No Rest for Merry Gentlemen

A couple weeks ago I took you through the song We Three Kings, played five completely different ways. That was kind of fun, so I thought maybe I’d do that once more. This time, we’ll be looking at the song God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. As before, let’s start with my brother’s version as our point of reference. You can buy the tracks here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

The song opens with a very straight, classic version of the melody. Next, the tuba comes in with a walking bass line. That means he is “walking” up and down the scales and arpeggios that go with the chord progression of the song. You often hear bass players do this (particularly upright double-bass players) in jazz. It’s much less common to hear a tuba doing a walking bass line, because it’s incredibly hard to play tuba continuously like that. Most players just don’t have the chops.

The second time through the melody, and you can hear they are swinging it now. Swinging is another jazz thing. When you play straight time, you divide each beat into two parts. But when you swing, you divide each into three parts and play the first and third (skipping the second). You can take any song, swing it, and it will sound a lot like jazz.

So that’s our reference point. Basically the melody is played three times, in a slightly different way each time.

Next up is a version from Roy Hargrove, on an absolutely excellent jazz Christmas album called A Merry Jazzmas. You can get the album here on iTunes.

If you don’t know Roy Hargrove, you need to check him out. He’s the trumpet player here, and I think he’s basically the Lee Morgan of our generation. Like Lee, he was discovered at an early age by another famous player. (Lee was discovered by Dizzy; Roy was discovered by Wynton.) They both had a lot of success while young. (Lee is the trumpet player on Coltrane’s Blue Trane, at age 19; Roy’s first solo album was released when he was just 21.)

The structure here is a classic head/solos/head (I cut off my sample partway through the solos, in deference to the musician’s copyrights, of course). The head is the melody of the piece. In most jazz music, you play that once or twice, then people solo for a while, and then you play the melody one more time. When you are watching live players soloing and you see one of the players point to his head, he means “Okay, that’s enough solos, let’s go back and play the head one more time.” Often the solos are played over the chord changes of the melody, but in this case they switch to a different progression.

Next up we have Loren Schoenberg on A Jazz Christmas: Hot Jazz for a Cool Night. Here’s the full album on iTunes.

Loren is a great tenor player but is actually more famous for writing liner notes. He even won a Grammy for them once. This version follows that same head/solos/head form, but here we have the chord progression (what we jazz musicians call “changes”) of the melody for the solos. These are more challenging to solo over than the standard progression Roy used in his version, and the guitar player (not sure who that is) is really struggling to come up with something lyric. Dude. Been there.

Next up, let’s hit a version from one of my very favorite holiday jazz albums, Merry Magic by Eric Reed. As usual, here’s the link to the full album on iTunes.

Eric is a piano player, but the instrument you hear primarily here is a vibraphone, played by Steve Nelson. The “vibes” are basically like a xylophone, except the bars you hit with mallets are made out of metal instead of wood. There are metal tubes of varying lengths suspended below the metal bars that act as a resonance chamber for each (lower notes have longer tubes, because they have longer wavelengths and hence need more distance to resonate). Inside each tube there is a baffle on a rod that is spun by a motor at the end of the vibraphone. Usually, there is a knob you can turn to adjust the speed. The baffle opens and closes the tube, giving a vibrato to the sound coming out. Hence the name vibraphone.

Before we leave that version, check out what happens at the end:

After a remarkably long pause, they start playing a little round (that’s where multiple instruments are playing the same thing, starting at different times). And then it devolves into what we call a “vamp.” That’s where the musicians are basically fooling around on a simple chord repetition. Like trading fours, except less structured than that. They take turns, play over each other, listen and respond.

So at the start of that little clip we had the bass playing the melody. Suppose you do that as the head. Just have the bass play the melody and have some other instruments play crazy shit that is totally orthogonal. Would that be a good idea? Wynton thought so on Crescent City Christmas Card. Here’s the full album on iTunes.

Again, we have the head/solo/head structure. But the head and the solos have basically nothing to do with each other. The tempo, changes, everything are different. (And thank goodness, because although that bass melody was interesting, that tempo and structure would have been unlistenable for the whole song.)

So as your parting gift, I’ll give you a great version from Straight No Chaser. They switch up the time signature, doing this one in three instead of four like everyone else. Even though this is a vocal version, they still do the head/solo/head thing, although they keep the solo section really short.



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