Carla Bley: A Traditional Jazz Christmas From A Secular Source The jazz composer Carla Bley doesn't celebrate Christmas, and left the church behind as a teenager. But you wouldn't know it from her new album, which sets her favorite Christmas carols — traditional and original — to her edgy writing style.
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A Traditional Jazz Christmas, An Unlikely Source

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A Traditional Jazz Christmas, An Unlikely Source

A Traditional Jazz Christmas, An Unlikely Source

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A lot of musicians have taken Christmas as their muse: Bing Crosby, Phil Spector, The Pogues, even Bob Dylan. It may come as a surprise to jazz fans to learn that Carla Bley has recorded a Christmas album. She's a composer and pianist best known for edgy compositions, music that can be challenging for listeners. The surprise is that her take on Christmas is decidedly traditional.

Karen Michel visited Bley at her home in Woodstock, New York to find out why.

KAREN MICHEL: No one would accuse Carla Bley of being warm and fuzzy.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Bley doesn't even celebrate Christmas or any of the holidays. No decorations, no gifts, no calls, no cards.

Ms. CARLA BLEY (Musicians): Well, maybe a good bottle of wine.

MICHEL: But she grew up celebrating and singing holiday tunes. Her father played organ at church, and her parents met as students at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

Ms. BLEY: And they sang in the choir, and music was heavily based around life at the church. It's not just Sunday at one of those churches.

MICHEL: That daily routine got to be too much. At 15, Bley dropped out of high school, left her parents' home in Oakland, California, and landed in New York in the mid-1950s. Pretty quickly, she went from working as a cigarette girl at a jazz club to persuading the talent to play her music: serious musicians like Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell and Paul Bley, who became her first husband.

But if she had left the trappings of Christmas and church behind, Carla Bley still cherished the music, says her longtime partner, bassist Steve Swallow.

Mr. STEVE SWALLOW (Bassist): I guess I realized long ago that she had that worm within her, the worm to take the Christmas carols very seriously and respectfully.

(Soundbite of song, "O Holy Night")

MICHEL: As it turns out, all her life, Carla Bley has kept a folder of Christmas music.

(Soundbite of song, "O Holy Night")

MICHEL: The electricity is out at the Bley-Swallow home outside of Woodstock, so Bley holds a wrought-iron candelabra as she leads the way downstairs to the music room.

Ms. BLEY: (Unintelligible) going down the stairs.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. BLEY: Karen wants to see the dark Christmas decorations.

MICHEL: Bley says she needed the decorations in the music room to get in the mood.

Ms. BLEY: There's a little Christmas tree on the piano, and there's the chili lights against the wall.

MICHEL: It's here in the basement where she composed and arranged the tunes on the new CD. Bley hauled out the Christmas folder when she received a commission in Essen, Germany that allowed her to fulfill her dream of creating a concert of Christmas music. She arranged the tunes for a brass quintet, plus herself playing keyboards and Steve Swallow playing electric bass guitar.

(Soundbite of song, "Away In A Manger")

MICHEL: Along with mostly reverential versions of traditional holiday tunes, Bley composed two new songs for the CD: "Jesus Maria" about a boy with a girl's name, in honor of both Jesus and his mother; and "Hell's Bells."

(Soundbite of song, "Hell's Bells")

Ms. BLEY: That's like anti-Christmas. It's like people who don't go to heaven, what they might hear. Everything's going wrong in that piece. It's sort of like hell must be, I thought. I have these little scenarios that amuse me as I'm writing.

(Soundbite of song, "Hell's Bells")

MICHEL: Though according to Steve Swallow, rehearsals were quite serious.

Mr. SWALLOW: We were as earnest as a Salvation Army band and as happy and righteous as a Salvation Army band, too, I guess.

MICHEL: Composer Carla Bley had a different aim.

Ms. BLEY: I want it to be classical. I want it to be something that you can listen to at Christmas that isn't that schlock you hear in the box stores. And I think a lot of other people want that, too, something, you know, that's moving, that you can sit down on the couch and open your � I don't know � open your presents and in the background will be me. You know, it's sort of cool.

MICHEL: And in the end, the music's even kind of warm and fuzzy.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(Soundbite of song, "Jingle Bells")


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