The leader of the NOJO talks about what's needed to make good Christmas music.
Musically, Irvin Mayfield often leaves no doubt of his talent, but A New Orleans Creole Christmas by Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse is a pleasingly modest EP. He’s all over the recording, but the eight songs are far more about the communal spirit of the season than Mayfield’s ambition. The version of “O Tannenbaum” is firmly in the traditional jazz voice, but all of the arrangements have a clear sense of the city.
“Opening the club gave me an opportunity to figure out where New Orleans fit in my sound,” Mayfield says. “One day I woke up and recognized that New Orleans is at the core of my sound. I am of the place. I am an extension. There comes a point where you don’t have to try. You don’t have to say Okay, let’s make a New Orleans arrangement.”
When he answers questions, Mayfield tends to start from a broad perspective, frequently making associations to other art forms, then hones in on the point he wants to make. Sometimes it sounds like he’s giving his answers context by couching fine points in big ideas, but in our conversation on Christmas music, it seemed like he was working out thoughts on the fly—sometimes thinking about his answer to the question, sometimes thinking about how questions link to his pet themes.
“What Christmas gives us is an excuse to revisit popular melodies, melodies that we get to over and over again and again,” he says. “That’s what’s charming about Christmas; it’s a return home of sorts. It’s a shame that we don’t create more anthems that we as people can return to except at Christmas time.”
I suggest that the Christmas music raises in microcosm the questions that all music raises, and he agrees, contending that it’s all about clarity.
“Will this song clearly tell listeners who you are?,” Mayfield asks. “Can I achieve clarity? Nat King Cole has a lot of clarity in his music.” He points to artists such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald who had clarity of vision throughout their career, and Charles Brown, who achieved it for one Christmas song, “Please Come Home for Christmas.” In cases like Brown’s, “the magic is when you find the right topic and the right voice,” Mayfield says.
This conversation was a part of one we had about the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s night of interpretations of rock songs, and in it Mayfield talked about relevance. How jazz had to make itself relevant. He picked up that theme when talking about Christmas music, arguing, “If art is life, then people should be able to use it in their every day lives, and that’s one of the opportunities of holiday music.” A New Orleans Creole Christmas was recorded as part of a series of sessions at the Playhouse that resulted in nine CDs-worth of music that Mayfield plans to release next year, and he envisioned the EP as being specifically useful.
“I thought it would be a good gift to get a good New Orleans band playing holiday music that also represented the experience of going to the club,” Mayfield says. “The important thing was making a record that I would want to listen to at Christmas time.”
When I favorably contrast Mayfield’s restraint in the arrangements with Wynton Marsalis’ over the top, circus-like arrangements on Crescent City Christmas Card from 1989, Mayfield says, laughing, “I don’t know if Wynton loves Christmas. The first Wednesday after Thanksgiving, everybody knows the first song is going to be a Christmas song and we’re going to play it to the end.”