Ella Fitzgerald and Various ‘Christmas with Ella and Friends’ 2CD (Decca/Universal) 4/5

ella-fitzgeraldChristmas tribute albums may be in vogue for one month of the year, but seldom do they last throughout the decades and most are readily forgotten and quickly fall into obscurity. One towering exception to that rule is Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Ella wishes you a swinging Christmas’, originally released on Verve from 1959, that has remained an evergreen, and this forms the template for this new compilation that brings together jazz singers crooners and more easy listening artists who occasionally dipped into jazzy waters. From Ella’s epic release no less than eleven songs are selected and they are all more or less gems, ranging from the anthemic, ”Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ to the swinging, ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ and changing mood and tempo to the reflective, ‘Baby it’s cold outside’. Nobody has ever bettered Fitzgerald’s vocal interpretations and most likely no one will ever reach this level of competence. Quite simply, they are definitive treatments. However, some of her contemporaries do feature from the frolic antics of Louis Armstrong on ‘Zat you Santa Claus?’ to Billie Holiday and an intimate reading of, ‘I’ve got my love to keep me warm’.
Mel Tormé offers up an excellent take on ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire)’ that Nat Cole immortalised and is also included that makes for a terrific comparison. For some gospel hues mixed in with the blues, a left-field offering of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a joyous listening pleasure while in the fun stakes, the big band swing of Louis Prima’s ‘Shake hands with Santa Claus’ adds some much needed laughter to proceedings. Humour is the order of the day from the Nat King Cole trio (and Nat was a mighty fine pianist, something often ignored) on perennial request, ‘All I want for Christmas (is my two front teeth)’ while Nancy Wilson holds sway with a more affirmative, ‘That’s what I want for Christmas’.

Some of the easy listening material from Andy Williams and Perry Como is a tad jazz-lite, but on the other hand Bing Crosby, Julie London the Platters were all capable of fine musical moments. Ideally, one would have liked a little more variety with some classic jazz instrumentals and the back catalogue is sufficiently wide to include examples of say Count Basie’s ‘A very swinging Basie Christmas’ and various others into the bargain. That said, for fans of vocal jazz who wish to celebrate the festive season, this is a fine way to sample some of the all-time great singers.

Tim Stenhouse