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Listening to Christmas songs with Nnenna Freelon and John Brown 

John Brown's office nestles within the underground level of Duke University's Biddle Music Building, where he leads the jazz department and teaches courses like Introduction to Jazz. After a recent move to this location, the workspace of this bass player, bandleader and instructor is cluttered—a pile of CDs here, a grand piano there. He makes room to meet with longtime collaborator, the celebrated jazz vocalist and Durham resident Nnenna Freelon.

On Sunday, these old friends and Brown's Big Band play a concert at the Carolina Theatre, based on a set of swinging holiday fare they recorded a few years ago. Called Christmas, the disc mixes traditional yuletide chestnuts like "Let It Snow" and "Little Drummer Boy" with songs imbued by hope and the promise of new beginnings, such as "I Like the Sunrise," popularized by Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone.

As they surveyed a swath of Christmas songs both spiritual and secular, the closeness of these two Grammy-nominated pros was apparent. The discussion became musical in every sense, with plenty of riffing back and forth, finishing of each other's sentences and offerings of encouraging "mm-hmms." You can't hide or fake this level of musical kinship.


(This world-class sax player and producer may not be a household name, but he's sold millions of records. Here, he accompanies one of the most basic songs in the holiday canon with nothing more than sleigh bells.)

NNENNA FREELON: I love it. Real minimalist.

JOHN BROWN: It's rare that something is interesting without bass.

NF: [Laughs] One of the reasons these tunes work is that the audience supplies the melody from every other version that is in their heads. You can't do that with some tune you just wrote. Even a simple melody that you just wrote activates a different part of the brain. And so I heard the bass.

JB: She felt the bass, always with her.

INDY: What amuses you about this song?

NF: It was so playful. It wasn't trying to be too deep.

JB: That's exactly the word. You could tell the saxophonist was having fun, and that's the name of the game.


(One of the great American gospel singers, Jackson was fond of Christmas music, ultimately issuing several collections. Most were traditional and devotional, but she covered Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," too.)

NF: Listen to how she makes everything the blues.

JB: She is being who she is. It doesn't matter what she's singing; present company included, she's gonna be who she is.

NF: I think it's interesting she sang "heaven" as "heaven," not "heh-vin." She said [singing] "heaven," 'cause heaven is a place. It's not subdivided by a two-syllable tune. She said heaven like she knew what she was talkin' 'bout! Taking me back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.

JB: Good old Mount Zion. You don't have a choice but to be in her world.

NF: She builds a house and opens the door. Come on in.

JB: It sounds good in here. It smells good in here. You know, it feels good, so come on in. You've got no choice. And it's sincere. We talk a lot about just in the car or in a restaurant, things come on the radio and we just go, "Uhh, what are they doing? Why are they doing it?" And then you're reminded of what music can be, when something is pure and authentic and honest like this. I feel like she just wrapped her arms around me.


(One of the premier vocal groups of the early rock era, The Drifters followed the delirious tenor voice of Clyde McPhatter. Blending doo-wop and R&B, their take on "White Christmas" is one of the season's pure pleasures.)

JB: It ain't Christmas 'til I pick this one. We have an arrangement of this that we may play Sunday, but it features the bari sax. That arrangement was patterned after this arrangement. This disc has got groove. The voices on top are colorful, and it's very inventive how they envision having the higher voices and lower voices in contrast. Bass is always good, but that happy groove that's underneath it ...

NF: It never leaves you.

JB: That's right. It just undergirds everything.

INDY: The singer can barely contain himself.

JB: People don't sing like that anymore.

INDY: Is that a blue note?

JB: Oh, they're all blue notes. We love all the notes.

NF: And it's still playful, because of the arrangement. It's still a romp and a wink.

JB: These tunes, we love them so much. They're time-tested, but they also allow people to express themselves in arrangements, which gets us to the record we've done together. It's such good material. It inspires so many people in so many different ways. It doesn't really matter how you do 'em. It's hard to mess 'em up.

NF: Well, you can mess 'em up. You can overdo it. When it's too contrived, you lose. And it's a mystery when you've gone too far, except you kind of have to go too far and then you know it.

JB: When you come from a place of authenticity and sincerity, and it's done to honor the tune, it'll lead you. When it's about something else, you're likely to make a mess.


(This Texas-born blues singer had classical training, but his love of blues and R&B rhythms led to his first hit in 1945. This song, written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, captures the sensual side of the season.)

JB: I can see him sitting in the corner. Perhaps there's a glass of something sitting there.

NF: Oh yeah, there's something festive in the room. This is not the Christmas for children. This is not open your presents under the tree. This is another kind of Christmas—Christmas for adults!

JB: One of my tests when teaching an Introduction to Jazz class, or anybody I'm introducing to jazz, I just ask them how it makes them feel. How does what you're hearing make you feel? This speaks for itself.

INDY: What answer are you not looking for?

JB: I just want the truth.

NF: You've gone through 12 years of education, and you've not been asked that question about anything. You're not encouraged to ask questions, to be curious, and then you get to college, and there's a professor asking you, "How does this make you feel?" Your brain starts racing. How do I get a right answer? How do I impress him? How do I not sound stupid? You gotta cut through all that before you get to the neck down. For some kids, even the ones who've been successful in school, they've gotten to that point because of not feeling. Chemistry don't care how you feel. Algebra isn't interested in your opinion.

INDY: But if they pass the "Merry Christmas, Baby" test ...

JB: Then there's hope!


(Helping to pioneer the genre known as slowcore, the Duluth-based Low has been making mesmeric, glacial-paced indie rock since the '90s. Their 1999 set of Christmas songs brought them acclaim as well as TV advertisement bucks for this take on "Little Drummer Boy.")

INDY: It's haunting.

JB: I like that. That's a good word for it.

NF: They could cut the introduction in half.

JB: They're establishing their vibe. I see it. They want you to really be in their space and appreciate the simplicity and the warmth of that drone. The layers come when the voices enter. It may take awhile to get there. It's a familiar song, but listen to how we treat it and what it means to us.

INDY: They're believers. I think that comes through somehow.

JB: You know the melody. You know the tune. To hear how they care for it, I think I hear and feel that.

NF: It didn't really knock me out, but sometimes we don't give ourselves permission to sit with something long enough. This does invite you to exhale. That part I like.


(A bit more than a century after the carol "Good King Wenceslas" was written, Nina Simone interpolated the famous tune into a song about the lonely side of the holiday season for the title track from her debut album.)

NF: Now that's Christmas for a lot of people, this experience she's singing about.

INDY: The loneliness?

NF: Amplified by the fact that everybody else is with their family. What this arrangement says to me is that she heard in her head the juxtaposition of these two melodies. It isn't supposed to work, but it works. She put it together on purpose, not necessarily as a Christmas ode but because she was trained as a classical pianist and probably played "Good King Wenceslas" growing up. Maybe one day, she was noodling at the piano and this came up, because of a creative mind. Even this little solo she does, it's like a 4th-grade piano reader book. It's beautiful. This one always makes me cry. And she's from North Carolina. It was probably raining on Christmas.

JB: Honesty and sincerity: This is me. This is where I am. This is what's on my mind. You're getting it.


(Bob Dorough might be best known for writing "Three Is a Magic Number" for Schoolhouse Rock!, but this jazz vocalist had an idiosyncratic singing style, too. Here, he sings of holiday-time materialism in hepcat style.)

JB: It's something I play for my students every year. I'm gonna play it today. When I first heard it, I hated it. I'm not sure I love it now, but ...

NF: Really, you hated it?

JB: I did. I was like, "What in the hell?" I come from such a Marsalis-ized, here's-how-we-do-things place. We don't listen to Miles Davis after a certain period. So when I first heard it, I recognized it was Miles, but the singer was very distracting. I listen to Johnny Hartman, I listen to Billy Eckstine, Mel Tormé ...

NF: Oh, I love Bob Dorough. He's honest. If you ever hear him talk [affects nasal pitch], it's the same speaking voice. He's totally himself. In fact, that's one of my favorite cock-your-head-on-the-side, like "Really?" Christmas tunes.

JB: Like Michael Franks.

NF: Oh, don't tell me you don't like Michael Franks.

JB: I do. But when I first heard him, I didn't. I couldn't take it. I'd been indoctrinated to not like any of that. That's why I go to the "What does this make you feel?" not "What did somebody tell you it was supposed to make you feel?" These are the two that helped me work through that.

NF: I think music has purposes. So if you want to get warm and cuddly, Bob Dorough is not your man. I love that we live in an age where you can, with the click of a mouse, have access to a world of music. I mean, we're at the verge of environmental collapse here. We may need to move past "Jingle Bells." The polar caps are melting. We may have to start singing some swimming songs!

This article appeared in print with the headline "This time of year"

  • They play at Carolina Theatre on Sunday, December 7th


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