Christmas CD - Smooth Jazz Sax

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“Christmas, The Hymns” CD

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Ben Vail on Alto Sax recording in the studio with Rob Mullins on We Three Kings for 'Christmas The Hymns' CD.

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So many people seem interested in how the creative process works and how it becomes a CD. The facts and details are always interesting to inquiring minds – they want to know. I know myself well enough to know that I will forget much of the process if I don’t document it, so here goes.


I recorded my debut CD, e-Motion, back in 1995 for BrainChild Records. I had been working with Kilauea since the band was formed in 1991, and met Dean Whitney of BrainChild Records at that time. We discussed doing a Greg Vail CD for some time before it became a reality in ’95. e-Motion was a huge radio success, but sold very poorly nationwide. I then was given a great opportunity in 1996 to record a series of CDs for Time Life Records. Dean and I recorded 40 songs for Time Life that consisted of Pop Vocal music covered on the sax. It was 1997 and my career was on its way.

During this time, I married for the second time and began what became many years of personal struggle culminating in divorce. Little happened in my recording career from the completion of Sax by Candlelight (Time Life 1996), which was later released as Sax By Moonlight (Delta 1997), until the divorce was final in September 2000. I was separated for 3 years and lost so much that I thought I was done as an artist for good. I had put a band together in 1995 to tour and support e-Motion, but during this time I didn’t need the pressure of being the boss added to my personal life difficulties. Instead, I needed time to get my head back on straight.

Simultaneously, BrainChild Records was hit hard by a distributor going down and, with little radio support and no distribution, just faded into the woodwork. Time Life (Warner) acquired their competitor, Heartland and then merged with AOL, leaving my little project lost in corporate restructuring. I had no label, no direction, lost my home, car, equipment, credit, and a big part of myself. I sought employment as a sideman for other bands, giving up as an artist in my own right.


When I got home from divorce court on September 16th, 2000, I was not happy to hear from my music attorney requesting a return call. The court proceedings had gone well, but I could not face any problems and just ignored the call. Kurt called again a few days later and caught me on the phone. He told me there was a good chance I would be recording a new CD soon and that the financing was on the way. I hear people say this kind of thing too often to ever get excited about it, and really just blew it off. Kurt called again on November 5th and said he needed to see me on the 6th. I told him that was my birthday and it had better be good to justify spending the day driving to his office. He told me he was holding a check that would get the new CD done, and said he would see me at noon. Much to my amazement I picked up the check on November 6th and ran home to start planning the ‘New CD’.


I had wanted to record some of the music we play at Saddleback Church for some time, but decided on a Christmas CD that night. I called my friend, Rob Mullins,and set up a meeting to discuss a business plan. We met the next day to schedule the recording and discuss the material. I was told it was too late to get a Christmas CD recorded and released for 2000, but in my naivety decided to do it anyway.


Rob and I went over all of our favorite Christmas songs, made a list, narrowed it down to 12 titles, laid the project out, budgeted the expenses, and scheduled the recording to be done at his studio over the next week.


We started recording on the 9th of November. With no record label pushing us to do things a certain way, and an extreme need to make music for music’s sake, and not radio airplay, we started arranging the songs. All of the songs we selected were Christmas Hymns; these were songs we had both grown up with in Church as children. My concept and desire for the CD was to arrange the music to be an “Audio Journey”. I wanted to take the listener--with no words, just music--through a portal in the mind, to a new appreciation for the message of these classic and significant songs. Each song was arranged and orchestrated to be appropriate to the lyric content, mirroring the message each song contained.


I thought long and hard about what Christmas means to me. When you look at the original accounts of that event in the Bible, you see two things coming up over and over: Joy over the long anticipated birth of the Messiah, and a statement of Peace, not fear, proclaimed by angels that night, and through 2000 years of history to date. God sent His Son to save us, not scare us; and nobody’s afraid of a baby. Peace and Joy are the bookends of Christmas, with the whole story of God’s love unfolding within. I wanted to feel these two powerful emotions in the music.

THE Christmas SONGS

The CD opens with Deck The Halls. This track was the most involved and difficult for both Rob and I. Rob spent a lot of time sequencing the orchestra on this track. The orchestration is in the style of the great American composer Aaron Copeland. The theme development is very exciting and complex, and demonstrates Rob’s creative genius. This track represents probably 40 hours of sequencing that keeps driving the energy to higher levels with each verse. When Rob showed me what he wanted me to play I said: “You’re kidding, right?” He made me a tape of the strings and told me to learn the parts while I was on the road that weekend. When I got back from my road trip we started recording the Sax. I was surprised to hear the track because Rob had changed some of the lines while I was gone. Rob started to show me the part, and then found he needed to practice it to even be able to show me. I barely got it out right one time in rehearsal and Rob said: “Lets try it.” Before I could say “No!”, the tape was rolling and the impossible happened. I nailed it on the first take! We where both high five’n each other like the Lakers had just won the NBA finals. It was awesome!

What Child Is This and Away In A Manger are brought together in the second track. Rob and I agreed that with our scheduled release 3 weeks away, we would need to keep some of the songs simple. I had chosen many slow songs, so we selected some to be recorded with just Piano and Sax, no band. Rob and I have played together for years, and have learned to work off each other in amazing ways. We simply pulled out a Christmas book and decided what key we would play each song in. Rob showed me the transition he would try, and the tape was rolling. We played live at the same time, and got the performance we wanted in 2-3 takes. Rob then added a little strings and we mixed it down to DAT tape (digital audio tape)…done.

The performance is real, not rehearsed or charted to death, just a live performance of two guys making music. I was there, and have to laugh when I listen to much of the CD. Rob thought he should restate What Child Is This on Piano at the end of the medley. I was watching his hands and followed him for part of the line before remembering he was going to play it. We listened back and loved it. Creativity is structured at times, but must also be free.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is a great Smooth Jazz track. Rob and I are both veterans to the genre, but agree that radio restrictions and guidelines for airplay have killed much of the passion in this music. From beginning to end, so many radio tunes go nowhere. This track is very smooth, yet breaks down to just Soprano and Drums at the top; rhythm section joins in, it stays smooth, and just like a walk at the beach, fades back down to where you started with Sax and Drums on the fade. God ‘REST’ Ye… Very relaxing… Peaceful.

Reminiscent of the Contemporary Jazz of the 90s, Joy To The World brings that Alto Sax Happy Jazz to a new level of excitement. With each new verse and new solo, the energy rises. Thanks Rob for bringing home the JOY in Joy To The World!

Silent Night is a beautiful arrangement featuring the Flute. Rob’s orchestrations and transitions are so inspiring that the Flute just played itself in a few places. We start this song so quiet…it really was a “don’t wake the baby” thing. If you were to think the lyrics as the track plays, you can really feel the content. The lyrics speak of a silent and holy night, but also tell of redeeming grace and announce the birth of the Savior. The track builds in majestic tone, but then fades back to the manger with the sleeping baby Jesus.

Track 6 is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Rob and I performed this live with just Piano and Soprano. It reminds me of my days in the recital hall at CSULB playing classical music. When we played back the first take, we heard Piano keys clanking loudly, and the Sax sounding all weird. We looked at each other and said: “What’s that?” Rob looked at the mic and started laughing because I had set it up backwards; it was picking up his hands hitting the Piano and not my Sax. I guess that’s why he makes the big money.

O Holy Night was a must for this project. I had an arrangement I wanted to try. In 1995, I played the Jazztrax Christmas Tour with this song closing my part of the show. We started with just an Alto Flute, and it brought chills to the room night after night. Although I had to sell my Alto Flute, I was able to borrow it for the session, and the arrangement we recorded was inspired by that tour. Another orchestral arrangement, the Audio Journey carries the listener through the reverence of the opening statement on Alto Flute with strings; through rich orchestral development at a more festive pace featuring the Soprano; to a majestic restatement of the only perceivable response to standing in the presence of Deity, “Fall on Your Knees…” This was, and still is, my favorite Christmas Song of all time.

We Three Kings was very special because it features my 11-year-old son, Benjamin, on Alto Sax. I wanted to have Ben play, but really had no idea how I could make it happen. We moved the track to a key that would be notes Ben knew, and I drove him down to the studio while playing a tape Rob made for him to practice to. The problem was, I had not been able to get the tape to him before our trip to Rob’s, and he was going in cold for his first recording with no practice. We got in the studio and Rob worked with him while I took pictures. Ben did a great job, tried his best, and made me the proudest Papa in the world. I really wanted him featured on this, so I played Flute and he is the Alto Sax throughout. With Rob on Keyboards, we joked about being the three kings minus the rich and wise parts.

This is the funkiest track on the CD, portraying these three strangers from distant lands as being the funkiest part of the story. Three rich, wise men read about the coming Messiah, and come to see if it is true. They followed a new star to the baby Jesus with gifts mirroring the life and death of God’s Son. They were obviously included in the story to show God’s love for seekers. They sought, and they found. I like these guys!

The First Noel and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear make up the other medley on the disc. Rob and I recorded this live to tracks again, with Rob adding some strings on top. Again, I really like these tracks because they are an impromptu arrangement recording a real performance. With a quick talk-through, both songs on the music stand, and the tape rolling, we did this cut in maybe an hour after mixing it.

I wanted to close the CD with the one Christmas Song I hear at Church year round, O Come All Ye Faithful. It is a call to worship the Christ Child. It is a call to the foot of the manger, to look and see, to love Him. It is Instrumental Music, but all music can have passion and power within it. I pray the listeners will find themselves at the manger, on the Audio Journey in the mind, and find the Peace and the Joy that the season has to offer in the gift of God’s Son, the baby Jesus.

Music is Done - Now What
PART 2 of Making Christmas Hymns CD

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    Christmas Hymns - Pop Christmas CD

    Favorite Christmas Music performed by world renown Saxophone Artist Greg Vail. Features Saxophonist Vail on Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Flute and Alto Flute. A Smooth Jazz Christmas CD that everyone will enjoy! CHRISTMAS, THE HYMNS is a Traditional Christmas CD featuring Deck The Halls, What Child Is This, Away In The Manger, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Joy To The World, Silent Night, Hark The Hearld Angels Sing, O Holy Night, We Three Kings, The First Noel, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and O Come All Ye Faithful by Saxophonist Greg Vail.