Playing

New GuitarSong

I haven’t done a GuitarSong in almost two years! This Led Zeppelin tune came rather easily and was fun to do. I hope someone finds it either entertaining or instructive. The others I’ve done: Pink Floyd’s Dogs, The Beatles’ Rain, Soundgarden’s Head Down, and The Allman Brothers’ Jessica bring a fair amount of traffic to the blog. The Eddie Van Halen I’m the One GuitarSong does not. Weird…but that’s how it goes.

There will be at least two more GuitarSongs soon, both of which are Gypsy Jazz/acoustic songs that I will be demonstrating myself! I’ve wanted to do that for awhile and the tunes I want to do don’t have any instruction online. I don’t have a pro set up, so it will be down and dirty, but we’ll make it work. Hopefully, I can get those together next month. In the meantime, enjoy!

Rock! in Peace Ed King

Guitar legend Ed King passed away yesterday. A founding member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock and a member of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ed was a great player and writer, helping to pen fantastic rock hits like Incense and Peppermints, Sweet Home Alabama, Saturday Night Special, Working for MCA, and Whiskey Rock-a-Roller. While he originally joined Skynyrd to play bass, original bassist Leon Wilkeson returned to the band after the first album, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd was recorded, enabling Skynyrd’s patented 3 guitar attack (Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Ed King) to take flight. The band had great success through the 70s but personal issues caused King to leave suddenly in the middle of the 1975 Torture Tour. He returned to the reformed, crash band in the 1980s until health problems forced him from the road permanently in 1996.

HOLY SMOKIN’ 60s BATMAN! That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Kind of hard to square “Incense” with Freebird or Sweet Home Alabama, yet the common denominator is all of the tasty sounds Ed produces on guitar. He always had a very unique playing style—he just looks different than most guitar players when he picks. This is his most famous moment; the song and solo …I heard ol’ Neil put her down…we don’t need him around anyhow.

As I related in the Lynyrd Skynyrd post from a bunch of years ago, I found a VHS bootleg recording of this 1975 Winterland Show in a video store long before it was online or most people knew it existed. At the time Ed King had his own online forum and he answered people’s questions and had his own commentary on various aspects of his career. It was really interesting and cool how open he was to interacting with people (like me) asking him stupid questions like, “Do you remember this gig? Did you know it was filmed?” (He did, and, there was a project in the works at the time that didn’t come to complete fruition).

While Ed had many great musical moments throughout his career, Skynyrd’s Second Helping album may be the pinnacle. It certainly has always rated high on my list. Besides co-writing and playing the lead on Alabama, he does the same on another Skynyrd standard (the oft set opener) Working for MCA. He also played the tasty slide on the acoustic number The Ballad of Curtis Lowe and performed all of the James Burton-esque riffing on his co-written Swamp Music. If that ain’t enough, he also wrote the liner notes for the album, and as albums go, especially 1970 rock albums, they don’t come any better than the first 2 Skynyrd records.

As the vid above shows, long after Ed was out of the professional game, he was still the consummate guitar picker and guitar fan. There are many videos out there with Ed talking about guitar, Lynyrd Skynyrd and music, music, music. He was a great player, a member of one of my favorite bands, and I feel lucky that I got to interact with him very briefly online. It’s sad to see him go, but I wish him Happy Trails and know that he’ll be jamming with all of the other great ones in that big band in the sky!

The Impressionists — Part 1

Claude Debussy, Rockstar

Back in the early 1980s I remember reading a Van Halen interview and at one point he related how much he liked Claude Debussy. (If you follow the link you can read the whole interview [from 1980] for yourself. That wasn’t my first exposure to the name Claude Debussy as I had taken some music courses in college, but it was interesting that EVH was a fan and it’s probably the first time the name “Debussy” was mentioned in a rock guitar interview. It’s likely that Edward’s early piano studies were responsible for the exposure to classical music and it didn’t hurt that his father was a lifelong jazz musician who, because of his European (Dutch) background, probably knew all about Debussy and other Impressionist composers. Debussy casts a long shadow over 20th Century music and while it is beyond the scope of this blog and this blogger to explore all of the aspects of Debussy’s music and Impressionism, especially in the classical music realm, I am capable of drawing attention to some of the salient musical ideas he expressed and some of the musicians he and his contemporaries inspired.

You can get a full Debussy bio from several sources if you are interested: here, here, here, and here. What is striking about Debussy is that unlike many composers/French composers from this period, he is a man who came from nowhere; he was not from musical family and the source of his talent and influences has always been somewhat mysterious. He stated many times that his overriding guide for composing and playing was always, first and foremost, his own pleasure and enjoyment; musical rules, critics and audiences alike were of no consequence. Debussy was part of a group of somewhat controversial composers who came of age and success in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other notables in this group known as Impressionists included: Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Isaac Albéniz. Departing from established norms in the classical musical field was, of course, not without problems. European audiences of the day were somewhat less than enamored with any departure from classical and romantic musical traditions. Debussy has often been called a musical revolutionary because of his desire to overthrow the established “rules” of composition (and perhaps it is this desire that Van Halen channeled the most?). Debussy (and Ravel to a certain extent) did not like the fact that [their] brand of composition brought comparison to the art movement of Impressionism: the harmonic nature of their compositions and the dreamy qualities of their music recalled the Impressionists’ art: “… scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail.” They considered themselves “modernists” and believed they were composing for a new generation and a new century. This is certainly voiced by Debussy in one of his most famous quotes: “The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

The video above features Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), his first real musical “success”. Bernstein, one of history’s greatest musical minds, explores the background on the modern period I alluded to in the previous paragraph and then, during an analysis of the composition, explains Impressionism and how Debussy’s ideas helped shape music for the 20th century. He discusses the vagueness and dreamy qualities implied by uncertain tonal centers and Debussy’s use of the Augmented Fourth or the Tritone Interval (notes that span from G nat to C# and chords that move from Emaj to Bb7). As Bernstein explains, though it is unclear at the outset, Debussy’s Faun Poem is in the key of Emaj and throughout refers to, reverts to, or flirts with, either Emaj or one of it’s relative tonics and these tonal references serve as “landmarks” that illustrate a point of repose or a change in movement. As the 1st part of the video segues into part 2 (it should do so automatically) it is clear that Debussy also makes use of conventional I-V cadences (Emaj to Bmaj) which restore a sense of tradition and diatonic order, but no sooner than he does, he introduces a Whole Tone Scale! (more ambiguity). Bernstein gives Debussy credit for inventing the Whole Tone Scale, explains the relation of this scale to the Tritone, and notes that this is the first Atonal Scale to appear in music history (which should help illustrate why this was all very controversial to 19th century ears). Not included in the videos, but important nonetheless is that Debussy also employed: Bi-tonality, Pentatonic Scales, Random Modulations, free chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, and new ideas for instrument combinations. He also employed what was termed, at the time, A Strong Orientalism, which translates to “he was open to using sounds and ideas from Eastern music in his compositions.” [A familiar tale is how enchanted he was with the performance of a troupe of Gamelan performers from Java at the 1889 and 1900 Paris Expositions.]

All of this musical theory stuff is tame by today’s standards and is certainly familiar to anyone who is well-versed in various aspects of theory across different genres of music (classical, jazz, fusion, etc), but many of these ideas were really groundbreaking for Debussy’s day. People walked out of the performances because these composers were creating music that sounded atonal and dissonant to 19th century ears steeped in classical and romantic traditions. Modern composers and players of all stripes have made use of these techniques since the beginning of the last century (pretty much every blues/rock guitar player starts with the Pentatonic scale). While Debussy’s influence obviously transcends many musical boundaries, his music, played as is, holds up to this day. Piano was his instrument of choice for composing and/or performing, and further below we will make use of piano videos to explore a famous Debussy song. However, it is very easy to adapt his pieces for the guitar. Long ago I reviewed this wonderful CD of Classical Guitar Masters Julian Bream and John Williams collaborations from the 1970s titled Together and Together Again, that has been repackaged (as a 2-disc set) at various times since. The disc(s) contains three Debussy compositions: Reverie, Golliwog’s Cakewalk and the well-known Claire De Lune. It also contains a few fellow Impressionist Isaac Albéniz compositions as well as cuts from contemporaries Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré. Obviously, Bream and Williams were big fans of this period and saw a lot of value in adapting piano pieces to 2 guitars. (Some of these pieces even sound as if they were composed specifically for the guitar). Below they play Reverie; haunting and ethereal — one of Debussy’s early compositions and one that I think illustrates his dreamy musical qualities very well.

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel is also is a Debussy fan and as he relates, “he’ll do anything to entertain people!” So here is his version of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. If you think this doesn’t sound like classical musical, well imagine hearing it in 1911! This piece was part of the Children’s Corner Piano Suite which was written in honor of Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (“Chou-Chou”). The rhythm and harmonic content are Debussy’s most obvious nod to American Ragtime. Debussy also injects “the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde into the B part of the piece. Tommy does a very faithful rendition of this difficult piece of music (in Eb).

As the 20th century progressed the ideas and sounds of Debussy and his Modernity or Impressionism began to appear in popular and jazz music. Anyone who has any familiarity with jazz recognizes concepts like the tritone, chromatics, atonal scales and cadences that don’t involve familiar rules of harmony. Not only was this seen in compositions of the day, but it also appeared in the improvisations of notable jazz players, especially those with a classical background or an ear toward these composers. Someone I have written about extensively, Django Reinhardt, adopted many of Debussy’s (Impressionist) ideas for his own compositions and improvising. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career: “Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.” The influence of the Impressionism would emerge as early as 1937 when he recorded Bolero, which was heavily inspired by Maurice Ravel’s composition of the same name (this will be explored in Part 2).

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II that left violinist Stephane Grappelli stranded in England, Django enlisted Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and composed one of his most famous numbers, Nuages; a guitar nod to Impressionism and a gift to the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. Stuffed full of Debussy-style Chromaticism, Whole Tone and Diminished scale runs, the song is classic Reinhardt. Some have speculated that because the Nazi regime was hostile to anything that smacked of American music or certainly jazz, Django shifted his composition style to one that was much more classically-influenced and this may be true. Or the addition of reeds to his ensemble inspired him because in addition to Nuages, he would compose or arrange Impressionist-influenced music with this new cast of musicians throughout the 1940s: Manoir de mes Rêves, Melodie au Crepescule, Danse Norvegienne, Cavalerie, Oiseaux Des Iles, Lentement Mademoiselle, Fleur D’Ennui and Crepuscule . All of these pieces have the sound and vibe of Debussy and the other classical composers that Django admired and some, like Lentement Mademoiselle and Crepuscle have direct clarinet intro nods that recall Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (above). He also would record a Debussy piece, Reverie, during the Rome Sessions of 1949-59. While not as literal as Bream and Williams’ take above, Django obviously takes a Debussy inspiration and makes it his own. He also would record a song by the name of Clair de Lune in 1947, although this piece has nothing in common with the Debussy’s composition, except it’s name. The song was actually composed by Joseph Kosma, (writer of many a splendid thing, including Les feuilles mortes, more commonly known as the standard, Autumn Leaves, for an aborted movie that would’ve been named La Fleur de l’âge, had it been completed. Supposedly this is just one of the 4 songs Django and Company would’ve performed and it’s a shame it was not to be as Django plays some totally killin’ guitar on it. What is strange is that Django DID appear in a 1932 movie titled…you guess it Clair de Lune some two years before the original Hot Club of France was formed. This movie was shot (completely outdoors) in Cannes and features some very melodious guitar.

Clair de Lune was certainly one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, part of the Suite bergamasque and titled from an 1869 poem of the same name. (Interestingly enough, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune). It is played very emotionally and dynamically above by the very talented Kathia Buniatishvili. It is also discussed and analyzed here and here if you are interested to learn more about this very famous composition. I’ve listened to many different versions of this piece, including a the one by Bream and Williams, which is a favorite and I have to say this piece is what I imagine 1895 sounded like…at least in certain circles.

This video analysis above of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, explained through the lens of jazz harmony is a must-watch, especially if you have any music geek in you at all. It is also an interesting primer for jazz/classical harmony. Anyone who has attempted to play Jazz or Gypsy Jazz will find many of these musical ideas familiar because they have become important staples of the style(s). In this lesson on YouTube (unfortunately it does not have subs) Romane (who I wrote about here) demonstrates the Whole Tone scale beginning at about the 9 minute mark. Diminshed/Octatonic scales and arpeggios are also often used in improvisations. Diminished chords are also used very frequently in the harmony of Gyspy Jazz tunes and songs from the Swing Era and these “movement” / “transition” chords and the ability to play over them is very important aspect of what gives the style it’s verve and exotic sound. See also discussions about this topic here and here and know that Debussy’s influence was definitely a factor, even if the chords or how they are thought of is not exactly the same as is true in classical music.

Stephane Wrembel is may be the most Impressionist-influenced composer/player happening today. He certainly has embraced all of what can be gleaned from Debussy, Django, Jimmy Page, and others to compose and perform music that sounds unlike any other. I’ve written about him before, here and here and his abilities as a composer and channel of these musical ideas first expressed back in the 19th century only continue to grow. In the above video he demonstrates his Impressionist ideas and how this shapes his music. Anyone who is a fan of Gypsy Jazz will find these concepts very familiar, but Stephane is definitely one of the riskiest composers in the genre. His music synthesizes all of the freedom found not only in Impressionism, but also the best music of the 20th century and the ideas that Debussy espoused about how emotion and freedom were more important to music that convention.

As I have done in the past, like this exploration on the song Waiting for the Sunrise, I find that the history, progression and connections of musical styles, ideas, players and composers fascinating. Debussy’s music stands on it’s own and it brings me great pleasure to listen to it and all that it inspired. What he created became so much more than just music; it became a way of making music, that inspired later musicians to create their own unique statements. The idea of freedom he aspired to and tried to bring to his compositions is a quality that every writer, player and improviser seeks to achieve because that is the highest plateau one can reach as an artist. I’m not sure what influence Debussy had on Edward Van Halen. The very different rock of Fair Warning? (that I reviewed here). The keyboard stuff that started appearing at that time? Sunday Afternoon in the Park? 1984? Girl Gone Bad? Someone should ask him, it would be interesting to find out!

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the other Impressionist composers and how their ideas and their music helped shape the sounds of the 20th century and beyond!

Glen Campbell RIP

While it was inevitable, Glen’s passing is a bummer and very poignant for his family, friends, fans and everyone who was touched by his music. As I wrote last year, I remember his television show because my parents regularly tuned in and for a couple of years it was one of the best musical variety programs in the business. He was a unique talent, a presence on so many pivotal recordings and entertainment spots for decades. He had the whole package and his fans and more than a few guitar players know what a HUGE loss this is. Not only that, he had the courage to go out on tour and take it to the people while he was suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Courage and Kindness! What. A. Guy!

Django a Go Go 2017

This was an evening to remember! As I mentioned last month, I was psyched for this concert and I can say now that I had a fantastic time at Django a Go Go and saw some GREAT live Gypsy Jazz in one of the best venues in the world (Carnegie Hall)! It seems the accompanying bandcamp and smaller concerts out in Maplewood, New Jersey were also well-attended and a roaring success. While talking about it from the stage, organizer Stephane Wrembel described the whole idea as “CRAZY”, but it worked out beautifully. Stephane has been playing/promoting these concerts since 2004 so he is definitely adept at pulling all of the necessary elements together and had all of the right kind of help. Gypsy Jazz is more popular than ever in New York City!

dgg5

My girlfriend and I arrived at Carnegie Hall, had a nice glass of wine, checked out some of the history in the place at the museum and then made our way to our seats at about 7:30. Together we have seen some great shows at all of the big venues in New York over the years, but neither of us had ever been to Carnegie Hall. What a great place. So much history and a part of a very different time, yet it remains so functional in the modern era. The view from our seats was awesome — completely unobstructed, which is just what I was going for. While I’ve seen people say that the show was sold out, that isn’t completely true. Our area of the balcony was not, which was GREAT! We could really stretch out and enjoy the show and the others who were around us were cool and likewise had plenty of room. I knew the sound would be amazing. It’s Carnegie Hall! While the above pic might make it seem like the 2nd balcony is too far away, it really wasn’t. As I have mentioned on this blog in the past: it was Django Reinhardt’s 1953 version of Night and Day, this video of Stochelo Rosenberg and seeing Stephane Wrembel live that inspired me to learn Gypsy Jazz. I’ve seen Stephane in many incarnations over the years, but have never seen Stochelo. I have also never seen Al Di Meola live and so this was what I was psyched for going into the concert.

Stephane started the show to great cheers from the hometown crowd and after acknowledging the importance of the night and his thanks to the fans, began the show solo with his sublime version of Django’s Improvisation #1. His band joined him on the next tune, the very kinetic original number, Prometheus. As always, Stephane’s playing was brilliant and his band was great. They totally nailed the tunes and then provided great backup for everything else over the course of the evening. Nick Driscoll joined in on saxophone for a great Coltrane-type version of Django’s Troublant Bolero. Totally cool. There was some singing from David Gastine who did a Jean Sablon tune and then related that his dream had always been to sing Take Me Home, Country Roads at Carnegie Hall. Hmm. Not what one would expect at this show, but he nailed it, had people singing along (including us for a chorus [blame the wine]) and got a big ovation for a job well done. Stephane also played Bistro Fada, his very well-known theme for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris movie. Then they were joined by guitarist Larry Keel who played some serious Doc Watson country style guitar. The show reminded me of an old-time variety show or maybe Prairie Home Companion. Stephane explained that this has always been the theme behind this concert; bring many divergent styles and musicians together and make it happen!

Then it was time for Stochelo Rosenberg and he did not disappoint. He was CHARGED! He explained before starting that he hadn’t been to Carnegie Hall since 1993 when he was invited by the great Stephane Grappelli. Twenty-four years later he returned thanks to another Stephane and completely burned through his original, modern Gypsy Jazz classic, For Sephora. To see and hear him play this song live was an incredible experience. Everything I wrote about in this post regarding Stochelo’s incredible technique; his strength, touch, tone, and articulation was on full display. Even the other musicians onstage were just shaking their heads as he blazed through 4 choruses of the tune. It was brilliant! It was awesome! They followed up with a Django-era classic, Coquette that also sounded great! I could see everything Stochelo was doing and he was very animated and having a good time, which is a bit unusual for him. Usually he lets his hands do all the moving. Al Di Meola came out next and related that he too had played the hall 42 years ago with Chick Corea and also hadn’t been back since. He launched into a very dramatic classically-inspired solo piece that went through many movements before coming to a big climactic ending and then the ensemble finished with a blazing version of Indifference. During this tune, Stochelo, Al, and Stephane did all kinds of tag-team soloing and comping that was a prelude of the great things that awaited us in the second set. It was a pretty amazing first set and the show had already run more than an hour and a half. And it only got better!

After a short intermission, Stephane, Stochelo, and Al came out alone and Stephane related before they began how influential the Friday Night in San Francisco recording of Di Meola, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin from 1981 was to him and to many guitarists he knew. (It was to me too). I was expecting they might do this and as soon as I saw the three of them come out I knew they would! They launched into Mediterranean Sundance and it was EPIC! No, really, it was so good they all hugged at the end of the 12-15 minutes worth of awesome playing. I am not even going to describe how epic it was, but the playing from all three was magnificent! They followed it immediately with a great version of Chick Corea’s Spain joined by Keel and bass player Ari Folman-Cohen. Crazy good. For me everything that had happened between when Stochelo appeared and the end of Spain alone was worth the price of admission. But there was more! A great swinging version of Django-era Georgia on My Mind, with Stochelo playing all of Django’s brilliant lines and chordal fills and It Don’t Mean a Thing with sublime Freddy Taylor-type vocals on both by Ryan Montbleau. Then there was a great guitar hero version of Nuages (with a solo intro by Stochelo to open) that also featured some more great sax from Nick Driscoll. Finally, there was the big rave-up at the end with the Gypsy Jazz anthem, Minor Swing that included the great Paulus Shafer and Stephane’s student, Sara L’Abriola, that succeeded in bringing down the house!

The week after the concert I saw this page of the program (didn’t look at it the night of) and this review from Downbeat and both show a program I totally don’t remember in spots, but I think I’m remembering correctly. I know that Coquette was played because Stephane briefly introduced it as a song Django wrote (which he didn’t) and that had Stochelo shaking his head no (because he didn’t) while if they had played Djangology, that would have been true, since that is a Django Reinhardt composition. Minor Blues was definitely not played and neither was Dark Eyes and if Double Jeu was played it was worked in as a part of Indifference because I know Double Jeu from that awesome Romane/Stochelo Rosenberg DVD that I have raved about on this blog a number of times. Anyhow, I’m sure there had to be some alterations and spontaneity and that is what jazz is all about!

Finally, as I wrote here, I lost my mother almost a year ago to the day of this concert. She was always my Number 1 musical supporter and over the years I was able to take her to many different cultural events in NYC, which she always enjoyed. We never saw anything at Carnegie Hall though, but I like to think she was with me for this great night of music. My girlfriend lost her father about six months ago. He lived to the ripe old age of 94 and while that is quite an accomplishment in and of itself, the fact that he was stationed on Iwo Jima with the Japanese army when he was but a lad of 22 makes it all the more amazing. He was wounded in an air raid and was evacuated from the island before the final American assault. One of the bullets that struck him remained in his leg for his entire life. He passed away just after I bought tickets for Django a Go Go and bequeathed the field glasses from the his army days to his daughter to use for the concert. We were able to get up close and personal to some of the action on stage and that was great! After all of these years, and so many miles, they still work and he would’ve appreciated that they were put to such good use. Swords into plowshares and all of that. I felt very fortunate to have been a part of this evening with so much great music and great playing by all of the musicians. Of course, it was a monumental night on a personal level for me to see Stochelo! I am also glad that Stephane took it all on and set up such a great program of events and hope to see more in the future!

Christmas Time is Here — Part II

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Here is Part 1 of this series.