Album Review: Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five – Let It Snow

[Self-released; 2022]

Christmas and swing music go hand in hand. Thanks to the rise of celebrity, the advent of film and music stars, and the fruitful writing chops of some of the century’s finest composers, the classic Christmas standards are set in time, that time being the post-war era of smooth and swinging jazz. Crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were perfectly placed, and it’s no surprise their renditions of “White Christmas”, “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Jingle Bells” (among others) are synonymous with the festive period. 

There are surely essays to be written on Christmas music and how it developed from the turn of the 20th century to the mid 1960s. But put briefly, jazz albums honing in on the holiday were plentiful (and still are, thanks to Michael Bublé still existing). Louis Armstrong leaned more into his brand of theatrical zaniness with songs like “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” while Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite from 1960 is a deliciously vibrant reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s suite. In recent years one can look at Glenn Crytzer and his mammoth Underneath the Mistletoe album from 2019, bringing together 20 original seasonal tracks. (His A Little Love This Christmas EP from 2013 is an underrated joy and also deserves a mention.) There’s plenty of jazzy Christmas music out there, but also (from a swing dancer and swing DJ perspective) never quite enough solid material to play for dancers; one has to search through barrels of kitschy modern swing (i’m pointing the finger at you again, Bublé) before you find real keepers that folk can and will want to dance to.

It seemed inevitable then that Jonathan Stout should get around to a Christmas album then. A high standard for any swing event and with a discography of finely honed material, the guitarist and bandleader is highly respected among those in the swing dancing community for his hard work playing swing music that respects the black history behind it while also not letting his band’s talents go unnoticed. With his Campus Five (and regular vocalist Hilary Alexander), Stout compiles 15 festive hits on Let It Snow that covers all the classics you would expect and throws in one or two little surprises and lesser known numbers. 

If Let It Snow seems straight-lined and uneventful at first, then it’s a testament to the band behind it. Most of the arrangements here won’t throw any great surprises at you, but they do what they should: be solid danceable takes that any swing DJ can rely on and dancers will enjoy doing Lindy Hop, Balboa, and/or Charleston to. There are certainly some moments where a little more festivity and fun wouldn’t have done any harm though. Albert Alva’s accompanying sax on “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” could have been a little cheekier in those moments where a kid might fill in the vocal pauses, and “Christmas in New Orleans” is a sweet homage to the NOLA sound (helped by Ziegler’s animated trumpet and Josh Collazo’s drum rolls) but at its heart it’s very obviously just missing Louis Armstrong’s (if not another black artist’s) voice. 

On the other side though, you have the fiery “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah”, full of gusto as Alva and Ziegler trade phrases in the high tempo. Stout’s guitar solo too is exciting, full of referential notes and licks and a bonafide example of why he’s considered one of the best. On “Mele Kalikimaka” slide guitarist Mikiya Matsuda drops in for a memorable spotlight. The band knows to just let him shine, and only when the excitement of the full arrangement takes over at the end do they all come in. 

Elsewhere “Jingle Bells” gives pianist Christopher Dawson time to shine, his light touch on the keys still retaining the song’s bouncy tone while Collazo drops in subtle variations and plenty of hi-hat on “Little Jack Frost Get Lost” so as to make closer listening worth your time. Credit too to the arrangement of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, recasting a track that’s often too busy or overly sentimental in tone. Here it’s given an airy, if not slightly icy touch. A keen ear might also pick up on the playful riffing of the melody of the album’s titular song found at the start of a few tracks. 

If you won’t be hearing the songs from Let It Snow on the dancefloor then they will also comfortably nestle in with the traditional songs on your Christmas playlists. Ziegler’s fatherly smirk adds a levity to his vocal takes (see his rascally smiles on “Button Up Your Overcoat”) while Hilary Alexander has her talent down to a tee, and anyone could easily mistake her for Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, or Peggy Lee on first glance. The tight rhythm section provides an invaluable pulse (the way Samuel Wolfe Rocha sinks into place speaks to knowing exactly what he’s doing), and every musician knows the assignment. Sure, sometimes the band are a little too quick to exit, like they just want to get a track over and done with (the ambling “Winter Wonderland”), and despite it’s perky brass hits “Send Me Your Love for Christmas” is still a rather flat song, but at Christmas – or more importantly, on the dancefloor – this matters little. It’s just good to have good Christmas music to move to.