I like playing Christmas tunes. No, really.
After my last post, I took some flak for daring to suggest that jazz musicians hate playing Take Five. Even though we do, so enough already with the frickin’ requests.
So it may come as a surprise to many that I actually enjoy playing Christmas tunes, especially people who know me personally. But rest assured that, underneath my Grinch-like exterior, there beats a heart of pure malice.
I still like ’em! Not that I would want Christmas to come every day. Elmo cured me of that idea. But as the late Marty Allen once said to me on a Christmas gig, “You only get to play these tunes one month a year. Why not enjoy them?”
He was right. And a program of Christmas tunes yields a surprising amount of variety. From the sacred (O Holy Night) to the profane (Santa Baby). From the ridiculous (All I Want for Christmas) to the sublime (anything touched by Vince Guaraldi). From “Let’s Have Some Fun” (Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree) to “Let’s Slash Our Wrists” (I’ll Be Home for Christmas). There’s even something for the voyeurs among us (I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I know there are some musicians who dread Christmas gigs, although to dread any gig is the sign of being a jaded miscreant who should go back to selling shoes, maybe? See how you like that for a few years? Maybe you’re in the wrong business, my friend.
So as a public service to those folks, I have compiled a short list of Christmas tunes that are actually fun to play. I mean, we ain’t talking Clifford Brown-style fun, but at least these can make a your money gigs a little more tolerable. In no particular order:
1. Christmas Time is Here. A lovely ballad from St. Guaraldi, it has that Peanuts whimsy that mixes “Joy of the Season” with “Let’s not get too carried away, Lucy could still slug us at any moment and adults are never around to intervene”. Harmonically, it alternates from F Major to an Eb7#11 with the alteration in the melody, which is enough to unhinge us from Major Land (the Achilles Heel of Christmas Tunes) and instead suggest the atmosphere of guarded fun we so commonly associate with those little middle-aged kids with big heads. And the bridge offers no escape.
2. Sleighride. This one is bouncy and cheery and back to a good ol’ reassuring major tonality, but don’t let the bridge catch you napping. What starts innocently enough in G Major shifts abruptly to a ii-V progression into B, followed rapidly by another into A, before steering us back home. Giant Steps it’s not, but nonetheless a welcome color change, like the autumn leaves everywhere but Texas.
3. And while we’re on the subject of harmonic shifts, let’s not leave out The Christmas Song, penned by Mel Torme (and I hope his estate managed to hang onto those rights, because Jehosaphat). I know, I know, this tune is the Take Five of Christmas songs, and the lyrics are just as treacly as one remembers, but it does contain that elegant departure up a major third in the seventh bar. The bridge is interesting too. But don’t take my word for it.
4. Frosty the Snowman/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. These are put together because, as every jazz musician is aware, they are usually in the same key and the bridge of each is harmonically identical. Some find this annoying, because it’s easy to lose track of what tune you are playing–especially on a full gig, where many of these tunes blend into sameness by virtue of their, shall we say, ‘limited’ harmonic palette. But I like to have some fun with this aspect by turning it into a game I call Frosty/Rudolph Roulette. The rules are simple. Once you start to improvise, you can freely substitute the melody of one bridge for the other. Then you can observe which members of the rhythm section get derailed by this little subterfuge and slide into the other tune after the bridge. Not that the A sections are much different harmonically either, come to think of it. OK, dumb game.
5. We Free Kings. ‘Free’ is not a misprint. We’re talking the Rahsaan Roland Kirk version of this tune, where he arranged a simple minor melody into a 12/8 modal masterpiece worthy of middle-period Coltrane. It helps to have multiple horn players, not that Kirk needs that when he plays the introduction with three horns in his face. Pyrotechnics notwithstanding, it turns into an open monochordal jam that you can then use to eat up the rest of the set or your future prospects of being hired back, whichever comes first.
6. Let It Snow. Just a great melody. Great melodies are always fun to play.
7. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Same reason.
8. O Tannenbaum. Not much melodically or harmonically for that matter, but it too has been graced by St. Guaraldi. So follow his example and you can do no wrong.
There are many more, of course, but this should be enough to get you started. If I left out your favorites, well…
- Posted in: From the Trenches