A Swingin’ Christmas (Columbia Records)
Tony Bennett featuring The Count Basie Orchestra
Released in 2008
WDUQ 10 Best Holiday Jazz
One of the legends of pop and jazz, Tony Bennett must be related to the Energizer Bunny — he just keeps going and going. At age 82, his latest offering is a Christmas collection that is his first holiday album in 40 years. This one was recorded live with the Count Basie Big Band, and it’s vintage Bennett,albeit with an older voice that now speaks many of the lyrics as much as sings them. Fans won’t care a bit; it works very well with his style.
1. I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Kim Gannon / Walter Kent / Buck Ram) 2:12
2. Silver Bells (Ray Evans / Jay Livingston) 3:17
3. All I Want For Christmas Is You (Alan Bergman / Marilyn Bergman / Johnny Mandel) 4:18
4. My Favorite Things (Oscar Hammerstein II / Richard Rodgers) 2:55
5. Christmas Time Is Here (Vince Guaraldi / Lee Mendelson) 3:59
6. Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard) 2:31
7. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane / Hugh Martin) 4: 36
8. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (J. Fred Coots / Haven Gillespie) 2:53
9. I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm duet with Antonia (Irving Berlin) 3:31
10. The Christmas Waltz (Sammy Cahn) 3:22
11. O Christmas Tree (Traditional) 3:27
Tony Bennett: vocals
Antonia Bennett: vocals
Bill Holman: conductor
Toots Thielemans: harmonica
Lee Musiker: piano
Andy Snitzer: tenor saxophone
Monty Alexander: piano
Paul Langosch: bass
Harold Jones: drums
Gary Sargent: guitar
John Williams: baritone saxophone
Doug Miller: tenor saxophone
Grant Langford: alto saxophone
Marshall McDonald: alto saxophone
Doug Lawrence: tenor saxophone
Clarence Banks: trombone
Alvin Walker: trombone
Dave Keim: trombone
Barry Cooper: trombone
William “Scooter” Barnhart: trumpet
Michael Williams: trumpet
Kris Johnson: trumpet
James Zollar: trumpet
Executive Producer: Danny Bennett
Producer: Phil Ramone
Engineer and Mixing: Dae Bennett
Mastering: Bob Ludwig
Art Direction: Josh Cheuse
Cover Photo: Mark Seliger
You’d think that a holiday season dedicated to love and laughter and home and family would be a frequent subject for the comfortable, familiar and warm voice of a singer like Tony Bennett. But A Swingin’ Christmas: Tony Bennett Featuring the Count Basie Big Band is only the venerable vocalist’s second holiday-themed album, and his first since Snowfall (Columbia), which was originally released forty years ago in 1968 and then remastered and reissued with a bonus track in ’94.
At its core, A Swingin’ Christmas is Bennett with a quartet—bassist Paul Langosch, guitarist Gary Sargent, drummer Harold Jones (a veteran of several Basie Band recordings) and pianist Monty Alexander. The first nine of its eleven tracks are additionally master-blasted by that musical locomotive known as the Count Basie Orchestra.
This question will be on most readers’ minds, so let’s dispense with it first. Yes, a few tunes seem to sound like Bennett’s masterful voice is approaching its twilight, as it strains toward the high notes in “Silver Bells” and quieter moments of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But there’s really so much more to like. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” best spotlights the Basie Band, as it blasts through the horn arrangement and solos (even if a moratorium on octogenarians singing a tune with “Santa Claus” in its title seems in order).
Alexander’s piano break in “Silver Bells” gives Bennett good reason to “thank Monty for sitting in and playing in a Basie style” (from Bennett’s annotations); Alexander simply overflows with industrial-strength Basie, never playing one more note or beat than absolutely necessary to move and groove with blues-based sophistication.
A Swingin’ Christmas presents Bennett’s first recording of “Christmas Time is Here,” the precious Charlie Brown Christmas gem co-written by Vince Guaraldi and Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson. Arranged comfortably in his range, he wanders through its reverie with a contemplative, almost serene performance that somehow sounds profoundly grateful. How could it take him forty years to finally record this song?
Bennett, like so many other great musicians, takes the jazz perspective on “My Favorite Things” with bright and adventurous phrasing, his enthusiasm matched by that dynamic Basie Band sound. The last two tunes, without the Basie Band, seem to more freely allow the genuine, warm brilliance of Bennett’s voice to radiate through. He attacks the first verse but floats through the second of “The Christmas Waltz,” drawing out the jazz overtones of the quartet’s dancing rhythm in both. “O Christmas Tree,” with only pianist Lee Musiker, smolders with quiet and intimate power, ruminating from the profound darkness of that silent night. Bennett seems to find comfort in such timelessness, through a voice that sounds so warm and human yet legendary, too.
Chris M. Slawecki (All About Jazz)