Lea DeLaria: a cat isn’t just for Christmas…
What makes a great Christmas album? For me, it’s a performer’s ability to bring something new to those familiar songs and carols, with a dash of wit and intelligence – and even mischief. I want something that has a shelf-life which easily overflows the frantic couple of weeks leading up to the day itself, and that I’ll be quite happy to listen to on its merits well into January without the ennui setting in.
So while I’m sure Mariah Carey’s multitude of fans have been thrilled by the melismatic orgy that is Merry Christmas II You, it won’t be agitating my CD player this year or next. And although I’ve been a diehard Annie Lennox fan since her Tourists days – when there weren’t that many of us around – it pains me to say that the earnest intensity of her Christmas Cornucopia had me turning down the volume in irritation, until I was left in silence, watching the snow drift in the darkness through the window.
Then Lea DeLaria’s Be a Santa arrived, and promptly joined that small, select set of Christmas albums on my shelf that I’ll start reaching for every November in search of something to make the winter solstice swing.
Be a Santa is steeped in DeLaria’s trademark vocal dexterity. With her musical partner in crime Janette Mason, she’s taken a host of favourites and whipped them up into a jazzy triumph of verve and invention. She’s all whisky-and-honey tones for a bluesy, brazen take on Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, tears the house down with a rip-roaring “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – the band, incidentally, is dazzling throughout – then puts her own thoughtful, close-to-the-mic stamp on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that takes you a million miles away from Judy Garland’s trembling vibrato. It’s a rare moment of intimate calm in an album that is otherwise delivered at a fair old lick.
DeLaria doesn’t put a foot wrong as she gets her tongue around some quick-fire lyrics (“The Man With the Bag”) without ever sacrificing clarity. That’s singing of the highest quality. And even when there aren’t words – witness the exuberant scatting on “White Christmas” – you forget you’re listening to songs that should have a strictly seasonal appeal and revel in one of the finest, most fluid voices on the scene. There is novelty, too. DeLaria and Mason have included one of their own compositions – “A Modern Christmas Tale” – which manages to combine a nostalgic, retro melody with allusions to all the angst-inducing banalities of getting ready for the big day in 2010.
When I last interviewed DeLaria, I called her a one-woman melting pot of serious musicianship and showbiz. The integrity of the music is incredibly important to her, she told me, but so is what happens between the songs, and the desire to give a good show on stage is paramount.
“There’s a language to jazz and the numbers, structures and harmonics are all built into it,” she said. “Do I have a talent? It seems to be. If you’d asked me five years ago, I don’t know whether I’d have said that. But having put out three records and worked with the people I’ve worked with, I am ready to say that yes, I do.”
Now, she’s put out four records, and Be a Santa is prime evidence of a vocalist in her prime – and probably the best jazz-flavoured album from a female singer since Cleo Laine’s Christmas at the Stables. The wit is all in the interpretation and if there’s just one thing missing, it’s a risqué, festive “Dirty Martini” moment. If you want to know what I mean, check out Play it Cool, and enjoy. Or just make do with DeLaria’s Egg Nog recipe, included in the liner notes.