For someone for whom singing has been a part of their life since childhood and who comes from a church-going family, it's a natural thing each year to periodically croon the popular and traditional melodies of the Christmas holiday season. If that person is a professionalperhaps, one who's been singing for decades and has seven Grammys to his creditit may seem a bit unnatural that he hasn't yet covered the holiday classics on an album.
That's precisely been the case for Al Jarreau, the jazzy soul singer, the soulful jazz singer, the vocal craftsman who has been recording for more than 30 years. Until recently.
"There's probably some version of in-womb singing that I was doing," says Jarreau with a chuckle, from his California home in November. "I certainly sat next to my mother on the piano bench from the time that I was able to sit up straight while she played church music. She was a church organist and pianist and played for choir rehearsals and all performances with the church."
Yet among his immense body of work, his latest recording, Christmas (Rhino, 2008), released in October, is his first-ever holiday album.
"I should have done a Christmas record a long time ago. It was a natural one to do, but there's been other stuff to do in the meantime. So, it came time for us to do this Christmas record just now. It's very exciting," says the singer, whose warm personality and forthright nature puts all around him at ease. He notes half-kidding that, "what was so important that I learn is that there is so much Christmas music that I love and need to be doing that I could probably do another six or eight Christmas projects and maybe cover it all, figuring 13 or 14 pieces of music on a record."
Jarreau covers religious songs like "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Gloria in Excelsis," as well as favorites including "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Christmas Time is Here" (the latter a take from Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965) score) on the disc.
"I didn't get lopsided in the presentation of material because those guys know me and did the work on the record.," says Jarreau. "I wanted to have some Jarreau-ness about it, but I really wanted to pay close attention to the respectan homage to the season. I don't want to do a scat version of 'Silent Night.' [chuckles] That's how we came to four or five of the pieces. There's some vignettes that come out of my teen years and childhood that I just tossed in," including an impromptu solo of "Up on the Housetop" thrown in as unidentified cut number 14.
At age 68, Jarreau's abilities have not slipped from what his many fans have come to know and expect. His tone is round, still supple. The tunes are presented in totally recognizable fashion, but there are arrangements that pleasantly alter the compositions and contain adequate doses of what the singer calls "Jarreau-ness." He sprinkles dashes of that ingredient nicely across the entire holiday plate.
"White Christmas" is a more soulful jaunt than is usually presented on holiday records. "Carol of the Bells" has a underlying propulsion that calls to mind Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," with its driving jazz drum patterns and throbbing bass beneath the melody. The vocals, of course, don't take off on Trane's path, but Jarreau weaves a pleasant trail, playing with the rhythm. It has buildup and release of tension. It's a jazz tune, especially at the piano break.
A nice addition is the ballad, "The Little Christmas Tree," a rarity that Jarreau says Nat Cole did in the 1950s, but has seldom seen the light of day since. On "I'll Be Home for Christmas," the vocal group Take 6 joins, providing background harmonies and bass lines. They get by with no help from instruments. Mel Torme's classic, "The Christmas Song," is a simple stroll through the imagery that has warmed holiday revelers for decades. It's slightly funky, with a sultry sax solo by the album's co-producer and longtime Jarreau sideman Larry Williams It will please those with jazz or pop ears, which is pretty much what Jarreau has been doing all his life.
Says the singer, "There's some really attractive elements about a Christmas record, along with the fact that it's a great season and great tradition that's been really big in my life since I became conscious. I grew up in a musical family. The family was doing Christmas music. The family was a church family. The church was doing Christmas music. To have that kind of musical spirit, I tuned in immediately to Christmas music. I grew up singing 'Silent Night' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' with preciseness since I was four years old. Just a great season for me. A long time coming to it and I'm glad I'm getting there ... I think I have an audience out there that's glad to know that I'm doing this."