Christmas in Three (Musical) Acts #MutualNight #ChristmasEve

Chicago Decembers are a great preparation for Christmas. Between the Holiday Train, the lights on Michigan Avenue (and everywhere else), the Christkindlmarket, the Neapolitan Crèche at the Art Institute (and, in fact, the crèche exhibit at my employer),[fn1] in Chicago, the War on Christmas has been going Christmas’s way since long before our president declared victory.

For me, while all of these things are great, music is a central part of the mood and message of Christmas. And after Karen’s incredible deep dive into Mormon Christmas music, I thought I’d share how 2017 live Christmas music shaped up for me. Act 1: Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O

I keep a pretty strict Christmas music calendar (much to my family’s chagrin): Christmas music can start the day after Thanksgiving (or, sometimes, Thanksgiving afternoon). So the day after Thanksgiving, after relistening to a couple of my favorite Christmas albums, I tweeted my Christmas music post from two years ago. And Matt Wilson tweeted back at me, telling me he and his Tree-O would be at the Green Mill in December:

So last Saturday I went.

Now, in spite of having lived in Chicago since 2009, this was the first time I’d been to the Green Mill, a classic jazz spot (and former Mafia bar, it appears). I walked in and was seated in the front row, close enough to the stage to rest my feet on it.

Shortly before the music started, Wilson came and decorated his drum set. He strung lights over it, set up a stuffed Santa, hung a menorah, put a couple Elves on the Shelf, and, broadly, created the most charmingly Christmas drum set a person can imagine. He and the other two members of his band (Paul Sikivie and Jeff Lederer on tenor and soprano sax, clarinet, and piccolo) wore matching red blazers (velvety, I think) for the first two sets. The third set was going to be the Christmas sweater set, but I’m getting old, so I left after the second set (which, in my defense, went until 11:15 or so).

And the music was stunning. Wilson is, to my ear, the most melodic drummer around. On the very first number—“Winter Wonderland”—Wilson took a drum solo where, between the toms, the snare, and the cymbals, he played the melody (not just the rhythm, but the melody).

Next up was “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” Sikivie took a bass solo played in octaves and in harmony with himself. Later came a duet (or maybe competition) between Lederer and Wilson, with Lederer blowing sharp staccato bursts at Wilson, and Wilson responding on a metal frisbee-like thing. Wilson matched not only Lederer’s rhythm, but his pitches by changing his pressure on the metal disk.

It wasn’t all aggressive, though: “O Come O Come Emmanuel” saw Lederer playing tenor with a lush, full sound, and Wilson on brushes. And “Up on the Housetop” was a straight-up bebop burner.

In short, the music was amazing. The atmosphere was sublime. And the show.

You know how I said Wilson is the most melodic drummer I’ve heard? He and his band are also, perhaps, the funniest. Each set started with a video, modeled after a classic Christmas movie (“It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” for the first two sets). The videos cracked the band up.

But the band also cracked the audience up. In the second set, the band played “8 Little Candles” (it was, after all, the fifth day of Hanukkah). Lederer was on clarinet. And, as he was soloing, he started deconstructing his clarinet. First he took off the bell, and then continued to play. Eventually, he took out one of the middle sections (and continued to play). By the end, he was just playing the mouthpiece. Eventually, he wandered over to the piano and sat on the keys, at which point Wilson broke down laughing. And almost fell off of his stool.

Act 2: The Brandenburg Concertos

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has had a residency in Chicago’s Harris Theater for the last seven years or so. My wife and I have subscribed since the second year (and we bought tickets to two of the three performances for the first year through a fundraising auction at my daughter’s preschool). For the past four years or so, the season has included a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos a week or so before Christmas. And we’ve gone every year.

Now here’s the deal: there’s nothing inherently Christmasy about the Brandenburg Concertos. As the oboist who introduced the concert explained, the Concertos were a job application by Bach, and Bach ended up being ghosted.

And yet, somehow, they are the most Christmasy of Christmas music. They are lush, stunning, and beautiful. I’ve listened repeatedly to recorded versions (the Chamber Music Society’s version is available here), and I’ve been to this particular performance four times. And still I find myself shocked and delighted. I mean, they start with Concerto No. 5; at the end is a jaw-dropping harpsichord solo. And the harpsichordist nailed it.

This year, because of the generosity of friends who also subscribe, but who had family arriving in town Wednesday night, we had two extra tickets and brought our daughters. I was sitting with my younger daughter, and her jaw dropped in Concerto No. 4, right after the intermission, as violinist’s bow and fingers flew on her solo. I could point to her how the melody would pass from one instrument to another and back again. I don’t know if Christmas can happen without the Brandenburg Concertos, but they’re certainly a wonderful way to usher it in.

Act 3: St. Alphonsus

For the last several years, we’ve gone to Christmas Mass with friends at St. Alphonsus, a gorgeous Catholic church in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. We’ll go again this afternoon. Mass starts at 6:00, but the carol program starts half an hour earlier. And caroling with the choir and the church’s stunning organ is the perfect way to prepare for Christmas the next day.

And, with mere hours until Christmas day, I hope you’ve had a wonderful December, that you’ve been able to enjoy your traditions, and that tomorrow you have the merriest Christmas possible!

[fn1] And Second City’s annual Christmas show. &c. &c.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Sam, I love your Chicago musical adventures. Merry Christmas!

  2. Before Mass, a choir performed Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 20. I wasn’t familiar with the music, but it was haunting and beautiful, a wonderful Christmas Eve surprise.

  3. Sam I always enjoy your musings about your music discoveries. Wish I could hear a sample of the Jazz you heard, but I loved the Brandenburg Concerto 5 I was able to pull up on YouTube. I agree that it sounds very Christmassy. I think that the harpsichord solo at the end was likely the equivalent of the best rock concert organ solo of its day!

  4. Thanks, Bro. B! If you’re interested in seeing some of Matt Wilson live, his trio did a Tiny Desk Concert a couple years ago:

  5. Love this, Sam!

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