Christmas Gilt

A Bounty of Chestnuts and Gift Boxes

The annual profusion of Christmas albums suggests a bottomless appetite for the same dozen or 15 songs done in every conceivable fashion, and a hapless record industry is eager to oblige. When in doubt, shake up the backlist, develop a seasonal pun, and leave the rest to nostalgia. It is frequently noted that most of the good American Christmas songs, beginning with Berlin's "White Christmas" (1942, not so very long ago), are by Jewish composers. They have secularized the revelry to the point where even unlapsed Catholics must at times struggle to recall that all the fuss commemorates their savior's birth and not merely ASCAP and BMI annuities involving sleigh bells, drummer boys, chipmunks, reindeer, chestnuts, Santa, Frosty, and, most crucially, snow—of which there was a dearth in Galilee. Why those songwriters could not bestir themselves to write a single decent Hanukkah song is a mystery for the ages. Hath not a Jew snow, snowmen, bells, singing animals, Buddy Rich?

Secularist that I am, I don't need chain-rattling Marley to muster my belief in miracles, for example, the sound of Ella Fitzgerald's voice in 1960, when she recorded Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, recently reissued by Verve. Her instrument was pearly—perhaps at its apogee—and her time, well, what is there left to say of her time, a musical Greenwich Mean? "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is near perfect, so near that for the duration of her vocal I am inclined to close the book on singers and concede that paradise is lost. This, of course, is the Blane and Martin song from Meet Me in St. Louis, sung by Judy Garland to her kid sister, who then beheads the family snowman. Yule—sorry—shed no tears during the Fitzgerald reading, which lopes along on a springy, bass-driven vamp that heightens the endearing melody while taking nothing from her translucent high notes, each glimmering with the twinkling of a sigh. If only arranger Frank DeVol hadn't settled for a dreary instrumental interlude—his accompaniment, by contrast, is deft and congenial—and had given her more room to embellish the final chorus.

The generally upbeat tempos, chosen to fulfill the promise of the title, rob Fitzgerald of the balladic expansiveness she might have used to light up some of these evergreens. Her "Winter Wonderland" is tossed off too casually, leaving the field to Doris Day, whose 1964 rendering remains one of the most improbably erotic records ever (available on Day's Columbia anthology, Personal Christmas Collection). That Fitzgerald was encouraged to keep the album brisk is made clear by the alternate takes, including a slow and dreamy version of "The Christmas Song" that thoroughly supersedes the one chosen for the original LP. On the other hand, it was unnecessary to release a jokey, rightly rejected take of "Frosty the Snowman," sung in her 1930s "My Wubber Dolly" voice; does cleaning out the vaults preclude all discrimination? The LP's ringer is "Good Morning Blues," introduced by Jimmy Rushing in Basie's band, and adapted by DeVol for a triple-meter backbeat arrangement not unlike Cannonball Adderley waltzes from the same period. Though never a great blues singer, Fitzgerald bedecks the familiar phrases with golden-throat ornaments, making them merry and bright.


The real end-of-year musical bounty lies mostly in box sets, and this season is rife with surprises, among them surveys of two guitarists who might be considered diametric opposites beyond their comparative obscurity: Mosaic's Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions (mail order only: 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902,mosaicrecords.com) and Blue Note's Grant Green Retrospective 1961-66. Jazz has not produced many one-hit wonders, but Smith qualifies. He was a phenomenal technician who invented a tight style of voicing chords and advancing seamlessly from one to the next, producing a mobile sound that at times resembles harp, organ, and steel guitar as well as the six-string electric guitar he was actually playing. Born in Alabama, self-taught, and apprenticed in hillbilly bands, Smith enjoyed a tripartite career in jazz, classical music, and anonymous studio work. His primary success in the former came in the 1950s, triggered by his 1952 quintet recording of "Moonlight in Vermont," a minor pop hit and instant jazz classic, at least among guitarists, who twisted and spread-eagled their fingers trying to replicate his harmonies.

Forever associated with him, "Moonlight" holds up beautifully, as does the entire session, which produced a similarly conceived "Where or When"—in both instances, sideman Stan Getz offers obbligato, brief solos, and a taut unison blend—and startlingly speedy versions of "Tabu" and an original, "Jaguar," in which the meshed instruments and lively swing confirm Smith's new wrinkle in cool jazz. If developed, it might have had an impact comparable to that of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Smith never considered himself a jazz artist, but he was a masterly improviser, launching his solos with jetting arpeggios, coloring them with thin chime-like harmonics, and sustaining lucid percussive phrases—his forceful transformation of "Stranger in Paradise" is typical. Most of the eight discs are taken up by short quartet and trio numbers, yet beyond a few commercial misfires (a Flower Drum Song album), Smith rarely falls short, combining blunt variations and an alluring, encompassing sound.

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