On the whole jazz musicians do not swing Christmas songs, finding little inspiration for improvisation from the usual collection of such songs. I’ve been reviewing their efforts in attempting to devise a programme for the Listening to Jazz group’s December meeting and I have to say that listening to Chris Barber’s attempts to swing the old Bing Crosby hit ‘White Christmas’ does not fill me with enthusiasm. Most musicians stick to a pretty straightforward rendition of the tune, with little by way of embroidery. Jazz singers are a different kettle of fish – many have tried, but again I find few of them go beyond a version of the songs with which most of us are familiar. Two outstanding efforts are those by Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas) and Diana Krall (Christmas Songs).
But we don’t just have to play Christmas songs to enjoy a swinging Christmas from jazz musicians. Practically anything in jazz that allows you to tap your foot to it, or follows the Ellington maxim that ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing’ will liven up the proceedings at a Christmas or New Year bash, or any other party for that matter, and the chances are one will hear some very interesting music whilst doing so. In my case I’m hoping that Father Christmas will come sliding down our chimney and deliver me some hot new vinyl to go along with the CDs by Charlie Haden, Joshua Redman/Brad Meldhau, and my favourite singer Shirley Horn, to which I have already treated myself. Like Krall (who selected her personal favourites by Horn for issue some years ago), singer Shirley Horn is a pianist/singer, or singer/pianist. Both are capable of swinging like mad in their piano playing, and if Krall’s career has been pushed in a more commercial direction than Horn’s, heard live she remains an outstanding performer. By contrast Horn’s career was far more low key. She emerged in the late sixties/early seventies before leaving the profession to raise her family. Always shy, it was not until the early to mid eighties that she came back to performing: yet she was Miles Davis’ favourite singer, and it was his encouragement which brought her back into the limelight with a series of outstanding recordings from the late eighties until her death in 2005. The latest issue is a live performance from the late eighties and features more of her piano playing than usual, but also has examples of her remarkable talent for ballad singing and playing. Nobody else could sing a ballad at the impossibly slow speed at which she does, swinging like mad, keeping you on tenterhooks to see when she will finally get to the next word or words – indeed it was a version of the old favourite ‘Do it Again’ from her ‘Live in Paris’ album which first attracted me to her marvellous work.
Another favourite of mine has passed away recently – another pianist/singer, the great Mose Allison. Raised in Louisiana, this ‘middle-class white boy out just having some fun’, Mose was enthused by the blues sounds of black musicians in the Southern USA, incorporating it into his distinctive style of piano playing and into his singing. The latter contained some of the most amusing lyrics I have heard in a long time: ‘Ever since the world ended I don’t get out much anymore’; ‘Your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime’; and the one about the man who is suspicious of his partner’s keep fit activities – ‘You call it jogging, I call it running around’ are all examples. Mose will be sadly missed, not least by Brits Georgie Fame and Van Morrison, both of whom he influenced.
Meanwhile as the song puts it, ‘Have Yourselves a Very Merry Christmas’! Mike Goldsmith.