It all started with a conversation in early August when Pat and I were driving from VA to NC. Me: Let’s make a Christmas record. Pat: This year? There’s not time. Me: There’s never a good time. Pat: What do you want to sing?
Within a week we had a list of songs, a demo, a recording schedule, and a list of musicians we wanted to engage. Next we talked with Chris Salerno, a good friend of Pat’s from his school days, who is now in Lynchburg to help arrange the songs we’d picked. Since we had already released a record this year (The Goodbye Party), the budget was small, so we made our first bonafide homemade record. Sessions were mostly recorded in our keyboard player, Ben Singer’s, closet and foyer with the best mics that we had among us. Some sessions were recorded in the musicians’ homes if their instruments weren’t particularly portable (i.e. harp), as Ben’s apartment is on the third floor. Over the weeks I heard the songs take shape. Pat went without sleep for 3 1/2 months (I’m not kidding) while recording, editing, and mixing. The discs are finally in our hands and have been mailed to our friends who’ve ordered them. On the cover of the disc is a beautiful painting by Keith Buckner of my grandpa’s farm in WV where I grew up. When you open the cover there’s a long list of musicians, 17 people, counting the choir. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about these folks.
As usual, we started with Sam Frazier. Sam’s the guitarist (and sometimes pianist) in my band. Sam and I have played music together for over 10 years now and his playing and writing has become central to the sound of my music. He set the tone for the tracks upon which everything else was built. Another longtime guitarist friend, Scott Manring, came in and layered his parts over Sam’s. Scott brought a beautiful tone and spontaneity, and his solo on In the Bleak Midwinter brought me to tears when I first heard it. Pat, of course, played bass in his signature “felt not heard” way. Ben Singer, while giving us the use of his Greensboro apartment, managed to play banjo and handle the design and layout of the disc while touring the country with a traveling show.
Josh Weesner arranged the beautiful string and horn parts on The Goodbye Party, and we didn’t miss the opportunity to work with him again. Also from TGP, a return performance from violist Louise Campbell, who added such rich depth to O Come, O Come Emanuel. Flutist Lissie Okopny displayed such delicate and deliberate phrasing that I patterned many of my lead vocals after her lines. In fact, on the carol ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, she and trumpeter Ken Wilmot had a flute/trumpet battle that makes it one of the best arrangements of the record in my opinion. I’ve worked with Ken for many years in both classical and jazz settings, and knowing his talent and taste, I was still blown away by his performance. Speaking of trumpeters, The Angel Gabriel has always been one of my favorite carols, and oboist John Hammarback stole the show. Although from a distinquished Winston-Salem musical family, John is a new-comer to the Winston-Salem Symphony, and I would add that they’re lucky to have him. Greensboro French Horn player Dave Doyle is featured with Louise on Emanuel providing beautiful counterpoint against my lead vocal. When I first heard harpist Frank Voltz’s solo recording I was struck by his great feel and inventive improvisation. Frank is prominently featured throughout the disc, and as previously mentioned, Pat recorded Frank in his home on two very beautiful instruments. On I Wonder as I Wander Frank plays a celtic harp with a warm tone that blends wonderfully with the alto flute giving the arrangement a dark, solemn quality. The one and only John C. B. Wilson rounded out the record with great drum and percussion tracks. John owns the studio (Spot on the Sonic Landscape) where we made The Goodbye Party, and with studio partner Chris Peck they recorded (as John said) a truckload of intriguing, exotic percussion instruments. John also recorded some fun sound effects that are featured on The Friendly Beasts. Jim Robertson is a multi-instrumentalist from Amherst VA. Pat and I have had the pleasure of playing with him many times. He’s one of those guys that can fit in and sound just right whether he knows your music or not. We turned him loose with several instruments on The Friendly Beasts. He and John Wilson made the song.
Now the chorus. Let’s start with Lyn Koonce. She and I go all the way back to UNC-G where we started school at the same time with the same teacher. We later sang together in the Bel Canto Company. She’s my only classical music friend who also hopped the fence to non-classical music. We’ve sung together countless times over the years but this was our first time recording together; hopefully not the last. I have two sons, both of whom added their voices to this project. First, I want to thank Nicholas (AKA Black Ginger) for being brave enough to risk his rapper reputation by singing on his mom’s Christmas record. I’d never even heard him sing until recently and his sweet voice broke my heart. Max was forced into choral music at an early age and has one of the most mellow and pitch-perfect bass voices I’ve ever worked with. I wish I could sing with him every day. It was incredibly meaningful for me to sing with both of my boys on the same project. Pat and I filled out the other choral parts, both of us on alto and tenor! By the way, we couldn’t figure out a good way to credit the individual parts on The Friendly Beasts, so here’s the who: Max (the donkey) Bassett, Pat (the cow) Lawrence, Nick (the sheep) Bassett, and Sam (the dove) Frazier. I wrote the final song of the disc, Magnificat, about a year ago. It’s a setting of the scripture from St. Luke in which Mary expresses joy to her cousin Elizabeth when she learns she’ll be the mother of the Messiah.
So that’s the story of how Magnificat came to be. I’ve dreamt of making this record for years, and I have Pat and all these other talented folks to thank for bringing it to life. It never fails to humble and amaze me when I see the artistry in our area. Everyone on this record pushed me to sing up to their standards and I thank them. Art is funny that way. If it’s good, it puts you in your place while exalting you nonetheless.