It was the first and only time I lived alone. I’d graduated from college in spring of the previous year and accepted a job I didn’t want, out of sheer desperation. They began flying me to Raleigh, NC to work on a project the following winter, and I’d spent a lot of two-week stints in a room at a crappy little motel off what was then called North Boulevard (that might reveal my age range to any Raleigh natives who happen to be reading this). That summer, I’d agreed to relocate to Raleigh to save the company airfare, and I’d moved into a one-bedroom apartment. I lived there for a year in which I didn’t put up posters, barely furnished it, and hardly ever bought any real groceries.
Through the fall, I had practically no social life, going from the apartment to work and back, driving home to Virginia every weekend, and subsisting on fast food for the most part. In November, I started dating a woman I didn’t really want to date, and I’ve never been lonelier. Fortunately for both of us, the relationship didn’t last beyond the holidays.
It was a horrible season. I was on the cusp of meeting my future wife, but there was no way of knowing that at the time. (Besides, that’s another story.) I was 300 miles away from the people I loved most, and could no longer afford to drive up every weekend. I tried to be festive. I bought a cheap six-foot string of colored lights at an Eckerd and draped it over an opening/window between the kitchen and living room. I’d plug it in at night and could see its glow from almost anywhere in the apartment, including my bedroom. I still remember waking up to that ghostly shimmer several times each night, and somehow taking a small amount of comfort in it. I owned a portable CD player, so I bought a couple of Christmas CDs to further increase that comfort. One of them changed my outlook and helped me feel alive again.
I fancied myself a fan of jazz, but a better word would have been “dilettante.” I didn’t — and still don’t — know much about that music form, but I enjoyed some better-known pieces. There was an eclectic music store nearby, where I occasionally indulged myself by dropping in, chatting with the clerks, listening whatever they were playing at the time, and pretending to know why its form mattered. That’s where I bought the CDs. One was an anthology from a jazz label named for the initials of its founders, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen. I knew nothing about them or GRP Records, but I recognized the names of the songs on “A GRP Christmas Collection” and that was enough.
The first time I played that CD, I scratched my head a little at some of the arrangements. Most of the songs had no words, which was the first surprise. This wasn’t jazz like the other CD, which featured vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. This was jazz instrumentals.
The second surprise was, it wasn’t always true to the melodies I knew and loved. Big shocker for someone who thinks he understands jazz. In most cases, the song might start out with the melody, but would proceed to bend, twist, stretch, warp, and otherwise transform it in ways I still don’t understand enough to explain in words that belong in a real music review. Music theory is lost on me, but I believe one of the relevant terms is “syncopation.” And I felt syncopated all to hell.
So there I was, stuck with a CD of Christmas songs that I’d hoped would improve my mood, but that were instead making me angrier and at least a little confused. But night after night, I’d pop the CD in and fall asleep to it, drifting in and out of the colorful shimmer from the kitchen window as I floated on the sounds of David Benoit’s piano, Tom Scott’s tenor sax, Dave Valentin’s flute, Gary Burton’s vibraphone, and a lot more mind-bending instrumental change agents. I began to understand the concept of semuta, a mind-altering musical “drug” mentioned in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series.
Needless to say, the CD grew on me. By the time Christmas arrived, it was giving me the comfort I’d sought, and no, there were no actual drugs involved. It’s just a humbling, dissonant, beautiful collection of songs that has since become relatable, approachable, and in my personal collection, traditional. It became the friend I needed that season, and got me through to better times in the new year.
It’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite track, but I’d say two of them stand millimeters taller than the rest. I’ve already mentioned one of them in this series — I included Daryl Stuermer’s amazing “Little Drummer Boy” on the list of stocking stuffers accompanying my pick for the sixth song of Christmas. I don’t want to repeat a song, so tonight I’m going with the other — “Silver Bells” by Kevin Eubanks.
Eubanks’ guitar is almost supernatural, at once haunting and reassuring, welcoming and off-putting. I get lost in it every time. I recommend lying back and closing your eyes as you listen, letting him take you on a trip along the busy city sidewalks, dressed in holiday style. You might come back a changed person.
None in this version except a very cool “Geh-jee-geh” beatbox effect.
- Gary Burton, “O, Tannenbaum“
- Eddie Daniels, “Sleigh Ride“
- Dave Grusin, “Some Children See Him“
- Tom Scott, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“
- Dave Valentin, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town“
Can’t polka hole in this one….