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Renée Landry adds swing and originals to holiday songs

Renée Landry Wishes You A Swinging Christmas
Live! on Elgin
Saturday, December 17, 2016 – 8:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Back in 1960, Ella Fitzgerald released an album called Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. It quickly became a classic, because of Fitzgerald's joyful and clear vocal interpretations and Frank de Vol's well-chosen and swinging orchestral jazz arrangements. It was an album which celebrated the season and the well-known holiday songs – without being arch or ironic. Instead, it let you enjoy the songs for the well-crafted gems that they are.

Renée Landry gave expressive interpretations of the songs from Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas album at her Swinging Christmas show, backed by a fine sextet ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Ottawa vocalist Renée Landry reinvoked the magic of that compilation on Saturday, with her second annual “Swinging Christmas” concert. Backed by a sextet of Ottawa musicians who understand classic jazz well, she sang the songs from the Ella album plus three of her own – keeping the joy and avoided the cutesy.

It's a project which she said she and the musicians had been working on since October, with arrangements by saxophonist Richard Page and Landry. The 90-minute show was by no means a copy of the album – for one thing, there weren't any strings in these arrangements – but Page retained De Vol's strong jazz vitality. And the songs were presented in almost the identical order as on Ella's album, with one of the CD's bonus tracks added and one song moved to the encore.

The show was sold out in advance, and the audience was clearly receptive as the band reached the stage. Live! On Elgin is a comfortable rectangular room with good acoustics and sight-lines, set up cabaret-style with the stage at one end, and worked well for the show.

The musical performance was polished and varied, with each musician contributing their own touches to make the songs jazzier and more individually interesting. Drummer Stephen Adubofuor and bassist J.P. Lapensée provided the essential propulsion and energy underneath, stepping out only at the end with flexible, grumbling bass solo and a hard and punctuated drum solo.

Clayton Connell's bright piano solo, punctuated yet melodic, added extra texture to “The Christmas Song”. He also contributed a shimmering solo on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, dancing around the melody line. Guitarist Terence Wright added delicacy and warmth to many of the slower numbers, but also contributed an inflected and flowing Lorne Lofsky-style solo to the Caribbean-style “Christmas Island”.

Trumpeter Ed Lister and Page have collaborated together for five years, particularly on classic hard bop music. On “Frosty the Snowman”, they alternated sizzling trumpet with deep punctuated baritone sax lines, pushing the energy up and up and then playing in unison. It was great fun, and the audience responded with strong applause. Page also added a warm and evocative tenor sax solo on “White Christmas”, which worked well with Landry's ringing vocals.

Highlights of the show included “What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?”, sung softly and intimately, with Landry's voice caressing the melody and Lister's flugelhorn creating a vibrating commentary on it, adding just enough contrast to avoid the song sounding sentimental. I also enjoyed Page's baritone sax lines on “Sleigh Ride”, assertive and rough yet flowing, which glided the tune forward under Landry's inviting vocals.

Landry sang the songs straight and warmly, with every word clear. She swayed to the music, and embodied its feel in her expressive voice and in frequent gestures underlining the lyrics. In songs like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, she cheerfully played with lyrics and delivery, adding scatting, which blended well with Lister's strong muted trumpet lines.

I preferred her singing style on slower songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “Winter Wonderland”, which sounded smoother and more natural. On the upbeat numbers, her voice had a harder edge, almost as though she was pushing it – unlike Ella's rounded delivery – which I thought distracted from the overall mood. Perhaps this edge was emphasized by the sound system too.

Between the songs, Landry added friendly banter and several personal Christmas anecdotes, the funniest one of which was how her hair was accidentally set on fire by the candles at a Christmas Eve midnight mass when she was young (the fire was caught before she was hurt). Unlike the music, which flowed well and had good forward momentum, the stories would have worked better if they'd been edited and come to the point more quickly.

Within the show, Landry incorporated three Christmas-themed songs she had written – all of which were included in her just-released EP, A Christmas Night. Each was well-crafted, both lyrics and music, and fit the Christmas mood without being sentimental.

“A Christmas Night” was in traditional carol form: Landry sang it simply and sincerely, with the melody accented by Connell's bell-like piano lines and Wright's lucid guitar solo. “Santa, Bring Me a Reindeer” was a fun novelty number about never finding a reindeer underneath her Christmas tree, sung with assurance and verve. “What Do I Want for Christmas?” was a sadder piece about the gifts one really wants to receive, sung slowly and conversationally, with quiet piano and melodic baritone sax adding to the bluesy feel.

The encore, “Good Morning Blues”, provided a rousing close to the evening. As Landry noted, it was “a little bit different” from Ella's performance. This version grooved, with a noticeable beat, and she sang it like a blues number: more Bessie Smith than Ella. It had a New Orleans edge, and Landry used the piece to thank each of the musicians and allow them a short solo. It ended with one last emphatic call to Santa Claus to “bring my baby back to me”, and was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Jazz often looks back to its classics for good reason – and in this case I thought Landry and her band did a fine job of both paying tribute to Ella's time-honoured album, and updating it with new arrangements and material, while not losing the feel of the original. I left the concert feeling happy – and ear-wormed by several of the songs.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  1. Jingle Bells (J.S. Pierpont)
  2. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie)
  3. Santa, Bring Me a Reindeer (Renée Landry)
  4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin)
  5. What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? (Frank Loesser)
  6. Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish)
  7. The Christmas Song (Mel Tormé, Bob Wells)
  8. A Christmas Night (Renée Landry)
  9. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne)
  10. Winter Wonderland (Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith)
  11. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Johnny Marks)
  12. Frosty the Snowman (Steve Nelson, Jack Rollins)
  13. White Christmas (Irving Berlin)
  14. Christmas Island (Lyle L. Moraine)
  15. What Do I Want for Christmas? (Renée Landry)
  16. Good Morning Blues (Count Basie, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Rushing)