A Swinging Birdland Christmas Is Full of Festive Fun

By MARILYN LESTER**** Only a Grinch would spurn the Christmas spirit with Billy Stritch, Jim Caruso and Klea Blackhurst serving up a feast of Yule treats in A Swinging Birdland Christmas.  Serious swing was the first order of merry-making with Stritch, elegant in a Christmas-red jacket, launching into an all-out jazz version of “Caroling, Caroling.” Sidemen Steve Doyle on bass and Daniel Glass on drums provided in-the-pocket backup. Their musicality anchored the the three singers throughout the set, with sure skill and flawless playing. When Caruso and Blackhurst bounded to the stage, fearsome jollity was set in motion. This is the eighth year the trio have performed A Swinging Birdland Christmas, and their act runs like a very well-oiled machine. The repartee is charmingly vaudevillian, with witticisms and jokes and jibes tossed through the air like so many snowballs.

The topper on this musical Christmas tree is the ease with which the three so comfortably dispatch singing duties, whether sharing a song, soloing with backup or handing off numbers to one another. The group kickoff tune, “It’s the Holiday Season” set this tone for a merry evening to come.

The song list is refreshingly eclectic. Many of the selections, such as “It Happened in Sun Valley” and “Little Jack Frost (Get Lost)” will probably never be heard on Muzak tracks. Originally the show was chiefly inspired by 1960s television Christmas specials – those chestnuts hosted by the likes of Andy Williams, Carol Burnett and Dean Martin. This theme continues into the eighth year, with arrangements uniformly modern and creative. Blackhurst’s “The Christmas Waltz,” for instance, with counterpoint by Stritch, put a fresh spin on the standard. Generally known for her power singing, it was a rare treat to hear Blackhurst in a quieter mode. Her rendition of “A Child Is Born” revealed subtle shadings and well-considered modulation.

Caruso, with his naturally upbeat and energetic personality, put his delightful spin on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (with special lyrics) and “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” Stritch delivered traditional versions of the old standard, “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) and the new standard, “Manhattan in December.”

Stritch, Caruso and Blackhurst are blessed with comedic talent as well as sound singing chops, so there was a healthy portion of laughs to augment the songfest. Where else could one hear “We’re Going Shopping for Christmas,” featuring not only special lyrics in homage to discount stores, but a solo on the tiny piccolo trumpet by Blackhurst? The diva also belted a few bars of “Silent Night” as Ethel Merman. Caruso parodied Elvis Presley singing “Blue Christmas” and offered a hilarious Cher rendition of “O Holy Night.” Stritch contributed to the fun with two “bad” Christmas numbers, “Santa, Make Her My Bride for Christmas” and “Suzy Snowflake.” Versions of “Jingle Bells” ended the festive fun. What a merry feeling filled the air! Even the Grinch was spied trying to stifle a big smile.

A Swinging Birdland Christmas, December 22 – 25 at 6 pm. All tickets $30, $10 food/drink minimum.
Birdland, 315 West 44 Street, 212-581-3080, www.birdlandjazz.com