Tony Bennett featuring the Count Basie Big Band
A Swingin' Christmas
The Albion Christmas Band
Snow on Snow
One comes to us as an iconic pop presence, a singer rooted in a jazz tradition though he sounds fully inventive today in the company of small combos and orchestral settings. His modus operandi this time is swing, although his fine new holiday album is by no means married exclusively to it. Still, the resulting music sounds undeniably American.
The other comes from folk stylists largely unknown in North America who command a Christmas sound of another time and place. By mixing traditional carols, comparatively contemporary songs and narratives that speak to the traditions of the season as well as to what we might hope to learn from them as we face the new year, a distinctly British — almost Dickensian — air emerges.
In the American corner is the great Tony Bennett, who has taken stabs at holiday music before. But A Swingin' Christmas succeeds without the usual celeb-heavy guest list of duet partners invariably unsuited or unqualified to match musical wits with the great Bennett. Instead, we hear the singer's boundless holiday spirit wrapped up in the swing of the season, with 13 horns from the Count Basie Orchestra cheering him on during the album-opening I'll Be Home for Christmas.
There is a spot of age in Bennett's singing here (at 82, he's entitled) that blemishes ever so slightly his vocal tone. But if anything, that only adds to the sort of unforced familial feel of the more swing-savvy moments of A Swingin' Christmas. In fact, the cover portrait says it all about the collaboration, with Bennett and the Basie boys gathered around the dinner table as if they were at a board meeting. But there's one difference: everybody is grinning to beat the band. Maybe even their own.
Fine as the brassy holiday feast sounds, Bennett is even more arresting when he lets the brass take a breather. A quartet led by pianist Monty Alexander, who all but channels Basie's spry piano sound here, provides a more subtle joy on Silver Bells. The music is pared down even further for O Christmas Tree, which provides the light, solo piano of Lee Musiker as Bennett's only accompaniment. The orchestra charge is a blast, but nothing warms up a room like Bennett relishing the company of a small band.
The Albion Christmas Band is the product of Ashley Hutchings, the bassist, singer and folk revivalist who formed the e_SDHpgroundbreaking Fairport Convention 41 years ago.
Snow on Snow continues a sound formulated in two previous Albion holiday albums. It integrates British folk-dance instrumentation (specifically, melodeon, fiddle and percussive morris dance melodies accented by bells), traditional folk tunes with a seasonal air (as in the Cherry Tree Carol, which the band pumps up into a polka) and more modern fare (James Taylor's Frozen Man, reprised by longtime Fairport-er Simon Nicol, who recorded with it the group in the '90s). The production is a touch safe and slick at times, but the Old World charm of Snow on Snow is bountiful.
Hutchings sobers things up with a reading of the W.H. Auden poem Well, So That is That. It's a somewhat scolding narrative that takes us all to task: “Once again, as in previous years, we have seen the actual vision and have failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility.” Christmas cheer colored by humility. Now there's a switch.