Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas: Surely Not Another Totally Unexpected Rendition

We live in an era where there's just about nothing more irrelevant for an artist to release than a Christmas album. Mostly a cynical cash grab, it's easy to forget that your favourite group or singer even did one - and that's assuming they even bothered as it's a rarity particularly among artists with "integrity".* But it wasn't always this way. Much as I hate to admit it, Phil Spector's otherwise indulgent Christmas album is at least a game attempt at injecting a little of the crackpot producer's creativity. Brian Wilson, as he was wont to do, followed suit and delivered a better record than his mad mentor, one that stands up well against other pre-Pet Sounds albums. And Motown's seasonal treats were handled with the same care they put into their enviable hit factory.† But since then acts from the rock era have contributed almost nothing of interest to the venerable Christmas song tradition. Yet again we must look to jazz for more substantive efforts.

Ella Fitzgerald took recording Christmas songs just as seriously as she took any other material. This harks back to a time when singers tackled a cover version as an artistic challenge rather than as a kindly tribute or a token gesture. Rather than being a pleasant diversion, standards were intrinsic to a good vocalist. The very fact that this now seems extraordinary speaks volumes for, while Fitzgerald did it better than nearly anyone else, she was hardly alone in doing so.

Made up largely of secular material, there is much fun to be had particularly in a sublime rendition of 'Jingle Bells' and probably the still-definitive reading of 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town'. On the other hand, I've never heard such a compelling 'White Christmas': rather than being a Hollywood tycoon's whinge, Fitzgerald and Frank DeVol's orchestra turn it into an early paean to environmentalism: instead of being inflected with traces of self-pity, Fitzgerald's voice sounds sorrowful in the knowledge that she'll never see snow again. It's a side of the Irving Berlin standard I've never contemplated before, much less heard. Admittedly, the more religious-themed bonus tracks kind of detract from the original album's joie de vivre but it's nice to hear someone take on hymns without either a jokey irony nor a sickening piousness.

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is a throwback and one I wish would make it's return to popular music. Much like a white Christmas, I fear it's nothing more than a dream.

* Typically, pop stars over the past forty years have done far more good composing their own holiday favourite than putting together a tired cover version. In some cases (Wizzard and Slade are still the prime examples), this has even resulted in an act's most famous and renowned work.

† It's a mixed blessing that the Beatles never tried their hand at the Christmas album, especially considering their inconsequential fan club only seasonal discs. Still, it's a missing piece of their catalogue (the same way that there was never a Christmas episode of Fawlty Towers) no matter how minor and, considering their still-overwhelming influence, it might have resulted today's acts embarking on their own holiday albums.

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