For me Christmas music was part of the fabric of childhood. The songs I grew up hearing my sister play on the piano every year were even more standards to me than the jazz classics. This was music that was near and dear to my heart. So for a couple of months in summer 1991 I lived Christmas music. I love simplicity as much as complexity, so I took both approaches, sometimes using very straight harmony, sometimes jazz harmony and in one case atonal/polytonal harmony.
We had recently moved to our new house with no studio. It seemed ridiculous to go to a recording studio to record solo guitar when we had all the equipment, so I wandered all over the house with the guitar pickup plugged directly into a headphone amp listening to RF interference coming in the pickup. It turned out to be quietest in Patti's office upstairs. She agreed let me turn it into my studio for a couple of months. Ergonomic it was not. First, in order to reduce the RF interference still more, we had to make a Faraday cage. This was literally a cage of steel mesh screen wrapped around a simple wooden frame which I would stand in, the kind of thing you might keep chickens in. It occupied most of the room and was still barely big enough for me to stand in with the guitar. Definitely lacking in ambiance. The recording equipment was stacked in the closet with a mess of cords everywhere, fished in and out of my cage. I would start and stop the recorder with a VCR remote control. For me to switch between Record and Play mode we had to take a long PVC pipe, hook it onto the switch and run it across the room through a hole into my cage, where I would twist the pipe, being careful not to break the switch off. All the equipment made the room very hot. I stood in there sweating for hours at a time in June and July and lost myself in Christmas music. I was actually very happy with the results. I still completely enjoy listening to this album.
"Winter Wonderland" was inspired by George Shearing's trademark sound of harmonizing melodies in octaves, with three other notes in between. These very tight voicings are impossible on guitar, but I found that I could suggest the texture by fingering standard four-note jazz voicings on consecutive strings, but raising the bottom note an octave by playing an artifical harmonic while playing the other three notes normally, an extension of an approach associated with Lenny Breau. If you've heard us play "My Romance" live, you've probably heard a similar approach in the guitar solo. Much of this version was improvised, but I put a great deal of attention into making the melody sustain vocally while the bass and chords were swinging underneath.
I had turned "Silent Night" into an exercise in parallel diatonic harmony, so it was becoming more and more rigidly arranged and unmusical, until I played it for Patti. She encouraged me to completely abandon my arrangement, go upstairs and turn on the recorder, randomly pick a different key and improvise my way loosely through the song, treating it as a fantasy, exploring its options as if I'd never played it before. That is the version that appears on the album.
I heard "Coventry Carol/What Child Is This" as wanting a very straight, classical approach, yet allowing for a few substitute jazz harmonies. This was a rare case of my intentionally not improvising, even to the point of repeating a section. Most of the challenge was in getting some difficult voicings to sound smooth.
"Jingle Bells" goes back to my very early Chet Atkins influence. I cannot tell you how hard it was for me to leave out the bass notes on the first verse and chorus yet keep the percussive subtext going underneath the melody. My ear heard it, but my fingers did not want to cooperate. For me, therefore, there is a big release of tension when the bass finally enters. As a guitar-playing listener I hear an interesting drama throughout in how I repeatedly wrestled with trying to do percussion on a string that already had a note ringing.
"Ave Maria" was inspired by Aaron Neville's beautiful version of the same song. Trying to play chord/melody after listening to him sing was humbling. I intentionally chose a key where the melody would stay in the alto range and therefore constantly collide with the arpeggios; it set up a musical tension that I felt would lead to creative solutions. During the earlier part of the song I used flamenco rapidly arpeggiated flourishes I learned from listening to Sabicas to evoke some of the characteristically mercurial feeling I got from Aaron Neville's melismas, since I could not possibly imitate the melismas themselves and keep the underlying arpeggios going. As the song evolves from a classical feel into a gospel piano-influenced feel, the melodic influences of Cornell Dupree, Eric Gale and Amos Garrett become evident on top, with a reference to George Benson creeping in during the fadeout.
"Little Drummer Boy" has lyrics which somehow go very deep for me, reminding me of all the inspiration I have received from reading about the lives of saints and lovers of God from all religious traditions. The challenge was to infuse some of that inspiration into my rendition of this simple song with three chords which depends entirely on the lyrics. In an attempt to evoke what I saw as the utterly humble drumming of the boy elevated to blazing magnificence through the simple act of his devoting his drumming to God, I had a strong intuition that I should borrow a technique Jimi Hendrix used on "Are You Experienced", rubbing rhythmically on the muted strings with the open hand near the bridge. In this case, though, I gradually overlayed this with playing the chord itself. This served as a point of departure for what turned into a percussive study on one chord.
In contrast to losing myself in a musical meditation on a song that epitomized Divine Love, "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" is a slow, improvised blues take on a normally snappy secular song. My goal was make solo guitar swing like the Basie Band at a very slow tempo, using a lot of the understated, slippery blues style I learned when growing up in Tulsa.
"It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" is a largely improvised reflection on a beautiful melody. From a guitaristic point of view, its success could be measured by judging how transparently I escaped from all the unplanned fingering corners I painted myself into.
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" reflects capriciousness in arranging. I simply strung together a variety of ways to render this song, throwing in some modulations for contrast. For me the most interesting one, because I don't hear it too often, has an active melody in the bass with sustained chords on top.
"Deck the Halls" was technically the most difficult piece on the album, a real tongue-twister. Most of it felt like running through a minefield. The second verse combines a texture borrowed from George Benson for harmonizing melodies (octaves with an intermediate note a sixth or fifth above the lower note) with an attempt to keep the bass line going underneath. The third verse is another example of melody in the bass, followed by what turned out to be surprisingly challenging, three note chords with melody in the lower voice, but raised an octave by playing its octave harmonic. In this section there is an interesting textural contrast when all the chords drop to a lower octave. I did it to solve a range problem, but now I really like it.
I experienced "O Little Town of Bethlehem" as a duet between bass and melody, with the internal voices of the chords filling around them. To me this song is so inherently beautiful that all I had to do was play it and avoid messing up.
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" begins with another, simpler use of melody on the bottom in harmonics, this time fingering sixths, which become thirds by virtue of raising the lower note an octave. Songs like this are sometimes characterized by critics as a "romp," suggesting a gleeful, careless run. I remember feeling as if I were sitting on a bull that decided to go for a "romp." I never quite fell off, but if you listen really carefully, you can almost hear me screaming. My favorite part has the melody in the bass under a synchopated chord part on top, which I lifted from Betty Wright's "Cleanup Woman."
"Angels We Have Heard On High" uses what I call "dysfunctional harmony," for lack of a correct term, where a diatonic melody is harmonized with a set of chords that have no relationship to each other or to a common key, yet which eventually resolve back to the original key. I intentionally avoid standard resolutions or chords that have a strong pull, tending to choose quartal structures and other stable or ambiguous structures, sometimes superimposed over an unexpected bass note. I avoid harmonizing any note with the chord that originally went with it or with any of the normal substitutions for that chord. I then intentionally break these rules only occasionally as an effect. Even though any pair of successive chords will have no relationship to each other, I try to choose all beautiful, consonant voicings and convincing voice leading, so the experience is not jarring. Within those constraints, I focus on what I experience as a meta-level involving the balance and flow of harmonic tensions and resolutions. My goal is to get the ear to suspend its normal desire to know where it is and how it all relates, with the payoff being an alternate, but beautiful, reality with the previously familiar melody being recast merely as a feeling of deja vu. While this harmonic approach works equally well for all types of melodies, I particularly like applying it to a song whose lyrics are so universal and exultant.
The two octave artificial harmonic on the end was either a stroke of luck or a divine gift, depending on one's point of view. I had not planned to play it and would be lucky to nail it like that once in a hundred tries if I had. The other 99 would have ruined the performance with an ugly last note (I was not equipped to edit). But I remember being moved to reach for it at the last instant of the only flawless version I did of the piece despite the risk, so I followed that intuition. For me personally, the whole meaning of the album is embodied in that one last note.