Kurt Elling and the Year of Christmas

So it’s February of this year, and The Swingles are on tour in Folsom, California. Although famous for Johnny Cash and the prison, it’s a charming pioneer town with the perfect craft beer place, hippies running pan-your-own-gold demonstrations – and a shop where its Christmas all year round. Dorothea’s Shoppe, a tinsel-and-holly, candy-striped Santa’s grotto, describes itself as “the premier, year-round Christmas store in the Sacramento area” and has somehow managed to stay in business for 50 years. (Almost as long as The Swingles.)

Thinking back to that tour, I realise that Dorothea’s has been our spiritual home this year. As winter gave way to spring, we were writing Christmas music. As spring turned to summer, we were rehearsing Christmas music. On the hottest days of the year, we were recording Christmas music. On long July evenings were were listening to mixes of Christmas music. In the autumn we were designing cover art for Christmas music and putting the final touches to live arrangements of our new Christmas music.

Incredibly, we’re not yet sick of Christmas music.

It’s five years since I first tried to write a Christmas song. My first attempt began brilliantly: I wrote this beautiful, soaring, classic melody and congratulated myself on my rare genius, until I realised I’d directly lifted the tune of “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and came back to earth with a pfffft.

Even failed songs usually have a few parts you can salvage from the scrap, though, and there was this one lyric I liked, which I found myself revisiting later, in that listless week between Christmas and New Year, presumably while wearing a lovely new jumper. “Storms laid the snow thick on the ground” was the line which I expanded it into two melancholy verses about love and the changing of the seasons, calling it The Thaw. I played the tune a few times with my jazz quartet, and half-forgot about it.

It’s nine years since I first heard the name Kurt Elling. I was in New York City with my university group The Oxford Gargoyles, for the finals of the ICCAs (of Pitch Perfect fame). Somehow, we’d managed to hook up a performance in a proper Harlem jazz club, singing a few songs between the sets of a badass singer named Michelle Walker. In hindsight, we were fish hilariously out of water, but Michelle was generous enough to let me sit in with her band for one tune, and afterwards she told me I needed to check out Kurt Elling.

I did as I was told, liked what I heard, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I bought Nightmoves and fell hard for Kurt’s music. I know almost every contour of every phrase on that record – the extraordinary clarity of Kurt’s instrument and the exquisitely moving arrangements grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Over the next few years, as I did my best imitation of a jazz singer, writing songs like The Thaw that borrowed from that great tradition, Kurt was a continual inspiration.

Back to California. The day after my visit to Dorothea’s Shoppe, we have a show in Berkeley, and we hear word that Kurt will be in the audience. I don’t suffer from stage fright, but that night I am out of my mind and my body with nerves. Afterwards he is gracious, complimentary, and every inch the jazz cat with his elegant scarf and throwback idioms.

A couple of months later, as we plan out Yule Songs vol. II, I dig out The Thaw and play it to the other singers as a possible album contender. They like it; Kevin volunteers to write the arrangement. Then we hear that Kurt is interested in guesting on the album. The Thaw, written by a 22-year-old hooked on Kurt’s music, is the obvious match for his voice.

It’s the best Christmas present I could have hoped for. All I have to do is sit back and enjoy as my song is elevated to another plane, first by Kevin’s gorgeous chart – with its poised string-like phrases, pianistic flourishes and even a quote from my favourite Debussy prelude – and then by Kurt’s exquisite interpretation of my lyrics and melody, recorded in a hotel room in LA but sounding like a million bucks. The evening when his vocal take pops up in my inbox ranks in my top 3 trippy email-based experiences.

Yule Songs vol. II comes out on 13th November, a few days before we open for Kurt in a sold-out show at Cadogan Hall. I’m incredibly proud of the album we’ve made. It has everything I want from Christmas – ice and snow, baubles and bells, mystery, memory, magic and merriment. And yes, this is a plug (You can pre-order your copy from Amazon UK or iTunes), but I also just had to tell you that story. Sometimes panning for gold really does work.