Sunday, December 13, 2020

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams, on PBS

What does Ella Fitzgerald have in common with Wynton Marsalis, Stan Kenton, Carla Bley, Ramsey Lewis, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, and Don Patterson? They all recorded jazz Christmas records. Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas was one of the first and it remains perennially popular (yet soul jazz B-3 player Patterson charted higher on the Billboard 200 with Holiday Soul, at #85, than her holiday record did peaking at #111 in 1960). In the subsequent years, Verve has frequently repackaged and reissued Fitzgerald’s Christmas classic, but that kind of marketing wouldn’t have worked if the music wasn’t timeless. The American Pops Orchestra (APO), under the direction of Luke Frazier, and their special guests pay tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and her holiday cheer in Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams, which airs this Tuesday night on most PBS stations.

The concert’s host and marquee guest performer will be indeed be Vanessa Williams, as you can tell from her title billing. She still has the chops for a semi-torchy “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and gets pretty bluesy on “Good Morning Blues,” the Count Basie-Eddie Dorham-Jimmy Rushing tune (which does indeed reference Christmas and Santa). We’re pretty impressed, actually.

The concert program faithfully follows the original album sequence, which was definitely intended to appeal to jazz hipsters, so we don’t have the more sacred carols (no “Silent Night”). Appropriately, things start off upbeat and traditional with Nova Payton’s fun rendition of “Jingle Bells” and Norm Lewis’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” performed with hip, knowing flair. Lewis also probably gets the toughest draw of the program with “The Christmas Song.” Obviously, Ella covered it too, but every version is always judged against Nat King Cole’s classic recording. However, Lewis’s Broadway experience serves him well. For this song, everyone wants to hear to hear Mel Torme’s lyrics, which Lewis delivers with warmth and clarity.

Arguably, the highlight of the program is Dee Dee Bridgewater (looking total fab and quite sparkly) and her take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” She performs it with swing and sass worthy of Ella, but she clearly recognizes how the familiar lyrics hit home harder this year, as in: “someday soon, we will all be together, if the fates allow, until we’ll have to muddle through somehow, so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” It is a good show, but that’s the one people will probably want to revisit.

Yet, for old school jazz fans, the highlight is probably “Frosty the Snowman,” featuring APO principal trumpeter David Detwiler swinging the tune and even legit soloing. Bridgewater returns to light up “Sleigh Ride” and Morgan James shows off some jazzy phrasing on “Winter Wonderland.” Carmen Ruby Floyd’s first appearance comes with a very nice “Let It Snow,” but her “White Christmas” is a dreamy closer that Ella fans will definitely dig.

It would be nice if
Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas became a seasonal tradition on PBS, but ten years from now, a lot of viewers will probably be confused by the site of the musicians wearing facemasks during a fancy concert—or so we can only hope. Still, it is obviously freshly produced music. The Fitzgerald biographical interludes are also nicely done. Frankly, PBS rarely programs jazz-related programming, so when they do, it is important to support them. In this case, it is easy to watch. Recommended for all fans of Christmas music and jazz vocals, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas premieres this Tuesday (12/15) on most PBS affiliates and should be available subsequently on the PBS app.