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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas/Dave Koz

In 1997, jazz saxophonist Dave Koz released a holiday album called December Makes Me Feel This Way. Thirteen tracks are listed on the back of the CD case, but below that in small print is a message that reads: "Hint: It ain't over 'til it's over. 'Twas The Night Before Christmas before we figured out there was more on this here disc!" The final track listed, "Auld Lang Syne," has a running time of 6:55, but Koz's rendition of the traditional New Years' tune only runs 1:51. When that fades out the casual listener might reasonably conclude that the CD is over, but for those too lazy to get up and put on another disc there is a payoff.  After a full minute of dead silence, a hidden selection starts to play: a recitation of Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," often referred to as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The vocal is provided by the late Phil Hartman, the comedian and actor best known for his work on Saturday Night Live and the sitcom NewsRadio, who died under tragic circumstances the year after Koz's album came out. Hartman performs an abridged version of Moore's familiar work in the style of a Beat poet, with jazz accompaniment and the occasional improvised lyric, e.g. When what to my wondering eyes should appear/But a wonderful sleigh and eight groovy reindeer. Koz recorded a new version of the piece for a 2001 follow-up album, A Smooth Jazz Christmas; this time vocal duties were shared by musicians Peter White, David Benoit, Brenda Russell, Rick Braun, and Koz himself.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Is Interesting/Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton's Christmas Is Interesting, from his 2003 album Smoking Monkey, overflows with references to Christmas as it is depicted in popular culture; here we'll focus on the literary ones. The song's second line--It's time for a long winter's nap--is a quick nod to Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka The Night Before Christmas), but that is followed by a meatier reference to O. Henry's 1906 short story The Gift of the Magi: He takes your watch and he gives you a hairbrush/Your wife gets a wig on a chain. Near the end of the song we are present for the visit by Marley's ghost from Charles Dickens' 1843 novel A Christmas Carol: You go to bed and wait for Jacob Marley/He comes to make you feel brave/But under his cloak he is nothing but smoke/And a finger that points at your grave. Other references include the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, Citizen Kane, and It's a Wonderful Life. Penning lines that compare Christmas to a knife in the heart or a stick in the eye, Coulton clearly has some issues with the season; but his song still makes us want to put on our feety pajamas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jacob Marley's Chain/Aimee Mann

Most of us are all familiar enough with Charles Dickens' 1843 classic A Christmas Carol to know that Scrooge's deceased partner, Jacob Marley, carries the weight of his selfish, wicked deeds into the afterlife in the form of an enormous chain. "I wear the chain I forged in life" Marley's ghost tells Scrooge. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it." Aimee Mann adapted the image of Marley's burden a bit for her song Jacob Marley's Chain, from her 1993 album Whatever. "I felt that was a really apt metaphor for the way that you can feel weighted down by events that have happened to you or things that you've done in the past," Mann said when she performed the song on the BBC's "Words and Music: American Stories 2." But it's not like life's such a vale of tears/It's just full of thoughts that act as souvenirs/For those tiny blunders made in yesteryear/That comprise Jacob Marley's chain.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Immortal/Eric Woolfson

Eric Woolfson, a founding member and creative force behind The Alan Parsons Project, passed away yesterday at the age of 64. Woolfson ended his partnership with Parsons in the late 1980s in order to pursue an interest in musical theater. He wrote and scored a number of shows, including Edgar Allan Poe, a musical about the writer who inspired the very first Alan Parsons Project album in 1975, Tales of Mystery and Imagination. "I envisaged a Volume II though when we moved to a different record company, they were not interested in Volume II because they didn't have Volume I," Woolfson recalled. "I had to wait many years before revisiting Edgar Allan Poe--the man whose life and works inspired me probably more than any other." The song "Immortal" provides the climax to Woolfson's musical and includes the Poe-inspired lyric All that we see/All that we seem/Is but a shadow of a shadow/Of a dream within a dream. Steve Balsamo, who starred as Poe in the show, sings the song on both the soundtrack album, Edgar Allan Poe: A Musical By Eric Woolfson, and on Woolfson's long-delayed "Volume II" of Poe-inspired songs, 2003's Poe: More Tales of Mystery & Imagination. However, in the version on the album Eric Woolfson Sings the Alan Parsons Project That Never Was, released earlier this year, Woolfson handles lead vocals himself. "I think it is a good example of the composer at work singing his own material," he wrote in the liner notes, "and it is certainly a song I consider to be one of my best." It is a fitting song to mark his passing: Free as the wind/Lighter than air/Free from the jealous minds/The scornful bitter words/Won't hurt me there/And I will live/Forevermore/If you remember me/I am immortal.

Learn more about Eric Woolfson's life and work at http://www.ericwoolfsonmusic.com/.