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Christmas madness perpetuated

Evilena Protektore

«Turned out to be so good that you may think you’ve heard it before» — a story of the only Christmas madness in the country

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It is surprising how many new recordings have appeared on the jazz music market during the last year only, a proof of that is a list of artists who applied for the Latvian annual music record award «Golden Microphone». This year though has surprised by something a bit out of the ordinary, an album that made people talk, discuss the stylistics, theme, the place of this recording on the market and so on. Christmas is a dangerous topic in music, because it long since lost its artistic beauty — for many years this holiday has become a way to earn profits and every time a new season song arrives there’s a big question of why did the artist dedicate his work to the holiday. Is it because he truly feels the spirit of pine trees and unity of all humanity, or because he knows that it’s the most emotional time of the year and the song WILL be played? And not just played, but on every corner, in every supermarket, store, restaurant, school, you name the place and starting from December 1st, or even earlier, there will be Christmas music. So anyway, this year the traditional setup of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and our very own Maestro Raimonds Pauls was extended to fit in some local funk music activists «Very Cool People» with an album «Snowman’s Express». It might seem strange, because let’s admit it, the band plays something that many call a «wild party», even Elvijs Grafcovs shouts that very same thing into his mike at every single concert. But the fact is, that starting from this year out Christmas tune collection now has something from Latvian funkers as well. Also noticeable is the fact that «VCP» were the first of the funk/jazz people who actually dared to do something like that, and that’s what we discussed with Elvijs — why’s, when’s, how’s and the other things that made Christmas different last year. Let’s call it what it is — a wild party. A wild Christmas party.

How did you come up with the idea of recording a Christmas album? One thing is to give a Christmas concert, but an album is a bit different, no?

Because we did original arrangements of the compositions for the concert, we had the idea that we wanted to capture the moment, not let it pass and be forgotten. At the beginning we wanted to do a live recording during a concert, then we decided against it. This is like a compilation, similar to the idea of the «Funkology» album — 4 years, every year a new program (at least 50% of the tunes are different). Every year there are 20 tunes with completely different arrangements, so now we have maybe 60 songs in our repertoire. We’ve chosen 12 and composed 2 ourselves — me with Ralfs, Valters (Sprūdžs) with Kristīne.

But that repertoire is somehow different from what you usually play, right?

Well, no!

But from what I’ve heard there’s a lot of ska and reggae, and you don’t usually play that?

Well, in our everyday life no, but why not? A Christmas concert is more free, the concept is different, so you can allow yourself to do whatever you want. With each song the idea was to turn it into something completely different, with no style limitations. You do with it what you want to do with it. And ska — why not? We had some Klezmer in our previous album, we decided to go that way and why not? And if we can add klezmer to our music, why can’t we add ska as well? And reggae — I don’t even know why that tune became a reggae tune. I think it’s because Ralfs likes reggae a lot. But usually it’s me and Jēkabsons (Māris), we do the arrangements together.

So it’s just the two of you who writes for the band?

Mostly yes. Me or him, or we do it together. This album is an exception because Valters joined our authoring party, he wrote together with Jēkabsons.

So all in all there are 2 original tunes and 12 …

Yeah, those 12.

How did you come up with the idea of making a Christmas concert in the first place?

Because the concerts that are usually available during the season are just… sad. They’re always filled with certain emotions — you have to cry in the end. And none of the concerts are a blast, like a party. Funk and soul — I want to listen and play that music during Christmas time as well. Even around the world there weren’t a lot of funk and soul Christmas albums, but in the recent years John Legend has released one, along with us. We have so weird connection with him, the same story happened with the «Funkology» album, when he release «Wake Up» that also has cover versions of the old soul tunes. Now he has the «A Legendary Christmas» album. Actually I’ve been to his concert in Germany, where he played «Superfly» that we did with Aija (Vītoliņa), and Marta (my wife) said that our version is better! But his child was born to the sounds of this tune, so it is special in his case.

Wow, so sweet!

Yeah. There’s something between us and John. Also with D’Angelo, same story with «The Roots». He, by the way, does the same song that we did with you («Hit It And Quit It»), approximately at the same time we did it, he had a version uploaded to Youtube and that second verse he totally doesn’t keep the time, but band carries on.

Ok, back to business! So what you provide is a party. So tell me about all the work that stands behind the party. Give me some insight!

Insight! When we came up with the idea we played with Ralfs a lot and he said — guys, let’s make a Christmas concert! And I said I didn’t want to be involved in something like that… He said then — ok, let’s do it differently then! So I took a look around and saw that every concert is the same — Ķīpsala had Orchestra Riga with Dinara, Dailes Nams had Jelgavas Big band with Daumants, and other small gigs. So we thought — ok, why not? We also played a lot with Kristīne then, so we took her and Ralfs and did it. There was a big selection of tunes. In the first year it was easy, we took different soul classics, like «Merry Christmas, Baby», «This Christmas», other tunes, pretty simple. We chose the stylistics of funk, soul, ska, reggae, something musically similar in spirit. The tunes we’ve chosen had awesome melodies. We tried taking Latvian tunes, but sometimes those melodies are so… They’re hard to arrange. The music is different, when a classical musician tries to write a pop tune… He can, maybe, write a good symphony, but you have to spare a bit more time to write something in the style you don’t usually work with. I assume that I could probably write a pretty «interesting» symphony… (laughs)

Those jazz standards in turn are pretty easy to change — jazz, funk, soul, they go along together very well, they are made from the same stuff. You have to get rid of some tritone substitutions (that in funk and soul music sounds a bit weird), do a bit of reharmonizing, make it sound more in style. We tried to change the beats and the rhythms so that they’d be different from the original version. We tried to avoid swing completely, to get rid of Michael Buble’s wibe, to go as further as possible from all that. There are enough concerts in Latvia where Christmas swing is played. Also we’ve never been a straight ahead jazz band.

Second year was harder — we had to find new tunes. And every next year becomes even harder in that sense. We risked in our first year — leased a concert hall, the sound… and it was scary, because the possibility of failure was high. But everything turned out ok. Our second year we decided to go big — planned concerts in Riga, Liepāja un Valmiera. Maybe it wasn’t meant for the second year yet… So on our third year we decided to do only one concert, also because our days were a bit limited, Ralfs was busy with the «Cabaret», that’s why we were able to take only Mondays, not very cool. So we made a concert only in the Dailes Nams concert hall, but it was sold out pretty fast, so we organized another concert the same day. So last year we arranged two concerts, again on the same day and we also were sold out. Next year we want to do this on a bigger scale.

Which of the tunes was the most complicated?

Most complicated… It was hard to move away from the original and rearrange into soul and funk in the «War Is Over» tune. To change the style but not lose the essence of the tune.

And the most successful one?

I don’t know, it’s hard to say. At the beginning we were scared to release those original tunes, it could look stupid, you know? Look at those guys writing Christmas tunes… But I like both of those tunes, the «St. James», and the «Call Me This Christmas». But maybe that’s because of what the people say, there are a lot of good reviews on those tunes.

Weren’t you yourself a bit scared of the public opinion? Because it’s a safe bet to use Christmas, it will gain you popularity.

I was scared to produce bullshit for Christmas. As, for example, «Earth, Wind & Fire» or «Cool & The Gang» — one of those bands has an extremely bad Christmas album. Awful design, bad arrangements, everything made fast and spolly and instantly sent to the stores. I didn’t want to do things that way. James Brown had a similar album, where he sings the same songs he usually does, but shouting «Merry Christmas» or «Happy New Year» somewhere in the middle… The cover was also made as a bad constructor — Santa hat sticker on top of James’s head. I even bought that vinyl, just to look at it and remember to not ever do things like that. I want to like what I do. And it would be cool if other people also liked what I do.

Also we wanted to release this album to perpetuate the 4 years work, because all in all every album is released to capture the art you do at a certain moment in life. Because after that it will all be different, you change. Every album is a captured moment that demonstrates where exactly you stand with your band, as a musician. And now we have this statement about Christmas. I think it also reflects what each of us does in music nowadays.

Tell me more about the content — I see «Intro — traditional», what is that?

This album is meant partially for «Tower Of Power» lovers. In their album «Oakland Zone» there’s an intro tune «Eastside» and the last tune, that if put together is actually one song. During concerts we do the same. Usually we end the concert wishing everyone a Happy New Year and playing «Auld Lang Syne» — it starts off slow, then we increase the tempo and move on to ska. All in all there is only one slow song in the album — «Silent Night», where Kristīne does what she does best. We did it in English so that it would sound not only in Latvia. Two radio stations are already playing it. We chose the singles, but we were told that our choice is wrong and our singles should be «St. James» and «Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy», because it has beatbox and because it’s instrumental. There was an interesting story with «Call Me This Christmas» — one dude from Bremen said that we should have recorded «Jingle Bells» and «Call Me This Christmas» in Latvian, because he’d heard too many English versions of those. And I was like — dude, «Call Me This Christmas» an original by Valters un Kristīne, but apparently it was so well written, that he mistook it for a classic…

What’s with the design? Your previous albums were united in style, but this one differs from the usual concept. Why?

First of all because it’s a Christmas album, secondly it’s a work by three different artists — «Very Cool People», Kristīne and Ralfs, that’s why it stands apart from our usual work. That was intentional.

Mārtiņš Legzdiņš was the designer?

«Funkology» was designed by Anna Skane, «Some Kind of Fish!» — Gatis Pakalns, then «Cruising in the Trolley» — Dārta Hofmane, the first one again by Gatis Pakalns.

And all those are in one style.

The next one that will be released in spring will be same as usual again. The next one will be colorful again, but we’ll have a special reason for it.

What will you never do on Christmas?

Probably I’ll try avoiding artificial snowflakes…