- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Think Christmas music is background noise, inoffensive at best, irritating at worst? Or can it be fertile ground for vital artists? This holiday season, Harry Connick Jr. and Brian Setzer have furnished a study in contrasts too rich to ignore.

Conveniently, both Mr. Connick and Mr. Setzer tap into old-time jazz and swing for their Christmas crossovers, “Harry for the Holidays” and last year’s “Boogie Woogie Christmas,” respectively.

Mr. Connick may emphasize the funk of his hometown New Orleans, but he and Mr. Setzer share retro sensibilities; both deliver jazzy bounce with contemporary attitude albeit from two opposing contemporary schools, but more on that below.

Both have benefited from aggressive pushes on TV. Mr. Connick’s glitzy NBC special, which aired Nov. 27, saw the crooner dueting with Latin singer-actor Marc Anthony and mugging with comedians Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg.

Mr. Setzer, despite the lack of a new LP to promote — his “Luck Be a Lady” EP, released in October, did anticipate the season with choice holiday covers — has surfaced on a variety of TV programs. (He’ll perform on “The Tonight Show” Monday night.)

Both inaugurated their public campaigns in New York City, the capital of Christmas; Mr. Connick in Times Square for his Thanksgiving special, Mr. Setzer at Rockefeller Center. Both, moreover, roused themselves for crack-of-dawn gigs with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on “The Today Show.”

If you search for one or the other on Amazon.com, the Web site links Mr. Connick and Mr. Setzer together in an “If you like …” cross-reference.

They’ve even overlapped on source material for their Christmas offerings, with dueling covers of the Elvis Presley classic “Blue Christmas.”

Mr. Connick, 36, and Mr. Setzer, 44, are clearly vying for a similar demographic this season: an older audience that wants a little more than the old standards and ho-hum toe-tappers for the holiday season. Something with value-added zip and gusto.

The former’s “Harry for the Holidays” is a Rat Pack-y take on classics such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

Mr. Setzer puts his retro-swing and horn-heavy pizazz into tunes such as “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” as well as Lionel Hampton’s “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.”

Both add original compositions to their wintry mixes: Mr. Connick’s “Happy Elf,” for example, and Mr. Setzer’s “So They Say It’s Christmas,” performed first by soul singer Lou Rawls before its composer took his own crack at it.

Yet even as they compete in the same narrow environmental niche of the holiday entertainment industry, their respective styles couldn’t be more different. Mr. Connick is aiming for a, shall we say, uptown Christmas, while Mr. Setzer remains defiantly downtown.

Mr. Connick tipped his hand with one TV appearance in particular: He rubbed flirty elbows with the ladies on ABC’s “The View.” Somehow it’s hard to imagine Mr. Setzer, with his multiple tattoos and greasy ducktail, chit-chatting with Barbara Walters.

Where Mr. Connick is smooth, courtly and playfully seductive, Mr. Setzer and his 18-piece orchestra cultivate a grittier, flashier atmosphere in their recordings and live performances.

Mr. Connick, no slouch on boogie-woogie and jazz piano, is lately content with neo-Sinatra posturing for the wine-and-cheese set. When he rolled into the District earlier this month, the swanky Kennedy Center Concert Hall was his venue of choice.

In contrast, Mr. Setzer is dragging his big band into smoky rock clubs.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, during which Washingtonians traditionally light out to the hinterlands, Mr. Setzer andcompany kicked off their Christmas Extravaganza tour — the day after Mr. Connick’s TV special, incidentally — at a packed-to-the-rafters 9:30 Club.

Mixing cuts from “Boogie Woogie Christmas” with hits from his mid-‘90s rebirth such as “Jump, Jive, An’ Wail” and crowd-pleasing Stray Cats standbys such as “Rock This Town,” Mr. Setzer still plays his semi-hollow-body electric with a laserlike precision that combines bluesy swagger and swingin’ eighths.

At the Kennedy Center, Mr. Connick, sometimes on piano, sometimes not, played to an audience short on males. According to a review in The Washington Post, he identified himself with his mostly female fans as the collective “us.”

At the 9:30 Club, Mr. Setzer was plainly not in alignment with the perspective of the opposite sex when, with a nod toward his pair of curvaceous female backup singers in Santa suits and plunging necklines, he cracked, “How’d ya like one of those in your Christmas stocking?”

Of course, this is all as it should be; Christmas consumption is about choice and variety. And neither Mr. Connick nor Mr. Setzer is using the holiday music market to pander or reinvent himself; both are just themselves, temporarily nodding to a seasonal market.

Still, if we’re to judge Christmas music according to how successfully it distinguishes itself from ubiquitous department-store Christmas soundtracks, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mr. Setzer has proven the better artist.

Even if nice girls would rather have the suave Mr. Connick in their Christmas stockings.

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