Deft jazz, pure nostalgia fuel legend's latest holiday outing
It’s no coincidence that the modern-day American interpretation of Christmas derives much of its imagery and aesthetic from the 1950s. From Haddon Sundblom's iconic Coca-Cola portraits of Santa Claus to the mass production of the candy cane, our current associations with the holiday season date back to a culture defined by the explosion of suburbia and the post-WWII nuclear family. And there's no greater evidence of this connection than Tony Bennett's latest holiday album, A Swingin’ Christmas.
Bennett, whose career was birthed in the golden decade of the pop standard, has produced a collection of charming (if predictable) Christmas carols wrapped with ornate jazz accompaniment from the Count Basie Big Band. With a kitschy reenactment of Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Want on the album cover, Bennett doesn't deviate from the ground rules his forbearers cemented decades ago. Like Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby (all seasoned experts of the seasonal album), the tiger loosely tosses his voice around the downbeats of his rhythm section with veteran skill, crafting syncopated melodies that would fit right at home on a USO special.
Count Basies's Big Band throws a slight twist on the genre with bursts of improvisational jazz, making for a more lively experience than the singer's previous holiday album, 1968's Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album. Pianist Monty Alexander is especially adept at transforming tracks like "Silver Bells" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" into spirited lounge anthems. Meanwhile, the horn section launches swelling crescendos on "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "My Favorite Things." It's still Bennett's show, though, and even at 82 his voice still carries the swagger of a man who once released 10 albums in a single decade. While there isn't anything on this collection that hasn't been heard before, it's nostalgic embrace of Christmas tradition and crooner style makes it the perfect soundtrack for December 25th.