Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 2: Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

The second installment in our series of Bandstand Christmas Essentials takes a look at one of the most swinging seasonal albums ever recorded—Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, produced by Norman Granz and arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol. Ella is in top form, the studio orchestra provides some very inspired backing, and the song choices offer a few surprises. The result is a holiday album that oozes with jazz and sounds extremely fun.

Throughout her long and prolific career, Ella Fitzgerald recorded comparatively few Christmas songs. A quick look at her vast discography reveals that Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, a full-length album that she cut for Verve in 1960, is her most satisfying seasonal offering. Like Dean Martin's A Winter Romance, this is not exactly a traditional Yuletide record, although the song selection definitely includes more straight-ahead Christmas songs than Dino's Capitol classic. The anonymous original liner notes of the album actually underscore this fact:

Mindful that Christmas albums normally emphasize the religious and the solemn, Ella chose in this to stress the festive aspect of the season; hence the latitude employed in the selection of material. As if to ask: Why not the peace and good will of Christmas the year 'round?

And, as the title of the collection suggests, Ella's Christmas is not only merry and cheerful but also swinging. This is so, in part, because of Frank DeVol's hip yet unobtrusive arrangements, which help Ella sound as cool as it is possible in this type of album. But it is also due to Fitzgerald's love for this kind of material: she is obviously having a good time with these tunes, often improvising on the melodies, which results in a much more enjoyable finished product. The best example of this is, in fact, the most surprising choice, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing's "Good Morning Blues," a song that one usually does not find in a seasonal album but that somehow seems tailor-made for Ella's swinging Christmas theme. The rest of the repertoire is much more predictable, including evergreens such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," and of course, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." But DeVol's jazzy charts are a breath of fresh air, and they certainly bring out the best in Ella, whose voice is in the finest of forms. Even the vocal group used on some of the tracks does not sound stale and annoying but is a welcome addition to the arrangement.

Arranger Frank DeVol
DeVol also leaves room for some interesting solos, such as the trumpet on "White Christmas" and the piano on "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The latter even has Ella quoting from The Kingston Trio's folk hit "Tom Dooley," and on "Jingle Bells," when she sings about those jingle bells jingling all the way, she does not only make the bells jingle, but swing all the way. A couple of slower ballads, Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" and Frank Loesser's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," are good for a slight change of pace and rank among the highlights of a very recommendable LP. The twelve tracks on the original album were reissued on CD in 1988 featuring only the brief 1960 liner notes and no information regarding the personnel of the sessions, but in 2002 it was repackaged and reissued with a few bonus tracks and detailed notes written by Will Friedwald. While it is too bad that Ella did not record much more Christmas music (her Capitol Christmas album finds her backed by a string orchestra, but it would have been nice if she had done something in a small-group jazz setting, for instance) this album is top-notch Yuletide fare and definitely does deliver on its promise of wishing the listener a swinging Christmas.

Cover of the 2002 second CD reissue

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 1: Dean Martin's A Winter Romance

The holiday season is upon us again, and if last year we published an article on the Christmas recordings of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dick Haymes, three voices that are essential when it comes to providing melodies for this "most wonderful time of the year," we are now beginning a new series of posts that will hopefully become a Vintage Bandstand tradition. Entitled Bandstand Christmas Essentials, these brief reviews of holiday albums will only be published every month of December. And the first installment spotlights one of my favorite seasonal albums—Dean Martin's A Winter Romance.

Although Dean Martin recorded several Christmas songs throughout his long and successful career (as evidenced by the many anthologies of that type of material currently on the market), as well as a fine full-fledged holiday album for Reprise in 1966, it is his seasonal offering, A Winter Romance, that I would like to spotlight this year. And this is, indeed, a "seasonal" LP in the full sense of the word, for as its very title suggests, this 1959 Capitol gem is a collection of winter-themed tunes that inevitably includes a few Christmas songs, although Martin wisely stays away from traditional carols, which would not have suited the general atmosphere of the disc. Just looking briefly at the cover, it seems rather obvious that it was never anyone's intention to create a Christmas album here. The setting is a mountain ski resort, with lots of snow, a stylish cabin in the background, and people getting ready to go skiing down some slope, and everything has a definite Rockwellian feeling. But on the far left Dino is reluctantly hugging a very willing girlfriend while looking at another woman on the far right who is also suggestively smiling back at him. Not much to indicate Christmas here, unless it is that the character portrayed by Dino hopes to get to be someone's Santa sometime soon...

But as classic Dean Martin as the cover is (it somehow has always reminded me of the one from Pretty Baby, another one of his Capitol outings), we should not get too caught up in it, since the music is the important thing here. The album is bookended by two special-material tunes from the pen of Sammy Cahn and Ken Lane, the one that opens and lends its title to the LP and "It Won't Cool Off," placed as the closing track. The former is the most interesting, a beautiful melody with a lyric that appropriately sets the scene for the rest of the selections but that is somewhat misleading regarding the organization of the album. While "A Winter Romance" introduces the theme of a love story that begins during the winter, the album does not explore such a story, which is just an excuse to string together songs about snow, cold weather, winter wonderlands, and, as already noted, the holiday season.

Dino getting ready for the holidays
In between the two Cahn-Lane compositions, we find some fast-paced tracks about the joys of love during the cold season ("Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"), as well as some beautiful ballads like the pensive "The Things We Did Last Summer" (which Frank Sinatra had recorded superbly for Columbia in the 1940s) and the Bing Crosby evergreen "June in January." Two standouts from the album are Dino's lovely mid-tempo reading of "Canadian Sunset" and the often overlooked "Out in the Cold Again," an older song also cut by Johnnie Ray around the same time and handled by Dean with gusto and ease here. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is undeniably the perfect vehicle for Dino's charming, happy-go-lucky persona, and instead of doing it as a duet with another singer, as is usually the case, he chooses to sing it with a female chorus, which does not work badly either. The two selections most commonly associated with the holiday season are "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," complete with Martin's ad-libbed impersonation of Santa Claus speaking with what sounds like a fake German accent and an enjoyable rendition of "White Christmas" that never strays too far away from Crosby's classic Decca recording. The orchestra and chorus are directed by the lesser-known Gus Levene, and the arrangements are always tasteful and never get in the way of Martin's singing. Finally, the CD reissue adds a bonus track to the twelve on the 1959 LP, "The Christmas Blues," another song written by Cahn but recorded six years earlier which perfectly fits the theme and mood of the album and is most welcome. The original liner notes conclude that "the music, combined with Dean's vocal artistry, succeeds in producing just the kind of lover's glow to stir everyone to humming, dancing, and romancing—whether it's hot or cold outside," and even though Dino recorded more straight-ahead Christmas offerings that are also worth owning, A Winter Romance is an album that never stops spinning on my record player every year come December.