Duke's John Brown Jazzes Up Christmas With Durham's Nnenna Freelon

Dec 18, 2013

Christmas music. It's nearly inescapable at this time of year - on the radio, in shops, in cafes, everywhere. When Phoebe Judge sat down to talk about "Christmas" with jazz double bassist John Brown, the question arose: Why would musicians want to add to the large catalog of existing Christmas songs and recordings?

"It comes from a place of joy," said the double bassist. "We wanted to take this material that's tested, tried and true and say something different about it."

When you hear a song done in a different way, with a fresh take on it, it really does bring new life; it really draws you in in a way older versions don't. Breathing new life, which plays a part of that whole fun and celebration that means everything about the holidays to us. - John Brown

John Brown's the director of the jazz program at Duke University and in 2012 released a big band Christmas album with Durham's celebrated jazz singer Nnenna Feelon, herself a six time Grammy nominee. The album has been re-issued for this Christmas season.

This "Christmas" kicks off with "Swingle Jingle Bells" arranged by Frank Foster, a saxophonist, flautist, arranger, and composer who worked with the Count Basie Orchestra. Over the next nine tracks the album celebrates the season with brassy arrangements and Nnenna's lush vocals. Familiar chestnuts mix with a few lesser known compositions. The songs covered range from The Vince Guaraldi/Lee Mendelson composition "Christmas Time Is Hear" (you probably know that from the Charlie Brown Christmas TV special) to "Little Drummer Boy" and "Let It Snow."

The album is fully a North Carolina production, recorded at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium Studios in Kernersville and mixed at studios in Durham and Carrboro, NC. In addition to Nnenna and John, the album features a number of well-known Carolina artists including Beverly Botsford and Jon Metzger.

Owen Cordle writing for Raleigh's News & Observer stated "If there were a Grammy award for best Christmas album, the Nnenna Freelon-John Brown Big Band collaboration simply titled “Christmas” would surely be a top contender."

The CD and mp3 downloads of "Christmas" are available from cdbaby.

Listen to Phoebe Judge's conversation with John Brown: