Monday, December 19, 2011

The Burt Carols

Gwen Thomas, she of this great Winter Song, wrote a beautiful piece on her favourite Christmas carols for this blog:

I first heard the Christmas carols of Alfred Burt when I was a teenager. I’d stumbled across the sheet music and plunked my way through at the piano. The graceful melodies full of surprising twists and the lovely jazz voicings instantly struck a chord with me. The carols seem to surface every year around Christmastime for me and yet, oddly enough, it wasn't until this last week that, after years of calling them my faves, I actually became curious about where they came from. Who’s Alfred Burt, anyway? What I discovered was a story that provided me with some good, old-fashioned Christmas inspiration.

The Alfred Burt Carols were the result of a charming family legacy. Between 1942 and 1954, Burt wrote these fifteen carols (roughly one per year), as a Christmas card to send his loved ones. It was a tradition his father had started, and Alfred carried it on through the rest of his short life. He sadly passed at the early age of 33, but not before leaving us this well-rounded collection of utter Christmassiness! The lyrics read sacred, but for me these are outshone by the hallowing harmonies and divinely crafted melodies, which remind me that music really can be simply magical. That, in itself, is sacred, to me. And this is exactly how I want to feel this time of year: that there is such a thing as “sacred” or “magic,” available to us in the form of something as simple as music!

Well, if I’m waxing too mystical for you, let me come back to earth. In 2011, the carols speak louder than ever to me, because prior to digging up this stash of carols this year, I had actually written my own, first-ever seasonal song– a completely unrelated project… or so I thought. When I view my song in the light of these carols that have quietly influenced me each year at Christmas, I see that in my “carol” I’ve actually gone ahead and used Burt’s style of tight, parallel-moving melodies (in places in "We'll Dress The House," “Nigh Bethlehem"), a few unexpected, jazzy chord changes (found in all his carols, but I’ll point you toward my favourite, "Sleep, Baby Mine”), and lyrics that– from within clichéd imagery– reveal a broader concept that aims to bring us all together ("Some Children See Him"). Burt crept into my own wintry music!

There are other ways I feel connected to Alfred Burt’s life. For one thing, he went by “Al” and his wife's name was Anne. My mom and dad are an “Ann and Al,” so that's a nice, li’l coincidence. But moreover, his vocal arranging reminds me of my dear, late mentor Chris Dedrick. Chris’ band, The Free Design, was another “family legacy” type group, consisting primarily of Chris and his siblings. Both Alfred and Chris were jazz trumpeters who served time in big bands of military branches. Both men also clearly treasured the beauty of the human voice and stories brought to life through thoughtful vocal arranging. I like that these two great jazz composers have a bit in common, it feels cozy to me– like a good legacy to settle down into and call “home.” And that’s exactly what I intend to do, by continuing to let the arrangements of both these composers seep into my musical mind.

I’ll start by listening through the Alfred Burt Carols for the 20th time this week!


Sleep, Baby Mine
Some Children See Him