These are the ornaments I’m hanging on my tree
The stories and the memories are what’s precious to me
It’s a Christmas tradition to give of yourself
It’s the time we spend together now
That’s our greatest wealth
It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down trees, and my spouse, jazz-pop chanteuse Marty Winkler, has a new collection of holiday-themed tunes out. Please indulge me while I play the ho ho ho.
The six-song CD s called These Are the Ornaments, the title coming from the song quoted above. It’s a bi-seasonal number — a little bit Christmas carol, a little bit pagan soul — that Marty wrote when her daughter, now 31, was just a child, and only got around to recording this year.
The impetus for the CD, however, was actually another original song, “Just for Now,” that she wrote and recorded for a Georgia Museum of Art competition that invited artists of all kinds to create new work inspired by its Kress collection of Renaissance religious art. Captivated by Marco Basaiti’s 1510 painting “Madonna and Child,” she composed a beautiful, wistful ballad in which she imagined new mother Mary wishing and hoping for time to enjoy her wondrous child “like any other mother” until destiny calls.
Folks she played it for here in Athens said, “Wow, you should pitch that to Amy Grant or somebody for their next Christmas album.” And she went, “Hmmm, why I don’t I just record my own?”
That’s the way the whole thing started. With just her regular bass player, Michael C. Steele, and keyboardist M. Lee Davis, both revered veterans of the Georgia music scene, she fleshed out a mini-CD of simple elegance for about as much Kelly Clarkson spent for coffee and cheese biscuits while making her current charter topper Wrapped in Red.
Marty, who adores Joni Mitchell and can match her swoops and trills, put her own stamp on “River,” a nice and naughty track from Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue that has become an unlikely Christmas standard over the years.
She also recorded a solo piano piece, “Duluth,” that has since been chosen to be the soundtrack for a ballet by Rebecca Katz Harwood, a choreographer and dance professor at the University of Minnesota. And she recorded “Christmas Presence,” another song of hers (with a little lyric help from yours truly) about regaining one’s childhood sense of seasonal joy. “I fell asleep at midnight mass and saw a ghost of Christmas past,” it begins.
The emotional centerpiece and vocal peak of Ornaments is her rendition of “Silent Night,” a song that’s been ubiquitous for so many years at Christmastime that its vivid imagery may be taken for granted. Marty’s clear, passionate take on Franz Gruber’s 1818 Christmas hymn makes it seem new.
The day she recorded “Silent Night” at Davis’ studio in Maysville, Mike Steele, whom Marty calls her “translator,” was absent. She said she was struggling to communicate to the piano virtuoso what she wanted on the song. There were several false starts and Davis was getting impatient.
“In that low Southern growl of his, Lee said, ‘Whatcha want on this?’ I said, ‘Gentle on the first verse, more dynamics on the second, more still on the third, then a repeat of the first. I’m not sure what’s gonna happen on the repeat, but just go with me, OK?’ He nodded. We took a moment to set ourselves and then started.
“The familiarity of the song let us both relax,” she said. “By the time we got to the third verse, I knew we were closing in on a home run. A chill ran through my body. There was the sensation of another presence entering the room. Those are the times I live for as a singer, when you get a moment of purity and know you are capturing something of the divine.”
I’ve heard a lot of Christmas albums in my time. I own quite a few and am very partial to several – Phil Spector’s, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s, Elvis’s 1957 gem, A Nonesuch Christmas, John Fahey’s The New Possibility. I wouldn’t be so brash as to suggest Ornaments belongs in that time-tested pantheon, but its warmth, intelligence and understated beauty suit my winter’s day longings for songs of joy and peace well enough.
Peace, love, understanding.