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Vanessa Williams Hosts a New Look at a Christmas Album from Ella Fitzgerald

Maestro Luke Frazier and the American Pops Orchestra Reimagine a Classic Holiday Album

Just when you think you have heard every possible holiday album, a 1960s classic from Ella Fitzgerald is rediscovered.

“Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” was Fitzgerald’s only complete album of Christmas tunes released on the Verve label. Taking a new approach of that album, the television special “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams,” premieres on Dec. 15, 8 p.m.-9 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video App.

The concert was filmed in August at the Meridian International Center in the District in front of a small, socially distanced live audience under strict COVID-19 guidelines. One of the most celebrated holiday albums of all time, Fitzgerald’s album featured classic American songs of the season, including “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Winter Wonderland.”

Maestro Luke Frazier directs the American Pops Orchestra (APO) and arranges performances by Grammy, Tony Award-winner, and 2017 Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater (joining APO from New Orleans); Broadway and jazz vocalist Carmen Ruby Floyd; Broadway star and recording artist Morgan James; and Grammy and Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis who some may remember from the cast of the television show “Scandal.” The holiday special also features performances by Williams, who is a multi-Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award-nominee.

APO, founded by Frazier in 2015, is based in Washington, D.C. The orchestra has a mission of preserving classic American music and bringing people together to do orchestra differently. Many APO fans remember the concert Frazier arranged and conducted for an Aretha Franklin 75th birthday tribute concert. Since the pandemic, APO has put on 80 performances. Frazier has been tenacious in finding support and venues that can accommodate performances following strict and safe guidelines.

“Everything APO does is brand new. When we started this group, it was about the art and the people that make the art,” said Frazier to illustrate the approach for the new arrangements for the Fitzgerald television event. “We were lucky that the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation put their belief in us for this fresh take for PBS.”

Frazier’s enthusiasm for the Fitzgerald project is undeniable. The finished television production reinforces his vision for APO.

“To me, it feels more important than ever that we embrace the things that take us back to a simpler time, a time of celebrating the holidays with a sense of nostalgia,” said Frazier. “This extraordinary holiday album has been the soundtrack for so many of us for decades. To share Ella’s iconic music interpreted by a new generation of extraordinary singers is a gift to us all.”

Nova Y. Payton, one of the featured vocalists for "Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams," airing on PBS on Dec. 15 (Photo by Kevin Parisi)
Nova Y. Payton, one of the featured vocalists for “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams,” airing on PBS on Dec. 15 (Photo by Kevin Parisi)

Celebrated vocalist Nova Y. Payton is featured on “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams.” Payton, an admirer of Fitzgerald, has performed with APO many times.

“I’ve worked with the American Pops Orchestra for many years and I love that they always find a way to bring freshness and newness to things that are timely,” said Payton about her work with Frazier and the new spin on Fitzgerald’s Christmas album.

“Ella has always been that one for me. I love the way she improvs, I love her style, her sass,” Payton, who lives in Prince Georges County continued her praise for Fitzgerald. “I would venture to say there has not been another like her. You can’t even imitate her. She was that great.”

Payton’s international career is highly regarded through the staged musical, “3 Mo’ Divas.” A former American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) student, Payton has an impressive catalog of artist collaborations that include performances with Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bobby McFerrin, Yolanda Adams, The Chi-Lites, the Dramatics and many more.

In addition to being a performer, she is also a voice teacher and coach. From a coaching perspective, Payton has analyzed every aspect of Fitzgerald’s vocal quality. She understands why Fitzgerald’s talent will never be duplicated.
“Her breath control and her range were out of sight,” Payton said. “I love the way she knew her instrument. She knew how to create those sounds to mimic the instruments that were around her. Again, no one can match her.”

The trailer for “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas with Vanessa Williams” airing on PBS Dec. 15, 2020, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET, is at https://www.pbs.org/video/trailer-6jgbke.

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