Savoy’s Christmas anthology draws on recordings from the '40s and '50s, swinging wildly in mood from the sacred to the profane. The eclectic mix includes novelty tunes, straight readings of traditional songs, and four very different interpretations of “White Christmas,” ranging from the disposable Meltones version to a crucial live performance by Charlie Parker with Kenny Dorham and Max Roach.
Johnny Otis welcomes the listener from 1950, backing Little Esther on “Far Away Christmas Blues.” Esther smolders telling her tale of holiday loneliness with Otis improvising ornamentations on vibes. The Ravens swing the first version of “White Christmas” with the bass voice taking the first lead, followed by a scary falsetto singer, both playing with the melody. Their “Silent Night” plays it straight with group harmonies and that disturbing castrati.
Dan Grissom’s “Wonderful Christmas Night” brings back the celeste as well, and a Ben Webster-influenced tenor sax augments the pleasant ballad. The Meltones from ’45 seem to be a sort of Hi-Los type quartet with a female lead and the ubiquitous Savoy Christmas celeste. The liner notes stress that this version had been left off the LP and past CD versions of the collection, while never admitting that its inclusion here may be an error. Johnny Guarneri and Slam Stewart get the party back on track with “Santa’s Secret,” a rollicking expose that answers Arlo Guthrie’s question, “What’s in the pipe that he’s smoking?”
With Ralph Willis on guitar, vocals, and composition credit, “Christmas Blues” gives the session to Washboard Pete. A straight country blues, the song drives along on Willis’ strong guitar skills. From ’49, Felix Gross sings “Love for Christmas.” Joe Howard’s fat tenor dominates the instrumental break and Tiny Webb’s guitar fills against the big band recalls T-Bone Walker. Jimmy Butler turns “Trim Your Tree” into a double entendre romp with unknown accompaniment.
“Mr. Santa’s Boogie” rocks out of 1954 with the Marshall Brothers, a well-arranged vocal quartet with quartet combo. Out of the unholy compositional alliance of Don Kirshner and Bobby Darin comes “I Want to Spend Christmas with Elvis.” The now forgotten Debbie Dabney brays the lyric made up of Elvis song titles strung together around a Christmas theme. And who’s that punctuating the two and four with bright guitar chords? UCLA’s jazz professor emeritus, Kenny Burrell.
Finally, Symphony Sid, live from the Royal Roost on Christmas of 1948, introduces the Bird’s “little surprise for you on ‘White Christmas.’” Sure, he swings it, quotes “Jingle Bells” among other things, jams 32nd notes into short phrases, and introduces material never dreamed of by Berlin or Der Bingle.
While several of these selections are pure Dr. Demento, Parker’s track is the one you’ll burn on your compilations.
Personnel: Little Esther with Johnny Otis Orchestra; The Ravens; Gatemouth Moore with Tiny Grimes Swingtet; Dan Grissom; the Meltones; Johnny Guarnieri with Slam Stewart; Washboard Pete; Felix Gross; Jimmy Butler; the Marshall Brothers; Debbie Dabney; Big Maybelle; Charlie Parker