Monday, November 28, 2011

Notes on the Songs: "Christmas Time Is Here (and Chanukah and the Solstice)"

singer-poet Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) photographed for her holiday CD of 2011Notes by Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) on her new CD “Christmas Time Is Here (and Chanukah and the Solstice)”

1.   The composition Christmas Time Is Here” evokes nuances of Christmas that aren’t found in any other song – a keen awareness of the holiday’s beauty as well as the unresolved melancholy underneath it. When co-producer Jim Gardiner (whose background includes writing for the Seattle Symphony) told me he wanted to make an orchestral track, I was thrilled, and I was even more thrilled when I heard his mixture of Henry Mancini and Steve Reich, sleighbells and dissonance. With my singing, I aimed to convey the sense of experiencing Christmas privately even amid the surrounding jolliness, and a vivid encounter with “the spirit” at the tune’s end that both redeems and amplifies its haunting atmosphere.

2.   The Hebrew hymn “Hine Ma Tov” continues the orchestral approach. It uses both of the traditional treatments of the song, stately and folk-danceable. Since the song is often heard at Shabbat feasts and sometimes on Chanukah, I couldn’t resist it – especially as it gave me the chance to write a new translation of the lyrics.

3.   “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!” is the tune that sparked my desire to do this record – swinging, flirty, continuing the theme of the fire in the fireplace and underlining the passion and connection that the fire signifies. This track introduces the marvelous live trio of Adam Shulman, piano, John Wiitala, bass, and Alan Hall, drums.

4.   “My Favorite Things” has loomed large in my life since I encountered both the John Coltrane and Julie Andrews classic versions at about the same time, and I’ve been singing it for years. The musicality and fervor of the band, including Alan’s hard-driving drumming and Adam’s passionate solo, helped inspire me to innovate some new lyrics after it, which continue the motif of finding and honoring one’s own truth.

5.   “Miracle” is a duet with the sparkling, multi-track guitar work Andre Bush, in my first time working with him, though we’ve known each other for many years. It’s the second Chanukah song on the record (though it’s worth noting that all the tracks on the record except 6 and 7 have at least one Jewish writer). The American Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu released “Miracle” in December 2010, contributing a much-needed additional Chanukah song to the holiday repertoire. Both lovely and rousing, it speaks in the voice of someone who is overtaken by his/her private spiritual communication with God but still filled with zeal to encourage all who are listening to keep searching, and to believe that “him who searches will find.” With its many references to candles, fire, shining, sunrise, and light, Miracle again reminds us of why we conjure up brightness during the dark time of the year.

6.  “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” brings back the trio, with a gospel-shuffle arrangement by Adam Shulman that adds some downhome joy to the spectrum of celebration on this record.

7.   I’ve always loved Donny Hathaway’s performance of This Christmas,” which he co-wrote, and it was a perfect fit for the record as a playfully romantic song for the holiday in which happiness extends to family and community too. You may not notice that helping to propel the tune are tasty shifts from 4/4 to 3/4. Background vocalist Anna Lissa Patterson, with Jim Gardiner’s expert mixing, creates a lush bed to play in.

8.   “Holiday in Oakland,” the record’s first original, celebrates the Northern California city – or the Town, as locals call it – where I’ve lived for 20 years. A rap at the center lauds some of the musical greats who originated here. The holiday I keep saying we should take isn’t limited to Christmas! The old-school track by Jim Gardiner calls up Bump City, and the inspired background vocals by Anna Lissa Patterson, an Oakland native, truly represent. This song was made entirely in Oakland.

9.   Also an original, The Flame” lights the fire again, but reminds us that sequestering ourselves with loved ones during the holiday can’t seal us away from the world’s tumult and destruction. Being aware of others’ suffering – and our own – is painful, but the pain dissipates when we “find the golden flame in ourselves” and take some action to help our communities. Starting out spoken in time to a lush track, the song ends with a cappella singing that returns to the song’s initial reference to a timeless flame that curls in the dark of winter and the Name within it, hidden but bright. And it recasts the hearth as one that we make together, to create peace on earth.

10. I wrote Winter Solstice” as a poem, as opposed to a rap or a spoken-word piece, and it’s spoken in free verse, out of time. Still, the lovely track adds enormously to its flavor. What you hear is a one-take vocal with musical accompaniment by Jim that emerged rapidly – a testament to the communication finely honed between us over almost two decades of collaboration.

11. We couldn’t resist offering an instrumental version of Christmas Time Is Here” to close the record. Allow yourself to come full circle, and amid the orchestra’s strings and brass and timpani to experience your own Christmas – the spirit that is you, and the other spirit that is near.

copyright 2011 Lisa Bernstein
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