Creating New Christmas Music With Vintage Swing

Dec 20, 2019

For much of this year, New York City bandleader, arranger, composer, guitarist and singer Glenn Crytzer worked on writing new Christmas music. However, his new music doesn’t sound like it was written in 2019, but in 1940 and earlier. On Underneath the Mistletoe, released just in time for the holidays, Crytzer and his orchestra re-imagine the classic Swing Era sounds created by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford and other legendary bands, but with all new arrangements and songs.

Instead of being a carbon copy of those orchestras, Crytzer says he likes to think of his group as a new band from that period. And like many of the classic dance bands, his is also very versatile. The music on Underneath the Mistletoe features swinging dance arrangements, sweet ballads, rhythm novelties and vintage hot jazz. 

The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra

Crytzer first fell in love with swing twenty years ago when he was at Florida State University studying classical music and cello. This was during the swing revival of the late-‘90s and during his free time he took dance classes and competed in Lindy Hop contests. But he says it was rare to find bands that played real swing. “It was kinda’ swing mixed with punk rock, ska and rockabilly and a lot of other stuff,” he says. He decided that since no one else was playing authentic music from this period, then maybe he would.

After finishing graduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he took a job with the Seattle Opera as head librarian. In the evenings he led bands at swing dances and eventually bandleading became a full-time pursuit. In 2014 he relocated to New York City to fully immerse himself in the jazz tradition.

Crytzer says he doesn’t feel forced or strained writing in the musical styles and conventions of the 1930s and 40s. “For me it just comes very naturally because it’s what I’m into,” he says. “Anytime you spend a lot of time working with the vocabulary of a particular style of music, it gets inside you and the way you think about music. It’s my voice coming out through the set of characteristics of the music that I really love.”

Living in New York gives Crytzer the opportunity to work with outstanding musicians who love this music as much as he does. “It’s a very special, select group of players in the jazz world who are into this,” he says. “One of the blessings of being in New York is that a lot of the best players from everywhere else move here, so we have this really incredible talent pool.”

Along with the players capturing the instrumental sounds of the period, Underneath the Mistletoe also showcases some of the vocal stylings of the 1930s and 40s. Crytzer himself croons on the album’s sweeter songs while Dandy Wellington handles rhythm novelties like “All I Want for Christmas is Food.” Hannah Gill fills the role of the band’s female vocalist singing in a style reminiscent Benny Goodman singers Helen Ward and Martha Tilton on the album’s title track “Hey, Mister Snowflake,” and “Playing Santa Claus”

“Hannah Gill is wonderful to work with,” Crytzer says. “She’s very young and has a really fantastic voice that sounds like an old voice from the era, but she doesn’t sound like an impersonation of anyone, so her voice is really unique in that way.”

Underneath the Mistletoe was recorded with all the musicians playing live in one room. Crytzer says he wanted to get the balance, timbre and blend of the original recordings by the great swing bands while also getting better fidelity. The recording process used vintage or vintage reproduction ribbon microphones along with digital technology. “It’s a question of figuring out what old stuff to use and what new stuff to use to make recording more convenient or easier without changing the effect,” he says. “There’s certain technology that they might have used if they’d had it, but would they have made different music if they had been working that way?” He sees older recording techniques as another lost art that he’s trying to revive.

Crytzer says he had fun making Underneath the Mistletoe and seeing it all come together from an idea to a finished product, but it was also a lot of work. Plus, he had a deadline to meet. “The thing about doing a regular record is that if things go wrong or are running late you can put off the release two more months, but they won’t move Christmas for you,” he says. “It’s gotta’ come out on time.”

After devoting most of 2019 on the project, Crytzer says he’s exhausted and taking about a month to recover and catch his breath. And then, he says, we’ll see what 2020 holds.