© 2019 by Valerie Cullaton

The Really Fun Part!

The Making of a Christmas Album, part 3 The rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, guitar) recording session was done in a marathon hot and sweaty nine hours. Eleven tracks were recorded that day. We then moved into, as my engineer Paul Kim said, “the really fun part!” - bringing in the solo players to create their music and magic on those tracks. The first player in was Dan Block, clarinetist extraordinaire. Dan played three tunes on my first album and I actually chose songs for this album with him in mind. He is in another stratosphere when he plays. He’s played for many great and famous artists and has mastered so many eras of music that it is a joy to watch him work.


Dan comes in, doesn’t use a chart, listens to a few measures of the rhythm section and just starts playing. As Chris Hughes, our drummer and co-music producer said, “Dan is mixing while he’s playing.” He’s that aware of all the other musical parts going on around and under him. As the vocalist, the beautiful tone quality of his clarinet enhances my singing. In the (sort of) words of Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” Dan “makes me want to be a better singer!”Dan played solos on “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.”

Next up, saxophonist Russ Nolan. I met Russ through our pianist, Tom Jennings who had played with Russ for years and Russ played beautifully on “The Nearness of You” for my first album, so I had to bring him back for this one! He is able to capture the essence of the song, no matter what you put in front of him. So we gave him five tunes, four of which were solos.


Russ easily slipped into a John Coltrane groove on “What Child Is This?” and created a haunting feel on “I Wonder As I Wander,” playing soprano sax on both. He pulled out the tenor sax for a rocking Tom Jennings’ arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and another rocking arrangement by drummer Chris Hughes of “Jingle Bells,” I got to trade licks with Russ on that one. What fun! His last tune was “Winter Wonderland,” playing in a horn trio with Nate Birkey (trumpet) and Dan Block (clarinet.)

The next day Nate Birkey came into the studio to play trumpet and flugelhorn on two numbers, after laying down his track for “Winter Wonderland.” Nate is not only a fine trumpet player but also sings too! I brought him in later to sing a duet with me on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” his trumpet number, and both his playing and singing were just the right feel for this sweet and sexy tune.


Nate then played flugelhorn on “Christmas Time Is Here,” the song from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In researching this tune I discovered so few singers have recorded it. It was not on my radar until I was with pianist Tom Jennings who was playing it during a break in rehearsal and said, “Why don’t you do this?” Now thanks to Nate’s playing and Tom’s suggestion it’s a signature song on the album and the title of the album!

Rounding out the soloists were three more outstanding musicians - violinist Sean Lee, cellist Alina Lee and steel pan player David Gaskin.


We recorded Sean Lee playing with Tom Jennings on piano on the stage of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan for “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day.” Using a Steinway grand piano to heighten the “bells” on this song, engineer Paul Kim set up a temporary “booth” for Sean to play in by setting up partitions and blankets to keep the instruments from bleeding into each other. Tom’s original melody and arrangement for this beloved Christmas song is hauntingly beautiful and powerful and Sean’s exquisite violin solo throughout truly brings Tom’s arrangement and the deep meaning of this Longfellow poem to a new level.



Cellist Alina Lee came into the studio to record Chris Hughes’ arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful” with us, only receiving the final arrangement the night before, but played with skill, grace and sensitivity as if she had been playing it every day for weeks. Adding Tom on piano and Sung on guitar makes this a uniquely beautiful and quiet arrangement of this traditional favorite.


And finally, David Gaskin. How cool to have a steel pan player come and play so skillfully on our calypso arrangement of “Away In A Manger?” And we all learned that he had the pan tuned the day before, by a tuner in Brooklyn who uses a hammer to beat the pan into the right pitches! David was a joy to work with and brought a lot of laughter into the studio that day, along with his superb steel pan playing.



I would be remiss not to mention Sungwon Kim, our guitarist, who came in to add some special effects to several songs, including mystical guitar sounds for “I Wonder As I Wonder” that takes this tune to another world. Sung is also the soloist on "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

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