Monday, December 20, 2021

Betty Glamann's Christmas album (and why discography matters)

In the 1950s, when record equipment improved noticeably at the same time as engineers were becoming very experienced and cash-flow in American record companies allowed for whatever experiment came to producers' minds, harp had a brief fling with jazz. In the second half of the decade you could find the names of Dorothy Ashby, Betty Glamann or Janet Putnam on the cover of their own albums—at least Ashby's and Glamann's—and in numerous sessions, mostly in the studio but sometimes in clubs too, like Glamann in Oscar Pettiford's band in 1957 and 58.

A precocious talent, Glamann was already performing with a symphony orchestra twice a week on NBC radio when she was 13. From there, she played in the Baltimore symphony, then joined the eccentric but demanding Spike Jones and appeared on Garry Moore and Steve Allen's TV shows. She can also be heard on jazz records, like Duke Ellington's A Drum Is a Woman, Kenny Dorham's Jazz Contrasts, Michel Legrand's Legrand Jazz and in Oscar Pettiford and his Orchestra's Vol. 2 (reissued as Deep Passion).

In the mid-1950s, she recorded two albums, Poinciana for Bethlehem, and Swinging on a Harp for Mercury, as the co-leader of a small group with bassist Rufus Smith, featuring top-rank sidemen like Barry Galbraith, Osie Johnson or Eddie Costa. And some time around 1967 she did a Christmas record for the obscure Vicson Music Company. 

This is an unashamedly Christmas record, as classic as it gets. There are fitting echoes of the "Waltz of the Flowers" from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet here and there, there are a couple of decent piano solos, some interesting chords (although one sounds like a rare clam) on "Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer". A few tunes walk with swinging rhythm section, but in one of them, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" embraces a cringey late-1960s "groovy" beat more akin to Austin Powers than Santa, followed by a redeeming bluesy piano solo. On the opposite end, the arranger gets boppish with a nod to Coleman Hawkins's "Spotlite" on "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".

So, if you want some well-executed yet non intrusive Christmas songs, this is for you. 

Now, for the personnel. The cover states clearly that the record was written and conducted by noted arranger and Atlantic records producer Arif Mardin. As for the band, the bottom of the back sleeve reads...

that is, your regular fare of studio musicians, four of them linked to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Dodgion, Jones, Buffington and Davis. Buffington had also played with Glamann in Oscar Pettiford's band in the mid-50s, and Hank Jones and Sommer were extremely busy in the studios, like Romeo Penque, a fixture of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans records for Columbia. As for cellist Joseph Tekula, he can be found in several albums in the Gunther Schuller/John Lewis/Orchestra USA orbit.

This is what it is, but you could hardly find a better band to play it.

You can find Betty Glamann's Christmas Fantasy (originally on the Vicson label, VI-11967) on all streaming services. Here it is on Qobuz.

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