The kingly trio in this year’s “Jazz Nativity”: Ray Vega, Steve Turre, and Max “Rhumba Tap” Pollack.
For some of us, carols still resonate in our hearts even after many, many Christmases. When I hear the start of a tinny carol in stores and elevators, I consciously tune it out, the better to enjoy singing these old song with my family. Still fresh—after 70 years!—the exotically minor “We Three Kings”; the manly tale of “Good King Wenceslas”; the exultant melodic ornamentations in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the piercing, childlike sweetness of “The Holly and the Ivy.”
But there’s more freshness to be found—a modern version of those carols, Bending Towards the Light . . . A Jazz Nativity, rendered by a collation of famous jazz musicians who, every December, come together to perform the Christmas story through the medium of jazz.
“The story is told though Christmas carols, Biblical readings for which I wrote the musical settings, and original songs,” notes Anne Phillips, the singer/composer who wrote the show back in 1985. The new songs are “One Star,” “Softly Falls the Gentle Night,” and the title song, “Bending Towards the Light,” for which Phillips’s husband, saxophonist Bob Kindred—the show’s musical director—wrote the melody. Dave Brubeck and his wife, Iola, wrote the other original song, “God’s Love Made Visible.”
The cast changes every year; the musicians’ ranks have included Tito Puente, Clark Terry, Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, and tap dancers Harold Nicholas, Jimmy Slyde, and Honey Coles (the second King is always a tapper). The Three Kings leave their talents (their instrument or their dancing shoes) before the light descending in front of Mary and Joseph that represents the Child.
All these music legends perform for “scale,” because they love this show. This year, the Three Kings boulevarding down the aisle will be Ray Vega (on trumpet), Steve Turre (on trombone), and Max “Rhumba Tap” Pollack (dancing). Among the show’s many other players are percussionists Candido and Chembo Corniel, soprano Brenda Feliciano as the storyteller, jazz singer Claudia Acuña as Mary, Franshees Ricardo as the Little Shepherd Girl, and New York’s “singing policeman,” Daniel Rodriguez, as the opening singer and host.
For 27 years this fully costumed Nativity has been held at Christmastime in New York (and other cities)—first at St. Peter’s Church, then St. Bartholomew’s, then Avery Fisher Hall, and even—ecumenically, the year that TJN lost its venue at the last minute—at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. This year the Christmas-story-in-jazz will be told at B. B. King’s on December 21.
Two-hundred-year-old carols with jazz ornamentation? For a sample of how they’re rendered, see the “Bending Towards the Light” link above. “Each carol starts with a statement of the carol melody, some of them swinging,” Phillips explains. ‘What Child Is This?’ is a jazz waltz. ’Angels We Have Heard on High” uses modern vocal harmonies, then swinging instrumental jazz choruses and a swinging vocal ending. All the instrumental choruses are improvised, the musicians embroidering on the melody and the harmonic changes. As in a game, every player knows the rules—the melody and the harmony and the amount of bars. That’s why so many musicians who have never played together can make such beautiful and exciting music.
“The finale is ‘Deck the Halls.’ The wonderful thing about that (and why it has been compared to Peter and the Wolf) is that you hear all the different instruments riffing. So many styles: Benny Goodman–style swing, bebop, Latin, and (on the show’s CD), a rather far-out electronic vocal. The vocal group states the melody in the beginning—it’s an easy carol to swing—and at the end. The bows at the end of the show are done to a Dixieland version of “Joy to the World.”
And there’s even more: This season’s show is a world premiere: The Jazz Nativity, for the first time, will be sung in Spanish. This year, it’s called Inclidando Hacia la Luz: La Navidad en Jazz.
Phillips, who has written several fervent essays for us on the joy of singing has been yearning to do a Spanish version for years. “We have always used many Latin Jazz musicians in the show. King No. 3 is a Latin king, so “We Three Kings” goes into Latin rhythm. For many years our Latin King was always Tito Puente; after he died, the famous conga player Candido took over. He is still in the show, playing percussion, at 92!
“Interestingly, as clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera tells us, there is no traditional Spanish Christmas show like A Christmas Carol. Performing the nativity story in Spanish opens the show up to New York’s growing Latino population and is our first step in doing it other languages so we can go global. As for our English-speaking fans, well, they know the story, they know the songs, so it won’t be hard to follow.”
Here is the first verse of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High”—
Oigo a los ángeles
Dulce canto pastoral
Contesta con júbilo
Dulce eco montanal
Charles Kurault, the show’s first host, wrote this explanation of the ray of light that stands in for Baby Jesus. “The light is meant to serve, as light serves for so many religions and philosophies, as a symbol of truth and love . . . and hope. Hope that even in a dark season we may begin to see the world “Bending Towards the Light.”
If you’ve always loved carols but regret to find yourself jaded by years of aural assault in stores, played between those irritating pop jingles, this show’s for you.