Christmas Solo: Informal, Improvised

I’ve been meaning to put out a Christmas album for several years, ever since I started reharmonizing holiday tunes for family Christmas Eve parties and office holiday gigs. However, each year as the holiday season approached I’d be hard at work on other projects, so I’d tell myself, “next year I’ll get this done.” A couple of times I got my act together enough to record singles and upload them to YouTube, but multiple tracks always seemed like too daunting a task. This year, however, when October rolled around I looked at my schedule for the upcoming months, found myself with an unusual amount of free time, and decided to make the solo piano Christmas album happen.

I had a few criteria in mind when planning the album:

  1. Keep it manageable. Although I wanted to record as many tunes as possible, self-producing meant that arranging, practicing, mixing and mastering 7-8 tunes was probably not feasible. Four seemed like a reasonable compromise. 
  2. “Be prepared to change your plan.” Hilariously, I actually received this advice on a fortune cookie right before embarking on this project, and thought it was quite apt. I tried not to get too attached to tempos or release deadlines, for example. 
  3. Forgive myself. I’m a perfectionist at heart, and I’ve been working on some of these arrangements for over 5 years, so of course I want the recordings to do them justice. However, recording can be a tough process, and it’s hard to tap into the feeling of freedom and flow achieved more naturally during lengthy practice sessions. I resolved to allow a certain amount of “messiness” in the performances as long as they captured the overall spirit of the arrangements. More on that later. 
  4. Keep it loose, and include some unplanned elements in each arrangement. For each track, I had a basic framework in mind, but I intentionally left some parts up to spur-of-the-moment decisions or improvisation. The degree of flexibility varied from track to track—for “Hark,” I left the solo section almost completely open in terms of length, tempo and harmonic direction. By contrast, for “O Christmas Tree” and “Angels,” I planned out most of the form, but left the length of the final solo vamps open because I never know how long it will take to achieve the specific dynamic curves I want on those types of sections. For “Auld Lang Syne,” I had a basic idea of how I wanted to treat the head in, and that was it; I left everything else up to the moment of recording.

“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” sets the stage for the album with a meditative pedal tone vamp in 5/4; I wanted to create an atmosphere of sitting down by the fire on a snowy winter evening. The intro, outro, and “A” sections of the tune all feature the pedal tone vamp on the V chord, while the “B” section follows a more traditional chord progression, albeit with some jazzy reharmonizations. During the solo section, the harmony returns to the pedal tone, and the tempo ebbs and flows to let the improvisation breathe. I wanted the solo to be an exploration of different harmonic colors over a mostly static bass note, a la Branford Marsalis’ epic composition “Eternal” (from the album of the same name), as well as a slow build to a melodic peak that then fades into near-nothingness before the head out.

“O Christmas Tree” is probably the most drastic re-imagination on the album. Inspired by Taylor Eigsti’s dynamism and fantastic arranging skills, it features a jaunty (as my wife Emily likes to call it) 7/4 groove with a couple of brief meter changes and fermatas thrown in for good measure, as well as some wild reharmonizations on the bridge. The nature of the arrangement is all about dynamic peaks and valleys: it starts off soft, builds the intensity level up multiple times and then drops down again to start all over gain. The highlight of this is after the head out, where the last phrase of the melody morphs into a solo vamp that starts at a whisper, builds up to a sustained roar, then repeats the curve in miniature for the finale. The hardest part of recording this track was maintaining the high energy level and forward momentum the whole time, even during the soft points. When I finally got the take I wanted after an evening and morning trying, I found that even though it was a little messy and rough around the edges, it still captured that energy I was looking for, and decided to keep it.

“Auld Lang Syne” is not a song I’ve played often, but it’s a beautiful melody and I wanted to try something new for the album, something that I could approach with fresh eyes. I opted for a simple treatment of the melody, rubato, with a few reharmonizations here and there and a focus on moving inner voices. As it’s a relatively slow song, I take one time through the head, a brief solo—just a chorus and a half played in the same style of the melody—and then come back in with the head out at the bridge. This track is short and sweet, and I think it provides a nice contrast to the other three longer, more complex arrangements on the album.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” is I think my favorite arrangement on this album, and kind of an ode to Brad Mehldau’s many jazz waltz arrangements over the years (for example, “She’s Leaving Home,” from Day is Done). I wanted to capture the feel of Mehldau’s classic trio waltzes, not just the piano but the drums and bass too; ideally, you should be able to hear the essence of those instruments in the performance as well. The “A” sections feature a constantly rising chord progression, with slight differences in chord quality between the first two “A’s,” and then the “B” sections highlight some more dramatic reharmonizations as well as a dichotomy between straight-eighths/behind the beat melody and swung accompaniment. The intro, which also serves as the outro vamp as well as an interlude between choruses, includes a bell-like theme that I hope instantly conjures up the Christmas/holiday spirit.

“Angels” was also the hardest track to record, because unlike “Hark” and “O Christmas,” the feel of the arrangement doesn’t leave much room for messiness; I really wanted everything about it to be precise, beautiful, and crystal clear. Moreover, the intro/outro/interlude sections proved particularly challenging technically because to play them correctly I have to switch registers with both hands simultaneously while holding some notes down (and transferring fingers on those notes) to retain their sound, and also time my pedaling precisely to capture some notes while letting others die off. Holding notes down over long stretches can be fatiguing, and doing that multiple times per take over multiple takes compounds the issue.

I recorded the first three tunes back to back to back over the course of four days, and sometimes I had to sleep on a track before trying again the next day, but with “Angels” I had a ton of trouble even finishing a complete take. Frustration ensued. Then, Thanksgiving intervened, so I took some time off, revisited after the holiday, practiced a bit more and then sat down and finally captured a good take. It’s not perfect by any means, but it was one of those takes where everything feels just right, even the unintentional notes, and it all just sort of comes together to create something wondrous. I think the final vamp of “Angels,” improvising around the repeating intro theme, is the perfect way to end the album: restrained in volume but brimming with quiet energy and unbridled joy.

I hope you enjoy listening to these tunes as you celebrate the holidays, or whenever you need to hear something fun and beautiful.

Thanks to:
  • My wife, Emily Amata, who encouraged me to complete this project and who put up with me struggling through it and disappearing for long stretches at a time to record and edit. 
  • My parents, John and Joellen, who have made Christmas and Hanukkah special every year since I was a child, and who have always supported my music
  • My sister, Laura, who listened to the tracks in-progress and enthusiastically endorsed them
  • My friend and colleague Jeff Derby, who played through some of these arrangements with me at a holiday gig several years back and encouraged me to develop them further. Jeff also listened to early editions of the tracks and provided me with some crucial pick-me-up words when I was having my doubts.
  • My friends Shravan and Sara, who were my first listeners in a social setting, at a Friendsgiving and gave thoughtful and constructive feedback along with a hearty endorsement and request for more.
  • All my monthly Patrons, who help make projects like these possible, keep me going and always take an interest in my creations.
  • All my friends and fans who have supported me and continue to support me in my musical endeavors.

– Jake


Performed, recorded, mixed and mastered by Jake Smolowe
All arrangements by Jake Smolowe
Album art and photo by Jake Smolowe

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