As an unbilled guest, Aretha Franklin was the surprise gift of the 2015 Big Band Holidays concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. But the Queen of Soul brought a surprise of her own with an impromptu version of “O Tannenbaum,” the traditional holiday carol, performed alone at the piano. A video of that performance has just been released, exclusively to NPR Music.
The footage, arriving about three-months-and-a-year after Franklin’s monumental funeral service in Detroit, rings in a low, somber quietude. With a soft rumble of chords, Franklin instantly summons the gospel church, proceeding to sing the carol with hybrid lyrics, in both English and its original German. (“Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit / Nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.”) The video captures members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra watching her closely, all-but rapt.
Franklin had an obvious affinity for “O Tannenbaum,” a German folk song with lyrics by Ernst Anschütz. The carol does not appear on her 2008 album This Christmas, Aretha — perhaps only because she’d previously recorded it, with orchestral backing, for A Very Special Christmas 2, an all-star pop compilation benefiting the Special Olympics. (She also sang the song, complete with German lyrics, at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in 1994 — you can watch her entire performance around 36:15 here.)
On the new compilation Big Band Holidays II, by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, “O Tannenbaum” comes with Franklin’s amusing preamble. “OK, Wynton, I think maybe I’ll change the program just a little bit,” she says, to appreciative laughter in the audience. “Not too much.”
As she warms up the piano, she adds another reassurance: “The thing that we talked about will be the same, OK?”
The “thing” they had talked about was a version of “My Cup Runneth Over,” which Franklin first recorded for the 1972 Atlantic album Young, Gifted and Black. (That take was held, seeing release decades later on the compilation Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign Of The Queen Of Soul.) After her impromptu carol, Franklin started into “My Cup” with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the co-founder of Atlantic Records.
“This happens to be my 50th year in the business,” Franklin said by way of introduction, adding a deadpan aside: “And I feel like it.” Then she tossed her head back, laughing, and waved a hand — “No, I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding” — before luxuriating in the song.