Great Songs: The Christmas Song

Song written by: Mel Tormé and Bob Wells

Song performed by: Nat “King” Cole, and everyone else

When I was about 15 or 16 years old my parents took me out one night to a place called Anton’s in Washington D.C. It was a very fancy, upscale restaurant and jazz lounge. We were going to see Mel Tormé. This may sound a bit odd, as if they were dragging me there because they wanted to go but had no regard for me, but no. It was pretty much for me.

At the time I had been taking guitar lessons for about a year, and was just learning about jazz from my guitar teacher. I basically knew nothing about nothing when it came to jazz, but I knew just enough to appreciate what was going on. These days, of course, I know enough to realize what a privilege it was to be able to see Mel Tormé perform, especially in an intimate setting like that. And of course I am old enough to realize what great parents I have for them to do that for me.

Alas, I don’t remember many details about the show, to be honest. I remember Tormé doing a sort of tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that featured a bunch of scat singing, which I usually can’t stand, but hearing him do it I didn’t mind so much – I’d even go so far as to say I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was the quality of his voice – the velvet fog, you know. I remember Tormé’s piano player was a motherfucker (jazz-speak translation: “a really good musician”). I remember the crowd calling out tunes, most of which I didn’t know (I only knew a handful of jazz tunes at that point). Tormé picked one of them and started singing, only to be stopped by the band – they didn’t know the tune. So he kept right on singing, calling out chord changes as he went. I remember being amazed by this and learning later that he had perfect pitch.

And I remember him playing “The Christmas Song”. Actually I recall that he didn’t really seem all that keen to play it. The owner of the club handed him a note about 2/3 through the set. Tormé read it to the audience: “If you think you’re getting off that stage tonight without playing The Christmas Song then you’re out of your mind and I’m not paying you.” It may have been a gag for the crowd, who knows. But he launched into it, a somewhat loose rendition, changing a few of the lyrics just for fun (“Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/And thoughts of girls ripping off my clothes…”).

As great as Tormé was, his is not the best recording of this song. That distinction of course goes to the original version performed by Nat “King” Cole (there were actually two “original” recordings – the first without strings, the second with. The second is the one that became a huge hit). I remember an interview I saw with Tormé where he said after he wrote the song, he knew it could only be sung by Nat. Who knows whether it was his decision or not, but whoever decided it, I’m glad they did. It’s such an iconic, singular performance that whenever I hear “The Christmas Song” performed by anyone else, no matter how great, it just doesn’t sound right. It’s not just his super smooth voice, but also his phrasing. Listen to it and check out how he alternates between hanging back behind the beat, and being right on top of it. He really makes it swing.

“The Christmas Song” was the first song that ever made me think, really think, about songwriting. I’ve known the song since childhood, of course – everybody has. But it wasn’t until those teenage years that I learned that Tormé had written it (along with Bob Wells).The story of its writing is a great little tale – Tormé and Wells sitting by the pool in summer, thinking up wintry things to try to keep cool. But it wasn’t the story that made me pause and think – it was just the simple fact that someone, anyone, had actually sat down and written this song. I’d never thought of songs that way before. This one in particular seemed like it had just always, well, been there, part of the fabric of time and nature and universal experience. But no, someone created it, out of nothing. And it was that thought, that a person (or persons) could create something so meaningful and lasting, that stuck with me. It was an incredibly powerful idea, one that changed the way I thought about and listened to music for the rest of my life.

In the end what this song stirs in me most is gratitude. I am grateful for this song, for its timeless beauty, and for the memories I associate with it. I am grateful that I was able to see Mel Tormé while he was alive and still in great form, and I am grateful that my mom and dad had the understanding to take me there.

Happy Holidays everyone.


Great Solos: Omar Hakim on “I Burn For You”

Song: I Burn For You

Solo performed by: Omar Hakim

From the movie Bring On the Night

Drum solos are tricky things. In rock music, they tend to be geared toward an audience that just wants to scream and hold up lighters/cell phones, which usually translates to drummers playing really loud and/or really fast. They are almost non-existent in pop music. In jazz, drum solos are common. They are usually very intricate, but often sail over the heads of the audience, occupying a space just above the bass solo in the hearts and minds of the listener.

In most cases, alas, drum solos are performed unaccompanied. I hate unaccompanied solos.

The trouble with unaccompanied solos is, in the absence of any harmony or melody to play off of, the solos tend to veer toward extreme displays of technical ability. This is true of all instruments, but especially drums. It is rarely impressive, and almost never any fun. After a few seconds, it’s obvious what level of technique the player is at, and from there it gets boring real fast. The exceptions are usually in those players that are so technically gifted that it boils down to spectacle, a “holy shit how does he/she do that” kind of awe. Dennis Chambers comes to mind; Steve Smith and Victor Wooten too. But even then, after a few minutes I always find myself just wanting to hear some music.

So how to combat this and transform an unaccompanied solo into a musical moment? One word: ostinato.

An ostinato is a musical phrase or riff that is repeated over and over, creating a sort of musical “bed” over which additional rhythms and melodies can be layered. The ostinato can often create a hypnotic effect, and sets the mood for the soloist. Anything can be an ostinato – a simple bass line, a vocal phrase, a piano or guitar chord sequence.

Thankfully, Sting is a thoughtful musician with a tremendous ear for melodic sensibilities. He gets extra credit here for setting up the structure of this arrangement to give maximum emphasis on the music and the musicians. Sting always plays with the best musicians around and he always finds ways to spotlight them, to highlight their strengths. And the bass/vocal ostinato is key to this song’s success.

On its own, “I Burn For You” is a nice song with a cool, mysterious, almost vengeful tone. But in this performance it is elevated to greatness by two masterful solos – the first by Branford Marsalis, and the second by Omar Hakim.

This essay is specifically about Omar Hakim’s drum solo, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the beautiful soprano sax solo that Marsalis plays leading up to Hakim’s tour de force.

Branford’s solo is an excellent example of both tension/release as well as theme/development. Using short bursts of three- and five-note clusters, Marsalis gradually ratchets up the tension by playing angular polyrhythms and wonderful harmonically dissonant scalar passages over the solid groove set up by Hakim and bassist Darryl Jones (Sting plays guitar on this one, then switches to “Brian” the upright bass during the ostinato section), punctuated with impossibly long sustained cries.  Hakim’s drumming under Marsalis builds as well, until Branford drops back down and let’s Hakim take over. And that’s where things really take off.

Now, I’m not a drummer, and I know almost nothing about the technical aspects of drumming beyond the basics. But listening to and watching this solo quickly modulates from an intellectual to a visceral emotional experience. What I love most about this solo – well, both solos really – is that it begins by lighting up the technical side of my brain, with Branford’s beautifully dissonant melodies and rhythms playing against the groove set up by Hakim and Jones, and then it morphs into such a pounding, hypnotic, emotional experience that just washes over me and leaves me wanting to start primal screaming.

The solo is crafted beautifully, with a perfect attention to dynamics. As the solo proceeds, the tension and emotion builds to an impossible crescendo, ready to burst. Hakim ends it at the perfect moment, with a cathartic barrage of triplet snare hits, leaving us delirious and wanting so much more.

Have I seen and heard more technically impressive drum solos? Certainly. So why does this solo in particular affect me so much? I think it’s because every time I listen to it I am struck by how musical it is. For me, Max Roach was always the most musical drum soloist around, and I think in Hakim’s solo I hear the next evolution of his approach. It’s not just a show off moment – it’s a complete part of the song. I’ve always said a great solo can elevate a good song up to a great song, and this solo is the perfect example of that. This is one of the great solos, and also one of the great moments in music.