“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” makes some folks puke. “Jingle Bell Rock” can push you over the edge. And don’t get me started on “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
So it’s good to know that there is still some true holiday music out there.
This Sunday (December 15, 11 a.m.), the Unitarian Church in Westport hosts a special performance. Music director Ed Thompson has written a wonderful piece. Using uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), tin whistle, violin, organ, bodhran hand drum and harp — and backed by a chorus and soloists — “Journey of Light” celebrates the winter solstice.
It’s holiday music with a twist: secular, warm and melodic. The text is not biblical — but it is deeply spiritual.
“Journey of Light,” at the Unitarian Church.
With authentic Irish instruments, and rhythmic jigs and reels, Thompson’s work asks why we sing during the darkest of seasons. The answer: the importance of community, of sharing our own inner light, and the importance of yearly celebrations that date back thousands of years.
Thompson — Juilliard-trained, whose works have been commissioned throughout the US and Europe — has assembled noted musicians for the piece. Jerry O’Sullivan is one of the premier Irish pipe players on the East Coast, while Nicole Schroeder (tin whistle) has worked on Broadway.
The public is invited to enjoy this hopeful, exciting and celebratory work.
It’s playing holiday music now though, so it’s on my pre-sets. I have this ridiculous false hope that one day I’ll hear an actual Christmas carol — Luciano Pavarotti belting out “O Holy Night,” say — instead of the squintillionth rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Yet last week, what to my wondering ears did appear but a yuletide song I had never heard before.
It was a Christmas miracle.
This was no longer background music, as I waited impatiently behind an idiot driver who did not know that since 1979, it has been legal in Connecticut to make a right turn on red. This time, I listened closely to the song.
The voice was familiar.
It was Jose Feliciano’s.
When the fresh, beautiful song ended, Danny Lyons said he had just played a “world premiere.”
I had to know more.
I called Jose at his Weston home. He was off on tour somewhere. Hey, this is prime Feliz Navidad season.
But his wonderful wife Susan was happy to tell me the fascinating back story.
It begins 50 years ago, when Rick Jarrard was a staff producer for RCA Records in Los Angeles. He convinced Jose to record “Light My Fire.”
Jose Feliciano and Rick Jarrard
The young singer/guitarist was dubious. It had been a hit for the Doors less than a year before. What could he add?
Plenty, it turned out. It reached #3 in the US, and #1 in the UK, Canada and Brazil.
The duo collaborated on 6 best-selling albums, including one in 1970 of Christmas songs. It was filled with classics like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”
Rick asked Jose to write an original song too. He didn’t think he could.
But he’d just gotten a cuatro — a Puerto Rican stringed instrument. He thought back to his childhood on the island.
So — in the middle of July — Jose wrote “Feliz Navidad.” It’s become one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time.
A few years ago, Rick wrote “On This Christmas Night.” Jose recorded it in his Weston studio. It’s beautiful, inspirational and sing-along-ish. But it was never released, so Rick just put it on Spotify.
He and Jose basically forgot about it.
Somehow though, the creators and producers of “Hamilton” found it.
And chose it — out of hundreds of contenders — to be their curtain call finale during this holiday season.
Soon, their interpretation will be released on a CD — with music from other Broadway, off-Broadway and traveling productions — called “Carols for a Cure, Volume 20” to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
When they heard the news last month, Jose and Susan were thrilled — not for themselves, but for their longtime friend and collaborator Rick. Susan said she cried for 3 days, with joy.
Then — just before Thanksgiving — Jose did a “Countdown to Christmas Music” promotion for WEBE 108. Susan told program director/midday DJ Danny Lyons how “On This Christmas Night” had dropped from the sky, into “Hamilton” and Equity’s AIDS benefit.
Danny listened to the song. He called it “providential.” His minister’s sermon had just noted that most Christmas songs today completely miss the meaning of Christmas.
Which is how Danny came to play “On This Christmas Night” that day last week. The fact that I heard it on its world radio premiere was — well, providential.
Danny told Jose he’d pass the song on to his programming colleagues around the country. Which means it may join “Feliz Navidad” as another great holiday contribution to the world, from our neighbor Jose Feliciano.
Of course — this being the holiday season — Jose is in great demand.
He’s playing all over the world this month: Palm Springs, New York, England, Vienna (with the Boys’ Choir) and the Vatican (for — of course! — the Pope’s Christmas program).
But Jose always has time for us. He returns home December 23. The next night, he offers his annual gift of music at Assumption Church’s Christmas Eve mass.
Feliz Navidad indeed. And muchas gracias, Jose Feliciano!
(Click here, then scroll down to hear “On This Christmas Night.” The Broadway Cares CD can be bought after shows. It will be available after Christmas on iTunes.)
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