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

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