Carla Bley writes: When I was a child, I loved Christmas. The balsam tree – with its strings of colored lights, reflective ornaments, tinsel and the brightly wrapped presents under it – looked so beautiful and smelled so good. Our Swedish-American family would have a full smorgasbord on Christmas Eve, then open the presents. I always got socks or handkerchiefs, so presents were not so thrilling once the shiny packages had been opened, but there was Christmas day to look forward to. My father was the church organist and the choir sang all of my favorite carols. The children were given packages of assorted hard candy, which seemed especially delicious to me.
As I got older I rebelled against all holidays (except Halloween) and all that remained of interest to me about Christmas was the music. In the sixties I got a job arranging Christmas carols for a book intended for use by public schools; I made sure that all the harmonies were as I remembered them – no fancy substitutions. A few years later The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra had a Christmas party at its office in New York. I wrote out the arrangements from the Christmas Carol book and told the horn players I’d invited to bring their instruments. As they walked through the door they were persuaded to join the group and play. I had some of the best, most modern players in New York playing old-fashioned five-part harmony. I decided then that I had to write a program of Christmas music someday.
In the eighties there was an infamous music school in Woodstock, New York called Creative Music Studio. Dr. Karl Berger founded it, and many avant-garde musicians taught there. I was informally associated with the school for about a year and when December came I got the students to perform strange arrangements of Christmas music that I had concocted for the occasion. I remember telling everyone to sit in a large circle, and then to switch instruments with the person on their left and play The Twelve Days of Christmas. Another piece involved giving each student a pitch to remember and sing on demand. I called the resulting “instrument” on which I played some of the simpler carols, the Humatron.
My accumulation of Christmas repertoire continued when I was one of a group of pianists asked by National Public Radio in the United States to do solo piano versions of several carols for a Christmas program. I did a gospel version of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, which was always one of my favorites, and a Soca (a Caribbean-style combination of Soul and Calypso) treatment of Jingle Bells.
By then there was a big folder in my music room labelled “Christmas”. But all the arrangements were for odd assortments of instruments. Even if I were to re-arrange them for one of the groups I toured with, that group would only be able to tour at Christmas time, which is an awkward time of year to ask musicians to go on the road. So when the London Brass asked me to write a piece for them I immediately wrote back and told them I’d like to do Christmas music. There was total silence from their end. Maybe they were hoping for something more modern. I never heard from them again.
Then, finally, an opportunity to pursue this lifetime interest appeared. Michael Kaufmann, the director of the Philharmonie in Essen, Germany, asked me to do a series of projects over the period of a year. To end the series, I was invited to write a program of music of my own choosing. I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but I instantly told him I wanted to present him with a Christmas program featuring arrangements of Christmas Carols for brass quintet. Luckily, he liked the idea, so I got together all the Christmas material I had created over the years and started organizing it. I hadn’t realized how much re-orchestrating would be involved, and many of the older efforts weren’t as good as I had remembered, so I ended up writing a lot of new material. The arrangements for brass quintet were all new.
The Essen Christmas concert took place in early December, 2006. We hired Ed Partyka, an impressive tuba and bass trombone player who lived in Berlin and knew all the good players, to assemble a brass quintet. I was the pianist, Steve Swallow played bass, and we added alto saxophone and drums. It was a very satisfying and fun experience, and I hoped that this wouldn’t be the last time we could play this music.
The following year I remained interested in writing Christmas Carol arrangements for brass quintet, and when it was time to decide about tours for 2008 an idea sprung to mind. Steve and I hadn’t played duets for many years. We had toured and recorded as a duo, then with a trio, then a quartet, then a quintet. The more people there were on the stage with me, the more comfortable I felt, so every time we thought about reviving the duets I would ask Steve if we could please include some type of distraction – a troupe of jugglers, a gospel choir or even a movie projected onto the stage while we played, so I wouldn’t feel so self-conscious. This might be the perfect solution: Carla Bley and Steve Swallow plus Brass Quintet playing Christmas Carols!
We told Ed Partyka our idea and asked him to try to get the same brass players we had used in Essen and to keep the first week of December open. Then we asked Karin Kreisl, our agent at Saudades, to book us a Christmas tour directly following the final concert of my residency at the Essen Philharmonie. She wasn’t sure she could pull together a tour at that time of year, but eventually got enough concerts to make it worth doing. I started re-writing the pieces that had included alto and drums, and also discovered a few more Christmas songs I wanted to arrange for my new band.
It turned out to be a wonderful little tour. We played in Italy, Greece, Germany, Poland and France – five countries in five days. The brass players (the same musicians we had played with a year earlier except for a new Horn player) were fun to travel with and they all played great. And during the pieces where only the brass played, Steve and I got to sit at the back of the stage, just listening. After the last concert we went to a little town in the south of France and recorded at La Buissonne, our favorite studio. Sometimes everything works out just right.