december 2009

Various Artists
Shout! Factory/Astrolux
Released: 2003

This third of three excellent Shout! Factory holiday releases from 2003 offers another spectacular display of vocal prowess by a multi-generational artist roster. Note the title, however: Cool December is not a collection of Christmas songs, but rather tunes inspired by the feel of and feelings of bleak midwinter. The predominant theme is one of snuggling up and staying warm by the fire, a lover's arms providing a safe haven from the cold winds blowing outside. Moreover, the voices enlisted to advance the concept are, for the most part, female. The few males on hand do fine: Bing Crosby sets the tone with the album opening advisory, "Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter" (his avuncular tone and gentle swing making it clear that the subtext is, "so stay in here with me"); Dean Martin is at his most seductive in dreamily crooning a beautiful, string-rich swooner, "Winter Romance"; John Pizzarelli thoughtfully wonders, in a bluesy, orchestrated arrangement, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve"; and Frankie Carle demonstrates with a frisky, frolicking piano solo why he was known as the "Wizard of the Keyboard" on a big band treatment of "Little Jack Frost Get Lost," on which Marjorie Hughes provides a sassy vocal.

Otherwise, Cool December belongs to the ladies. No song here captures the disc's prevailing mood better than Doris Day's cooing, comforting version of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" with its soothing, mellow strings. Pearl Bailey is not so easily seduced into cuddling up with her beau in a 1949 version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," but as her silver-tongued companion, Hot Lips Page amiably cajoles and suggests and finally woos her into his love nest at song's end, in a mellow jazz treatment of one of Frank Loesser's oft-recorded seasonal standards (it was recorded seven times in 1949 alone, with four of those seven versions making it into the upper reaches of the Billboard Singles chart). Classic pop singing gets no better than that of honey-voiced Jo Stafford, one of the great singers of the 20th Century, and she's here with a catchy swingfest off one of her Christmas albums, "Winter Weather," on which her genial demeanor and gracefully rhythmic phrasing, abetted by the bopping orchestra behind her, makes an effective case in favor of warm bodies pressed against each other as the preferred protection against cold air. The younger generation acquits itself quite admirably, too, in the face of formidable competition from the abovementioned females (plus Billie Holiday with a coquettish treatment of "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" and Ella Fitzgerald and big band galloping graciously through "Sleight Ride"). Stacey Kent offers a tinge of melancholy in her subdued reflections in "Violets For Your Furs," her light, girlish voice accompanied by minimalist piano stylings until the first break, when a mournful sax solo underscores the heartache she's been chronicling. And the dazzling contemporary jazz singer René Marie takes "Winter Wonderland" at a gentle lope and gives her small combo ample room to shine, with the pianist and bassist offering striking contrasts in evocative soloing, with the piano's cascading notes suggesting steadily falling snowflakes whereas the bassist's more restrained excursion summons the calm after the snow has settled. Kudos to producer/compiler Brad Benedict for a smart mix of overlooked gems by some of the greats seasoned with inspired performances by formidable contemporary vocalists who prove they belong in this company. It all sounds of a piece, and perfect for any wintry season in any year. —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