12 Songs of Christmas by Etta James is Perfect for 2020
by Kristin Battestella
Musical accompaniments by Cedar Walton, George Bohanon, and Red Holloway set off the 1998 holiday album 12 Songs of Christmas from Etta James – an hour long mix of jazz infused seasonal staples and reverent carols. Winter Wonderland provides a swanky start with smooth horns and piano interludes to match the snowy lyrics. The breezy pacing makes room for big notes and groovy accents in unexpected places while setting the session's sophisticated, adult tone. The casual but voluminous notes continue in Jingle Bells. This doesn't feel like the expected kiddie but rather a fun date. It's a day on the holiday town complete with cuddling and carriage rides! The saxophone brings the December foot tapping, keeping things lively without being in your face with the usual titular excess.
Despite talk of happy Christmas memories, Etta's first slower ode This Time of Year turns the lights down low with melancholy lyrics of the season. Also on Brenda Lee's Jingle Bell Rock album, the brass instrumentals here create somber crescendos and long notes for a little holiday peace and quiet. The second longest track Merry Christmas Baby, however, is a bluesy, sexy duet between voice and saxophone. This frisky foreplay isn't kiddie like 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,' and it's just plum nice to have an album that's not for the youngins – unlike seemingly everything else these days. 12 Songs of Christmas likewise isn't reaching with a hip, contemporary, radio friendly track that's sure to be the holiday hit of the season. These are adult melodies to match the after dinner cocktails, lights out, and mistletoe mood. The soft, dedicated breathy notes of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas need no other bells and whistles, and it's extra poignant to listen to this deliberate, far apart holiday in 2020. Etta's vocals echo the lyrical highs and lows, but the hopeful December wishes are sad nonetheless.
On the flip side, Santa Claus is Coming to Town is surprisingly the longest track on 12 Songs of Christmas – a fun spot in the middle of the set again more about grown up nostalgia than making children behave. In fact, the familiar melody leads to snapping fingers and a chance for the big kids to misbehave, sway and toast, or cut a rug. This time the jubilee is for us! Less heard sunny a cappella lines likewise open White Christmas with firm memories. Rather than wispy or trembling as the Irving Berlin ode often is, the powerful voice shares the winter sentiment with one and all in a slightly swanky forties tone. Many listeners probably expect an Etta a la 'At Last,' however, this rendition rocks a little on the holiday dreams instead of going for the typical balladry. Fortunately, those big slow notes are saved for The Christmas Song, which is ironically the shortest track on 12 Songs of Christmas. Etta's smooth, steady vocals let the piano take the melody out for that jazzy spin. The seasonal refrains remain strong without the need to break out in shrill, can't sing along exclaims.
12 Songs of Christmas winds down the session with several carols, and The Little Drummer Boy closes in on that nativity feeling with Etta's rolled, rum pum pum pum effortless. Again, this chorale is often arranged with somewhat juvenile rhythms, but the notes here parallel the lyrical reminder that sometimes the only gift we have to give is the music we make. Particularly in 2020, this rendition is a touching, personal reverence for adults increasingly pressured to buy, buy, buy. The notes be they songstress or brass are going to take as long as they are going to take for the spirit to be felt in Silent Night. It's so nice to not have super orchestration or headache inducing notes – but that doesn't mean this creche doesn't pack a powerful punch. Joy to the World is also not festive fast for the whole family. This toe tapping isn't rushed; the words can be heard and the subsequent verses not often used in standard holiday recordings are here for some classy church smooth with just a touch of gospel infusion. Some over produced renditions of Oh Holy Night are also so big and high that not all the words are discernible. Thankfully the powerful message in this brooding finale is clear. It's a candlelit night and the hour is at hand, and a lone voice in the dark doesn't need to be five octaves to be poignant.
No track on 12 Songs of Christmas is short thanks to time taking, near four and a half minute minimums. This isn't a rush holiday rush soundtrack for the juvenile December busy or indebted holiday shopping. Etta James' 12 Songs of Christmas is a pleasantly mature session – a night out for mom and dad with an intimate concert at the club. This is a delicious listen for trimming the tree, a dinner and dancing night in, or the sophisticated holiday party and festive workplace. That is, if we could still have those seasonal socials of old. Not all Decembers are jolly and 2020 is the perfect time to revisit 12 Songs of Christmas.