Reviewed by Johan Palme on 23rd December, 2015
Ella Fitgerald, jazz critic Frank Rich wrote in a reflection published after her death, “is American song”.
Her revolutionary series of records for Verve, the Song Books, sets in absolute stone the canon for the music of the first half of the 20th century over a staggering fifteen hours of recording. It is the first, and ultimate, recording of the Great American Songbook. Every song, over 250 of them, is given meticulous attention, in co-operation with the finest arrangers and orchestras in all of music, with interpretations that both utterly embody the power of the songs and yet often depart from previous versions. “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” said Ira Gerhwin, and he was right: she takes these old, entertaining songs and brings out their full potential, their potential to be art.
The thing is, Ella Wishes you a Swinging Christmas could more or less be the closest thing we’re going to get to an Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Christmas Song Book. There are no carols here, save the utterly American “Jingle Bells”, but instead it collects the finest Christmas songs of the 20th Century in the great Tin Pan Alley tradition. Irving Berlin is here, of course, as is Jule Styne, Count Basie, Frank Loesser. Ella Fitzgerald and her orchestral partner Frank De Vol gives their songs exactly the depth of attention of any song on the Song Books series, bringing joy and jazzy vigour to flagging old standards, while still letting darkness seep through in a marvellous “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. The interpretations are far from plain – Ella Fitzgerald is much to unique for that – but every songs sounds like if it’s always been that way, as if this should be the new standard for hearing them. That, truly, is greatness.
The version that’s avaliable for streaming has six bonus tracks at the end that are easily omittable.