Recalling the making of Tidings of Comfort and Joy – a Jazz Piano Trio Christmas!

On August 6, 2005, when long time Skafish partner Glinda Harrison had an intuitive flash for me to do my first holiday jazz record, I initially had a good gut feeling about it, but I took about a week to percolate on the idea to make sure it was truly the right choice for me.

When I committed to the project, I knew right off that this record would be a gamble for me – and for any of you who have followed my career, you know that I’ve always taken the highest risk an artist can take, which is to go against the limits of what one’s core audience can accept. In the late 1980’s, I started writing a song entitled Stabbing Santa Claus for the holidays. My audience might expect me to do a song like that instead of some holiday jazz record.

I might complete and record that other song someday, but this new jazz record was to speak to the universal aspect of the holidays, transcendent of the limits and judgmentalness of religion, as an attempt to bridge the gap of alienation that so many of us experience during the holidays and bring about connectedness. I didn’t want to do it with words, but with the vibrational and energetic healing energy of music and, with that in mind, jazz seemed like the perfect vehicle.

Just as I indicated in my last short article here that I’m not some Johnny-come-lately regarding spirituality, it is the same thing with jazz. I am certainly not some capricious rock performer who discovered a few unusual chords and decided to try my hand at jazz. When I started serious classical piano studies at the age of 6, I was immediately regarded as a child prodigy and began improvising on everything within a few years. Every kind of music was easy for me to grasp, understand and play: classical, jazz, blues, rock, pop and everything in between.

Then, in high school, I studied jazz piano with international jazz legend Willie Pickens at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. In September 1976, when 20th century jazz icon Stan Kenton heard my then Skafish demo tape (which are now the first four songs on my CD (What’s This? 1976-1979), he called me a genius.

In 1983 after my second album failed to reach commercial success and IRS Records dropped me, I had to seriously regroup as an artist. So part of what I did was to play solo piano everywhere: from restaurants, corporate and private parties to weddings. During the holidays, I would do dazzling jazz arrangements of Christmas classics right on the spot which always got me good tips – and I needed them to live on.

I also taught music to over one thousand children (some of whom had special needs) and when it was time for the holidays, I would find the existing Christmas arrangements to be utterly boring, so I would write my own arrangements of Christmas classics for my piano students tailored to their ability level. So, by the time I decided to make my first holiday jazz record in 2005, I had been seriously playing jazz for over 30 years.

As I started feeling really enthused by Glinda’s initial idea, I just needed to decide if I was going to do this as a solo pianist, or as a jazz trio, (which would take me back to my high school days when I formed my first jazz trio, Jim Skafish Group). So after about a week or so, I decided to do my first holiday jazz record as a trio because of the endless possible musical interactions with others and the spontaneity of group improvisation that I have always dearly loved. With a bassist and drummer, I hoped that the record could bring about synergy, energetic transcendence and a-one-of-a-kind moment.

After that decision, the vision of the project quickly became crystal clear to me. I wanted this record to be just as if someone walked into a jazz club, sat down at a little round table and watched a pianist, bassist and drummer play. The question I asked myself was, “What would that person experience?” With that as my guiding light, I put myself in the mindset of that listener and built the concept of the record from there.

It fell into place to record everything in order from the 1st track to the last, showcasing a musical evolution and a journey, just like the progression of a great live performance. I wanted the listener to experience a building musical relationship between the musicians analogous to a plot line of a compelling movie, unlike a pop record where the beginning track and last track are roughly the same.

I also wanted the record to be recorded in complete takes without editing or technological corrections. To me, a real jazz record has to live and breathe on its musicianship – not with the aid of digital editing, like done in today’s pop records where any note and any horrible performance can literally be made to sound “perfect.” As I already had a lot of the musical arrangements completed from before, I wrote the rest and started practicing 7 days a week.

The album would roughly break down into three parts: Part 1would comprise the first 5 tracks, which were to be upbeat, festive, ambient and elegant. Part 2 would also total 5 tracks and would show the record deepening and growing in musical complexity, more altered harmonies and a deeper emotional exploration. Part 3, the Finale section would feature 3 tracks starting with the first piece pushing the musical boundaries the furthest, with the second track designed to be a full out finale showstopper. Then, the last track of Part 3 would be a curtain call and reprise, designed to bring the record full circle and back to the joy and fun it began with.

I needed the right studio to record in and when I started thinking of my options, something hit me. In September 2004 when I was transferring about 50 or so old Skafish tapes to a digital format for preservation purposes at CRC Studios (Chicago Recording Company), I had an intuitive flash which was that I would be recording a new record at CRC in about a year. At the time, the idea seemed preposterous to me, so I dismissed the message. However, here it was, about a year later and I needed a studio to record my new record in.

In  addition, back in 1975 I recorded at CRC Studios when I was the keyboardist for the Island Record’s  black power rock trio White Lightinin’, which featured Bob Marley/Peter Tosh lead guitarist Donald Kinsey. So to me, it was a coming full circle kind of a feeling, so it made perfect sense for me to record there.

I was able to connect at the studio with a seasoned engineer who had recorded jazz records for decades named Dennis Tousana. When I went up to the studio in the city to meet him and played some arrangements for him, we hit it off well, as he was more laid back and I was more analytical and perfectionistic. He loved the idea that I insisted on recording and mixing this record on tape, which would add warmth, especially as there would be lots of intricate cymbal work and high pitched piano passages. I clearly wanted to avoid the harsh up-front-right-in-your-face quality of digital recording.

Since I didn’t like the pianos at the studio for my project, Dennis and I took a little cab ride down to Michigan Avenue to the Fazioli piano dealership. If you’re not yet familiar with this piano brand, Fazioli is a hand- made piano out of Italy. I fell in love with their 7 foot grand as it played so smoothly and sounded so rich and luckily for me, owner Thomas Zoells let me rent it for the up-and-coming sessions.

Dennis knew everyone in Chicago, so I asked him who he thought would be best to bring something special to the party in looking for the right rhythm section. I needed musicians who could read fluently, play virtuostically, improvise fantastically and play all styles of jazz including traditional jazz, swing, bebop, fusion, blues and ballads.

He recommended bassist Lawrence Kohut and drummer Tom Hipskind, who had been friends and played music together for many years. To me, that was good, because they already knew each other musically and if they knew how to lock together, my piano work could sit on top of their rhythmic foundation. I called them on the phone and after talking with them, I decided to roll the dice and give them the gig.

The way I figured it was that this was my money and record company financing the whole thing. If by some chance, it all blew up in my face and somehow didn’t work out, I could take my tapes home and call it a day, as opposed to having some monstrous A&R guy or record executive screaming at me. So I was prepared for the worst possible case scenario and was ok with that possibility.

Then, as the weeks progressed leading up to the recording date, I was woken up out of a sound sleep by one of my spiritual teachers. My teachers have a way of getting important messages through to me by waking me up with a physical sound (in this instance it was 5 loud knocks on the door at about 4:00 AM) to get my attention. When these loud door knocks first woke me up, I was initially scared and went to check the door to see if anyone was there.

When I realized that no one was physically at the door, I was relieved. Since I was wide open mentally as I just awoke a moment ago, my spiritual teachers were able to deliver the message verbatim to me as they had done many times before and since. I was told the simple and clear message that everything would indeed be ok regarding making the record. It would be fine! At that time, it gave me such a sense of emotional relief because I knew in my heart then that I had nothing to worry about.

On the day after Thanksgiving, Friday November 25, 2005 (almost 4 years ago), I met my bassist and drummer for the very first time. Literally, about 20 minutes later, we recorded the first track of the CD on the 2nd take, which is a swing version of the traditional classic Joy to the World. It was an astonishingly magical musical moment to have a track come together so perfectly with a rhythm section I just met only a few minutes prior. I remember that moment as a highlight of my long list of wondrous musical experiences in the studio. In a little over three days, we proceeded to record all 13 tracks, in order, followed by recording a 30 second television commercial spot.

At one point in the sessions, I was worried about being able to get a take on Jingle Bells, as the chromatic piano passages were really tough to execute without flawed brush notes (I called them (piano dings), so I thought we should maybe try and cut that track and get it out of the way. Interestingly, we couldn’t get it then, but when I stayed with my original plan which was to record everything in order, by the time we reached the point to record Jingle Bells, it came together with no bad notes or “piano dings.”

The sessions flowed musically superbly and for my part, I was serious, while the rhythm section was a bit more playful. I had three engineers on the session, including a young intern who was brought in because he had never seen a record made on tape before!

Out of the 13 tracks, 7 were recorded in 2 takes, while 4 were cut in 1 take including the amazing progressive highlight of the record We Three Kings Fusion. At 10 minutes and 27 seconds, it is the longest track on the record. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was recorded in 3 takes and the last track, Jingle Bells, took the most to complete at 4 takes.

With no piano edits whatsoever on this record, the record you hear is really how it happened right there in the studio, as a single moment in time, unable to be duplicated again. After the third day of recording, we took a few hours for Hipskind to overdub the gong crashes in We Three Kings Fusion, because the gong was so huge and loud that it had to be recorded separately. He also added a few percussion touches in the songs where the drums weren’t playing. This way, in performing the record live, a drummer could pick up a triangle, for example, and play it as a nice little extra to add some color to the arrangements.

At the end of each recording day at about midnight, I would drive home down Lake Shore Drive with hardly any traffic and listen to what we completed that day and could feel how good it was all turning out. After Dennis and I mixed the record, he drove the tapes to Wisconsin to be mastered by mastering guru Trevor Sadler and I had a great record in my hands by Christmas of 2005.

In typical unconventional Skafish style, I released the record first on CDBaby.com and Amazon in May of 2006, out of season. Then, during the holiday season of 2006, the record began receiving extensive international radio airplay, with every single track being aired while many critics and jazz aficionados pronounced Tidings of Comfort and Joy – a Jazz Piano Trio Christmas one of the greatest holiday jazz records they had ever heard. Granted, there were a few nasty and cynical reviews, but for the most part, the reaction to the record was stellar!

I did a National Public Radio interview on the Chicago show Eight-Forty-Eight in November 2006, which brought a heightened awareness to the project. Several television shows wanted me to perform live, including the Early Show on ABC Chicago and Fox News Chicago. Producers for the show Jimmy Kimmel Live were quite interested and a Producer for the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show also expressed interest, especially because of his love for Sign of the Cross, another Christmas classic, lol. However, because of logistical difficulties, I just wasn’t able to pull everything together on such short notice.

Ultimately, Tidings of Comfort and Joy – a Jazz Piano Trio Christmas brought Skafish to a whole new audience. When I think of this record and how it all came together, I realize the brevity, depth and length of the journey: the struggles, dedication, passion and ultimately, the victory. As my values reflect who I am as an artist and being, this record, like everything I’ve done has been based on what I feel and the artistic experience itself as the prize. It was about the arrangements, practice, taking the chance, and seeing this miracle come together in a musical experience of a brilliant performance front to back, synergy and transcendence. Back then, it was the greatest holiday gift I could have ever received and given to others, and now, it just keeps on giving.

You can listen to sound samples on the Buy CDs page and on Amazon and CDBaby.com. Samples are also available on iTunes.

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