Christmas Gilt


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, 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.

By contrast, Grant Green was a strictly one-note-at-a-time linear player, a direct extension of Charlie Christian. During his major period, the 1960s, he was considered an anomaly for his directness and constancy in both conservative and modernistic settings. Born in St. Louis, tutored by his father (Grant, like Jimmy Smith, was playing professionally at 13), and groomed in r&b, blues, and organ groups, he perfected an unfeigned steely tone and saxophone-like legato fluency. At a time when jazz guitar was occupied with the wonders of Wes Montgomery’s octaves, Jim Hall’s lyricism, and the up-and-coming dynamism of George Benson and Pat Martino, Green’s greatest virtues—his incisive clarity and blues-grounded simplicity—undermined his stature, as did Blue Note’s occasional input of ’60s pop tunes and Verve’s subsequent accent on broad funk. The four-disc Retrospective, though heavy on the organ years and not fully representative (only one track from his masterpiece, Idle Moments; compiler Michael Cuscuna may have assumed you’ve got that, as indeed you should), is an engrossing survey with Green at the center of Blue Note’s stock company, which provided him such sidemen as Joe Henderson, Booker Ervin, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Ike Quebec, and Sam Rivers, just to mention the tenors.

The key, short-lived founders of jazz guitar were also documented this year: Eddie Lang in Mosaic’s amazingly comprehensive eight-disc Classic Columbia and OKeh Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang Sessions, and Christian in Columbia/Legacy’s four-disc Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar, which consists entirely of his work with Benny Goodman, whose name is inexplicably omitted from the amplifier-shaped box, as is an indexing of the tracks in the 1941 jam session that culminated with “Blues in B.” But it straightens out, at long last, the mess of alternate takes and even adds a few—in Christian’s case, never a surplus. Both sets are essential. I’m not sure the same can be said for two of the most impressive, collector-oriented packages in years, which suggest that there will always be more Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis than Santa could ever keep up with.

Frank Sinatra in Hollywood (1940-1964), a collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and Reprise, is a six-disc survey of movietown desiderata for completists who want not only the tracks he recorded for films, but also the outtakes, promotions, running tapes, Oscar speech (honorary, 1946, for The House I Live In), pro forma interview with Louella Parsons, and new mixes designed to make the songs sound more like records than movies. The stocking is stuffed with several songs dropped from films, including one recorded for the soundtrack of Advise and Consent, and a pairing with Maurice Chevalier in which Sinatra indulges in the sheer baritoneness of his voice while the French guy is encouraged to swing. It’s a time capsule, very handsomely done, and the best of it emphasizes not least the expertness of Hollywood’s sound engineers.

I have not yet worked my way through all 20 volumes of The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux (Warner Music/Switzerland), but I will: No collection of previously unknown material released this decade has given me more pleasure while forcing me to unclog hardened aesthetic arteries. It begins with the Pete Cosey band of 1973, skips to 1984, documenting every set through 1986, and resumes with the shorter appearances between 1988 and 1991. The performances are unedited, and part of the consuming joy—these are mostly joyous sets—is conveyed in the interaction between Davis and the audiences he transported. In the late ’80s, I commented on differences between Davis’s frazzled concerts in New York and the exhilarating ones that followed a couple of weeks later at European festivals (not Montreux). The summer Montreux concerts in the ’80s reveal a variety of material, communal dedication, and total commitment by the leader—Davis is determinedly on. Even when he begins with kitschy synthesized voices (1988), he’s just setting up a stirring revision of “In a Silent Way”—his trumpet fat anddaring, verging on ebullience when it isn’tripping knifelike through blues, as in the 1986 Jack Johnson medley. One piece bleeds into another, bearing tidings most of us never knew: July in Christmas.