blues. It came out last year. But the Paris-based musician who has been playing to packed houses in Europe is finally back in the United States to talk about the music. And she joins us now from Cleveland. Welcome.

MCCOMB: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Merry Christmas.

MCCOMB: Merry Christmas to you, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So even though you spend most of your time in Paris, you're back in Cleveland for this conversation. And you grew up there. What brings you home?

MCCOMB: Yeah. Born and raised - I'm a Cleveland native. I mean, home is part of me. Cleveland is a part of me. The gospel in Cleveland has been a part of my life. And my church is here. And it's just a big connection.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me when you started to sing.

MCCOMB: From the age of 3 years old on my mama's leg - on my mama's knee and my sister's.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And you did that in the church?

MCCOMB: Yes, I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O HOLY NIGHT")

MCCOMB: (Singing) Fall on your knees. Oh, hear the angels' voices - oh, night divine - oh, night when Christ was born.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What a beautiful arrangement with your powerful voice. Is there someone that you think about when you sing this song?

MCCOMB: My mother - this was one of her favorite. And the songs are so powerful. Sometimes, I just weep when I recorded them. I was weeping. My producer was bringing me paper towels and, you know - because it's really a labor of love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O HOLY NIGHT")

MCCOMB: (Singing) Oh, night divine - oh, night - oh, night divine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about that. There's something about Christmas music - right? - that takes us back to when we were children.

MCCOMB: Yes, it does. And it's such a pure time of year and beautiful. You share your love with family and people that you love. And in our church, they gave us an apple, an orange and peppermint candy. That was a big deal, you know? - and a gift, maybe house shoes or, you know, something they could afford. It was beautiful. And it connects with me all the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that why you wanted to do a Christmas album?

MCCOMB: Yes. Christmas is really it. It's the reason for the season. It's the party of parties (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right.

MCCOMB: What else can I say? It's beautiful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to go now to another classic. This is "The Christmas Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

MCCOMB: (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When did you first hear this song?

MCCOMB: I first heard it from Mel Torme. And I can't tell you the year because I have loved jazz all of my life. And there was a man in Cleveland named Dave Hawthorne (ph). It was WJW. And I would listen to every night. So that's where I learned of this particular song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

MCCOMB: (Singing) Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow will find it hard to sleep tonight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we mentioned, this album came out last year, but you actually recorded it in 2017 in Paris. You're popular in Europe. That's where you do most of your work. What keeps you there?

MCCOMB: I think that the European people enjoy our music, African-American and American, because they know more about the history sometimes than we do - and even the gospel music, you know, and the spirituals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. There's a long history of African-American performers who found popularity overseas, you know, before desegregation...

MCCOMB: That's true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That found their homes in Europe and felt welcome in a way that they didn't feel in the United States.

MCCOMB: Yes, I agree with that. And I have found a home, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a French Christmas carol on your album.

MCCOMB: Oh, yes. "Il Est n Le Divin Enfant" - and it means about the baby Jesus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is born the baby Jesus.

MCCOMB: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right - let's have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IL EST N LE DIVIN ENFANT")

MCCOMB: (Singing in French). (Singing) For more than 4,000 years, prophets have foretold his coming. For more than 4,000 years - and we waited for this day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's Christmas in Paris like?

MCCOMB: On Christmas Eve, it's celebrated - not as much on Christmas Day. But I think it's a continuation from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. And you have - this particular song is played. And the people call Pere Noel, Father Christmas or Happy Christmas. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your Christmas wish this year?

MCCOMB: That we have peace on earth and goodwill toward men and women. We haven't quite gotten to that yet. But I have peace in my heart, so I can share the quiet peace that God has put in me with other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY TO THE WORLD")

MCCOMB: (Singing) Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let Earth receive her king.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Liz McComb - her holiday album is called "Merry Christmas." Thank you so very much for joining us.

MCCOMB: Oh, thank you so much for having me. (Singing) Lulu, I love you just the same.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) You have made my Christmas. Thank you so much.

MCCOMB: Thank you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY TO THE WORLD")

MCCOMB: (Singing) The glory of His righteousness... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.