A silky, laid-back “Silent Night” and a sky-bluesy “I Saw Three Ships” render the Christmas jazz genre in a whole new pastel-colored light thanks to the glowing arrangements of pianist/composer Carol Nethen on her CD “Christmas Carol.” Nethen’s original track, “Peace,” weaves a gauzy interplay between keys and flute and wraps up with a pillowy landing. And though honoring its darker modal feel, “What Child Is This” has hope, beat, bells, syncopation…and soars on melodic wings.
These standards and others sewn early on into our consciousness have a fresh light cast upon them that’s soft as a country snow. The CD succeeds in making the stress of the holidays irrelevant, replacing it with gleaming harmonies and a contagiously chill vibe.
How did the idea strike you to create this album?
Composing collaboratively is at the heart of my decision to put the effort into an independent release. Sax player Jim Hayward has played my music for a long time – on various creative and commercial projects. He and I decided to go ahead with an entire smooth jazz Christmas CD in December 2017 – we spent a comfortable year on the project exchanging files and developing the songs.
Why did you choose these particular songs for your CD?
1994 or so(?) Jim came to me and asked me to MIDI orchestrate his arrangement of Silent Night – I have that version – it’s lush. So, the “Christmas Carol” project started happening with a rewrite of that song.
“O Holy Night” – I had been working on that song with a guitarist, so I was already developing that song and heading towards smooth jazz.
“I Saw Three Ships” – That arrangement has been around for a while. It was really fun to do the Bernard Purdie shuffle feel on that one. I also took the opportunity to write in some of the jazz arranging vocabulary I learned at U of Miami.
“Angels We Have Heard On High” – Very uplifting. I’d been listening to Alan Pasqua for a while, I tried out his quartal bells voicings on the piano intro and got hooked. The change of keys in the “A” section happened on a dare by a friend musician who was listening along. Charts were essential! Crazy.
“What Child Is This” – The haunting melody and reharmonization potential in a minor mode was irresistible. Bob James sets such a stunning musical example. I tried to channel him on this song – thanks, Bob, for your gorgeous music.
“Pat-a-Pan” – I love medieval music. We combined that with a Glasper-esque groove and voila!
“O Come O Come Emmanuel” – Another modal beauty. I chose piano solo because of the simplicity and my chance to be a poet pianist. I have a duet with guitar version but I ran out of time to find the right player.
“Peace” – An easy groove to give everyone a way to feel the wind through their hair for just a little while in this otherwise dreary political landscape.
Is there a different “ear” you use when arranging Christmas jazz versus other types of songs?
Yes, I love the warmth of interwoven harmonies. That richness speaks Christmas to me – I wrote into that feeling. I hope it might invoke a warm feeling for everyone who listens.
Talk about finding the right personnel for this album and what they contribute to the overall sound.
Jim Hayward is an easygoing, authentic creative genius who loves to move on the inside of the beautiful matrix of harmony. Recording him was breathtaking. We worked in a few different settings. He like my home studio the best and named it “Secret Squirrel Studios.” We loved recording there.
I chose guitarist Mike Ault for his blues playing. I wanted “I Saw Three Ships” to be sassy. Mike is part of my hometown Annapolis base. He also plays in the Paul Reed Smith band.
Pete Levin contributed brilliantly. His job was to articulate the groove better than I could. He “re-rhythmed” my first drafts. He wrote bass lines and programmed drums on four of the songs. I wanted the opportunity to work with him and am grateful for his mark on the music.
What went into your original song “Peace”? What inspired it, melodically and thematically?
Peace was an untitled early experiment – it was in my computer as a potential song idea for a while. I brought it out towards the end of the project in a Secret Squirrel session.
Jim liked it. I knew he could navigate the duet with piano well. We recorded it on the day of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue. The day named the song.
Compare your development as a musician; your first album through to today, what has changed the most?
Creative collaboration is a unique experience; it doesn’t come automatically and requires time and introspection. Nobody gets my music straight off the page. In the years since my new age projects, I’ve developed a better way – more craft – in bringing others in on the creative side. I hope that keeps going.
Where did you debut this album?
It’s an independent release. I pushed it to the US smooth jazz market and also found a pleasant welcome on the more independent artist-friendly European market. I got to know the programmers as I personally handed off the CD to every one of them. I learned a lot in the process.
How does a musician differentiate her own Christmas album from the others that come out the same time by other musicians?
Using the same public domain material and hearing all the different versions of songs that I also considered has been really interesting. I hope my CD clearly speaks artistry and invention and still makes all the smooth jazz requirements.
Which track is your favorite and why?
“Pat-a-Pan” – While, the whole CD is like a musical suite with different smaller pieces, Jim and I really liked recording this song. It has an interesting phrase structure. The lyrics are about playing drums and flutes for Christmas. We did that. But the actual carol was thematic to a much larger composition invention based on the interesting grooves. I added some film scoring elements into it which was fun to hear in the studio while we were recording. Listen for the Roman war drum!
Which do you wish you had time/room/money for that was not included in this CD?
I really wanted to have a guitarist work with us in that creative bubble – not a sideman. Having Steve Hall master the project was outrageously cool. I learned I could mix more expressively knowing his mastering job would take care of the sonic commercial radio requirements. I look forward to working with him again.
Upcoming projects for 2019?
We’re staying in the niche market. Jim and I love to write and play beautiful music. We talked about it recently and decided to stay right where we are for a while. I’ll try and aim it towards smooth jazz. Jim’s opportunities will come if a label wants to go in that direction.
Staying in the moment with the music for a solid year; doing the work and making it come first was an incredibly empowering experience. The product exceeds my expectations in ways that has brought me, as a composer and a woman, onto a platform where I’ve aspired to be for a decade. I am truly grateful to everyone who honored me with their positive artistic company in the process.
For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/carolnethenwest.
Photos courtesy of and with permission from Carol Nethen.
© Debbie Burke 2018