Among the many nice things I could say about keyboardist/composer Curtis Macdonald is that his creativity and versatility seem to know no bounds. His latest release of holiday music entitled Christmas, follows in the wake of a very different kind of album he released last year, which I had the pleasure of writing about. That album, his nineteenth, was called Los Angeles, which I characterized in this way: “Curtis’ many years of composing music for film and his love for the classic “film noir” genre led him to blend the distinctive feel of a vintage Humphrey Bogart detective movie or Raymond Chandler dime store novel with sounds of jazz and contemporary electronic music to paint an impressionistic sonic portrait of his current home city of LA.” However, there are no urban landscapes or smoky nightclubs portrayed on this latest release.
While this new album, Christmas, is a collection of holiday classics, they are certainly not traditional-sounding after being filtered through Curtis’ ambient jazz stylings. In our interview, I asked Curtis about his motivation for creating this holiday album. In his words: “I started arranging a traditional Christmas/Holiday song each year as a “gift” to my fans. My interpretations are simple and in a modern vibe. I enjoy the nature of jazz mixed with chillout electronica, and my intimate way of portraying a melody with the piano in an expressive new age style. I needed a few more holiday favorites and found the songs that inspired me throughout the years and remembered the ones I sang in church choir in my youth. With this CD I wanted to create a listening environment that was relaxed and felt comfortable by the fire… a modern holiday soundtrack for gathering of friends and loved ones that will be enjoyed for years to come. Music is that one key ingredient in life that everyone on the planet can understand and relate to. The way it affects our brain to recall emotional events, the way it can calendar a timeline of memories. Holiday music, because it’s annual, is a wonderful example of this and one of the reasons I chose to create the CD Christmas.
Interestingly, while Curtis’ music is personal in that it gives expression to his innermost feelings, he also sees it as a blank canvas for the listener to paint their own impressions on. As he describes: “My music is a reflection of my emotional history, it’s there in the attitude and melody. I hope that it resonates with others and they can maybe interpret their stories within my compositions. Music, like all art, is subjective. It can be simple or complex. There can be just a few elements or a barrage of notes and sounds. There is always the right song for the right time. That’s what makes it special, and it’s there for everyone. Throughout the years I’ve been asked to create a collection of timeless favorites for the holiday season. When I was young and beginning my musical journey, these 10 compositions inspired me and created a love for expressing one’s self in song”.
Curtis sets the scene in the opening track, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” with warm synthesizer orchestration and sparkling crystalline bell tones that evoke a vision of falling snow. The familiar piano melody glides in on a subtle contemporary beat and bass line that lets you know that although the song is a classic, this interpretation of it is cool, hip, and modern. Underscoring this are the trailing echoed electronic bleeps at the end of a phrase – one of my favorite touches in this song. A similar treatment is given to the next song, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.” I should mention that while I have cited synthesizers, electronic beats and effects, they are used with subtlety and are gently integrated into the song rather than slamming you with them like a dance track. While there is definitely an ambient chill vibe, these interpretations could be enjoyed by a wide audience without feeling like they are too far out. Additionally, the sweetness of Curtis’ piano melodies are so endearing, that this is truly an album that is “fun for the whole family.”
The next song was quite special to Curtis. As he shared in our interview: “My favorite is “ O Come All Ye Faithful”. The arrangement came into my head as I was tracking the single line melody. The feeling I had as each element was added was so spiritual, that at one moment I had to take a break and appreciate the blessing I was given to create such art.” “Joy To The World” was a joy to my ears, and highlights Curtis’ formidable skills as an arranger. One of my favorite aspects found on this song, as well as on many of them, is a section in the middle where the rhythm and melody drop out and Curtis creates a more improvisational space before picking up the melody again.
On “O Holy Night” I appreciated the softly percolating sequencer that provides a sense of contemporary electronic energy without detracting from the sacred feeling of the song. One of my favorite interpretations was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” with its chugging rhythm and ambient textures. I also really enjoyed the driving world music groove and little synthesizer blips and bleeps on “We Three Kings.” There were a number of wow moments for me on this one as I marveled at how Curtis integrated all the electronica elements into the mix – very cool.
Perhaps one of the most traditional takes on the album was on “O Christmas Tree.” Even though it was done on synthesizers, it was more of an orchestral arrangement without a lot of the trippy little effects found throughout the recording. It’s hard for me to think of another keyboardist and synthesist besides Suzanne Ciani that can evoke such warmth and romanticism from their electronic circuitry as Curtis does. The album concludes with a truly epic version of “Deck The Halls.” This multi layered up-tempo interpretation reminded me a bit of Manheim Steamroller and closed the album with a cinematic flair that was absolutely stunning.
Curtis’ contemporary spin on these well-known and much loved songs brings them into the 21stCentury while respecting the spirit of the originals. Over the years, I’ve heard countless albums that have presented renditions of traditional seasonal songs in a variety of different styles, but with his simply titled Christmas release, Curtis Macdonald has created what has to be one of my favorite holiday albums ever.