December 8, 2014
Most major artists eventually record a holiday album. Sometimes it’s by choice, and on other occasions they’re encouraged to do so by their record label. Christmas and holiday music must sell; year after year we see new releases on the market. When an artist decides to do such an album, they gather a circle of arrangers and, combined with their own ideas, try to find a niche. Their musical choices are many, especially in the case of an instrumental record. Eliminating the vocal opens up multiple possibilities for recasting familiar tunes. They can experiment with a significant list of musical elements, including: tempo, tone, dynamics, time signature/groove, instrumentation, and an overall general style.
One of my favorite holiday CDs is Béla Fleck and the Flecktones “Jingle All the Way” released in 2008. Artists like to put their own spin on old songs, and Béla and the Flecktones put the “12 Days of Christmas” into a centrifuge and spun it on high speed. It’s as if the goal was to combine every possible instrument tone, time signature, tempo, dynamic and musical style into one 5:18 cut.
The normal line-up of Béla, bassist Victor Wooten, reedman Jeff Coffin, and percussionist Future Man, is augmented with string bass, mandolin, clarinet and the Tuvan Throat Singers. The possibilities are endless.
When I spoke to Béla, in 2004, he described his creative process:
BF: I just write a lot. And I’m always screwing around with the banjo and stuff pops out and then I try to figure out what’s going to be good for the group. And a lot of times I just take what I think is the best song and what makes it the best song to me is hard to put my finger on but I’ll just have something and I’ll think well this is — there a bunch, I might have 20 things that I come up with, this one I think is special. It’s usually something about the melody or the chords that’s different enough to either be — it has to either be so simple and strong and striking in its simplicity that it’s better than the other simple tunes that I’ve written or that the other guys have or whatever, or it’s got to have a complexity that’s interesting but not necessarily offputting. Just I’m looking for a certain intangible something. But when I find it I know it.
“The TwelveDays of Christmas” arrangement was a collaborative effort between all four Flecktones. The fun begins before the song actually starts. The audible countoff can best be written: 1, 2, hey, ack!
Following four measures of bass drone, the banjo offers the first day of Christmas in a swinging fashion, at a civilized tempo of 116 beats per minute.
On the second day the soprano sax states the melody with a loping cowboy feel. The song perks up, modulating a half step higher and sprinting at double the original speed. But don’t get used to it, after a few frantic bars they shift gears back to the original key and tempo. These fellows are toying with us.
A graceful waltz and an ascending whole step modulation is employed for the third day. Béla indulges in a terrific wrong note at 0:32, worthy of musician/comedian Victor Borge.
Enter the guest mandolinist, with a bluesy fourth day of Christmas, and so it goes, one after another, an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of time signatures, melodic embellishments, and tongue-in-cheek musical commentary.
Here are some other highlights:
At 2:44 a bubbly Lawrence Welk-sounding orchestra, meets a Klezmer band, complete with clarinet lead.
At 3:55 the soprano sax floats serenely over what can only be described as an intense rhythmic battle between the rest of the band.
And the most striking moment, at 4:36 a choir of unearthly voices intone variations on “five golden rings.” The only possible thing that can follow that is a reflective moment of silence.
This carousel of sounds finally concludes with a collective band scream. We have seen the Flecktones on three occasions, and there was never a music stand on stage. As I listened to this complex arrangement I felt sure they would never play it live. How could all this meticulous chaos be memorized and accurately performed without the music? I underestimated these awesome musicians. Watch this entertaining live version here.
The entire CD is a marvelous match of magical arrangements and impeccable musicianship. If you want to challenge yourself, try singing along with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ semi-psychotic version of this Christmas classic.