There’s something inexplicably cheery — and not ironically so, despite the prevalence of seasonal sweaters — about the Christmas specials of Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk. These shows of decades past delivered holiday medleys and warm sentiments that spanned giddy good times to reflective moments. They conjured seasonal memories with traditional carols and festive standards. While younger generations missed the chance to watch Crosby and Welk on prime-time television, Russ Wilson‘s big band variety show, Have Yourself a Swinging Little Christmas, offers a fresh perspective on the classic holiday songbook.
Along with his orchestra, the local musician brings arrangements of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Santa Baby” and others to the stage of Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Thursday and Friday, Dec. 18 and 19.
“I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas show,” Wilson says. “I grew up watching the old TV Christmas specials, and I wanted to rekindle those memories and songs in this show. I finally had a venue to do that in after Isis opened up.” Since launching in 2012, the venue has featured regular jazz offerings (including its ongoing Sunday jazz showcase) along with a full lineup of folk, rock and Americana acts. Last year’s debut of the Swinging Little Christmas show, on the Isis stage, was a success.
Wilson, also known as “North Carolina’s King of Swing,” has made a name for himself in music by donning many hats. Over the course of his nearly 30-year career, he has worked as a drummer, singer and bandleader. In 2007, he made his conducting debut in a performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Performing within a wide spectrum of traditions and styles ranging from country to bebop to symphonic, Wilson demonstrates a flexibility that lends itself well to the variety-show format. Despite his diverse musical past, Wilson admits, “Big band music has always been my home,” citing the lush chords and pulsing rhythms of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
The bandleaders of the 1930s were some of the first to produce jazz renditions of Christmas favorites. Ellington rearranged a large part of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker into a jazz album. He also recorded interpretations of simple tunes like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” While the Have Yourself a Swinging Little Christmas show is sure to feature a good number of classic arrangements, Wilson and his orchestra also will be performing some of the lesser-known hits of the winter season. One tune on the program is Louis Armstrong’s original “Zat You Santa Claus?” The song features a comical, narrative take on the story of St. Nick, accompanied by a playful, descending tuba line and syncopated stabs from the trumpet section. The program will also feature a swing version of “Jingle Bell Rock,” the Bobby Helms staple from 1958.
The compelling thing about songs like these is that they entertain both audience and performer alike, bringing people together by creating a celebratory atmosphere. In keeping with the variety-show format, Wilson and his orchestra will share the stage with an array of talented guests, including jazz vocalist Wendy Jones, local a cappella group The Mistletones and guitarist Hank Bones, to name a few.
“We just want people to come out, have a great time and enjoy the music,” says Wilson. “For some people, this kind of entertainment can be a window into the past. For others who may not be as familiar with this material, we want to give them a chance to encounter these songs for themselves. When you turn the radio on, you still hear a lot of these classics today.”
WHAT: Russ Wilson’s Have Yourself a Swinging Little Christmas
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. (Richard Shulman opens in the Isis Lounge) and Friday, Dec. 19, at 8:30 p.m. $15 advance/$18 at the door