december 2009

Etta James
Sony BMG Special Products
Released: 1998

It took awhile for Etta James to get around to cutting her first Christmas album—43 years after her first hit, “The Wallflower,” in 1955—but when she did, she did it right. Working with producer John Snyder, she assembled a steamroller of a small jazz combo, anchored by legendary instrumentalists who honed their skills in some of the top jazz outfits of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and some younger lions who burst onto the scene in the ‘60s. This tight little unit is anchored by Cedar Walton on piano, Red Holloway on alto and tenor saxophones, and Billy Higgins on drums, all ably abetted by guitarist Josh Sklair, bassists John Clayton and (on electric) Etta’s son Sametta James, trombonist George Bohannon and flugelhornist Ronnie Buttacavoli. Though all familiar seasonal offerings, the songs are given the intimate feel a small ensemble can provide, sounding very much like a set fashioned for a late-night club audience—that is, medium-cool, with some exciting instrumental interplay along the way and James playing it pretty straight vocally while allowing herself an occasional excursion into improvisational fancy, as she does in breaking out of the rhythmic stride of a bustling “White Christmas” arrangement to set up a closing flurry of instrumental bellicosity (in its most positive sense). Some of the attendant joys here include Walton’s clever keyboard ripostes to James’s sturdy vocal on a driving treatment of “Winter Wonderland” further spiced by witty solo courtesy bassist Clayton; smoky, grinding, deep blues treatments of “This Time of Year” and Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas, Baby,” both featuring swaggering vocals from Etta and busy, atmospheric tenor sax solos by Holloway, with the latter tune rising to an exuberant, horn-embellished crescendo behind James’s searing shouts. In a new arrangement by James and Sklair, “Silent Night” incorporates both blues and gospel elements—the former by way of concise, robust guitar solos and crying tenor sax, the latter in James’s emotion-laden, expressive behind-the-beat phrasing as she stretches out the lyric lines for maximum emotional impact. It’s a quiet gem. And to top things off, her stately, respectful reading of “O Holy Night” is delivered in both English and French, her only accompaniment being Sklair’s shimmering, introspective electric guitar lines—a magnificent, understated rendition and a smart choice to close an album rich in the seasonal spirit but not at the expense of respect for its larger meaning. — David McGee 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024