Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Jingle All the Way

If you can find any Christmas CD’s on sale now, here’s one I recommend picking up.

Jingle All the Way

The best Christmas album of the year is Jingle All the Way, the first Christmas record from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Roy Wooten – or Futureman, as he is known in the Flecktones – the drummer of the group, is a friend of mine, part of a group of music nerds that get together once a week to listen to classical music and dissect it. He played Twelve Days of Christmas for us after they recorded it, and once I was able to get a hold of the CD, it has become my favorite track. As the song progresses, you notice that every day is in a different musical style, and most of them (all of them?) are in a different key as well as different time signature, which gets quite head-spinning as the song winds down and you hear all twelve days together. My first thought after listening to the album once through was to remember the opening line in the program notes from when I heard the Flecktones play with the Nashville Symphony: “Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are proof that not all men are created equal.”

They performed on Late Night with Conan O’Brien last Monday, and did a great job. The album features a number of guest performances, including appearances by the Tuvan throat singers they introduced to their fans on their Live at the Quick DVD. All told, it’s a really fun album to listen to, and will make a great addition to your holiday music collection.

Tracklist: 01. Jingle Bells / 02. Silent Night / 03. Sleigh Ride / 04 The Christmas Song / 05. Twelve Days of Christmas / 06. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio #14 / 07. Christmas Time Is Here / 08. Linus and Lucy / 09. Jingle Bells (reprise) / 10. Hanukkah Waltz / 11. Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies / 12. What Child Is This/Dyngyldai / 13. O Come All Ye Faithful / 14. Medley / 15. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas / 16. River

Hear the world holding its breath

As we near the end of advent (with thanks to Russ for his series of meditations at the Rabbit Room), I thought I’d offer this reflection from Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized as food for thought. As we wait, with the hope that all things will be made new and for the fulfillment of the promise, it is good to hold our breath, to feel, in the deepest parts of our souls, the anticipation of that promise.

ADVENT

The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton.
In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.
You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.
The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.
But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.

Belief in God is belief in mystery

I first discovered Tony Woodlief’s blog when he linked to a post I wrote about a year ago. He has a new essay, “OK, Virginia, There’s No Santa Claus. But There Is God” that was in the Wall Street Journal (!) on Thursday that is a good read, with quotes from G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and George McDonald. Here’s my favorite part of the essay:

Today’s Christian apologists, by contrast, seek to reason their way to God by means of archaeological finds, anthropological examinations and scientific argumentation. That’s all well and good, but it seems to miss a fundamental point illuminated by Chesterton, which is that, ultimately, belief in God is belief in mystery.

As a parent, I believe (with the older apologists) that it’s essential to preserve a small, inviolate space in the heart of a child, a space where he is free to believe impossibilities. The fantasy writer George MacDonald — author of “The Light Princess” and “The Golden Key” — whom Lewis esteemed as one of his greatest inspirations, suggested that it is only by gazing through magic-tinted eyes that one can see God: “With his divine alchemy,” MacDonald wrote, “he turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries.” The obfuscating spirit of the “commonplace,” meanwhile, is “ever covering the deep and clouding the high.”

My favorite post that Tony has written recently is this one, Deconstructing the sola, a topic that I’ve been planning on bogging about soon, probably after the first of the year.

Christmas tours

I started to write this post several weeks ago, when these tours were just starting, but didn’t have time to finish it. Better late than never, I guess…

There are several good Christmas tours going out this year, and I thought I’d write a little bit about a couple of them.

Of course, the biggest must-see Christmas concert every year is Andrew Peterson and friends’ Behold the Lamb of God tour. This is my fourth year to see the tour – third time at the Ryman – and I was also able to catch the dress rehearsal this year. It’s always great to see friends up on stage, playing their hearts out, and the musicianship level is so high on this tour. And the reprise gets me every single time I hear it. It was fun to introduce several friends to Behold the Lamb of God this year.

Probably the biggest mainstream CCM tour this year was Casting Crowns, with guests Natalie Grant, Denver & the Mile High Orchestra, Avalon, Michael English, and pureNRG. I’ve worked with producer/arranger Bernie Herms on recent albums for Crowns, Natalie, and Michael English, including the new Casting Crowns Christmas album, and was glad to hear they decided to add a small string section to the tour, which meant they played a couple charts I worked on. A week before the tour started, they decided to have Bernie write a new overture to kick off the show, with an arrangement of Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee that would feature different artists on each verse, and I worked on that chart with Bernie the day before Thanksgiving. Then after the tour started, Mark (the lead singer of Casting Crowns) decided he wanted to use their big hit East to West as the encore each night, so I sent Bernie the parts for the new version we worked on for the Dove Awards earlier this year. I’m sure it was a good show all around.

The other show that I was hoping to catch, but that didn’t play anywhere near me, was the Jars of Clay / Sara Groves / Sixpence None the Richer / Leeland tour. Jars’ Christmas album, Christmas Songs, was released last year, and is a great album, one I’ve listened to quite a bit this year. Sara’s O Holy Night, produced by Ben Shive, just came out this year, and is a nice addition to her catalogue. I haven’t heard the Sixpence CD yet, but Matt Odmark, the guitarist for Jars, had an early release copy before the tour started and told me it was a great album.

David Phelps, former member of the Gaither Vocal Band, did another Christmas tour this year, performing again with church choirs and orchestras. I worked on his new Christmas album last year, One Wintry Night, with David and producer Monroe Jones, and then put together all the string and vocal charts to be used on the tour. David has a great voice, so I’m sure you wouldn’t regret catching one of his shows.

Michael McDonald went out on his second annual Christmas tour this year. I haven’t heard if they used a string section in the shows this year, but last year I worked with keyboardist/arranger Pat Coil on a couple charts for the first tour, doing some music preparation and orchestrating the strings in a couple songs. I’m a big fan of Michael’s voice, and enjoyed meeting him earlier this year at a rehearsal for the 4th of July show he did with the Nashville Symphony. Both of his Christmas albums are great.

Another show that looks like it was entertaining, from the youtube clips I’ve seen, is the Jim Brickman / Tracy Silverman tour. Tracy plays a six string electric violin, and is also an arranger and composer. They did two or three shows with an orchestra on this tour, for which I printed out the charts for Tracy. I met Jim last year when I was working on a Richie McDonald (formerly of Lonestar) album. Since Richie joined him for the Christmas tour last year, Jim dropped by the studio when we were recording the strings to see how it was going.

So those are some of the shows that I heard about this year. Any other good shows I should know about?

Wine

When talking with my pastor about Frederick Buechner a week or two ago, he reminded me of this paragraph on wine from Buechner’s Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. For some reason, I prefer this kind of reflection more than the grasping-at-straws arguments that try to claim that wine in the Bible was “just like cool-aid” and wine is forbidden for Christians. (Although that sermon a couple weeks ago at a church I attended before I moved was good for a laugh when a friend warned me “not to drink the cool-aid.”) Anyway, here’s Buechner’s commentary on wine.

WINE
Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses.
Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice, especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.

Excerpt from Gilead on defenses of belief

I’ve wanted to read Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, ever since Andrew Peterson mentioned it in a blog post about his favorite books of 2007, saying that it was “not just one of my favorite books of the year, but of my life.” Jason Gray’s review for the Rabbit Room, as well as the NPR interview with Marilynne Robinson Andrew posted, pushed it higher on my to-read list. After a friend mentioned it to me again a couple weeks ago, saying she had just read it and loved it, I decided I needed a break from some of the heavier reading I’d been doing, and asked Andrew if I could borrow his copy. I ended up finding a copy at a used bookstore before I got his copy, and am now almost finished with it. The week after I picked it up, I was in Chattanooga for Thanksgiving, and found a copy for my mom at a used bookstore there. I think she read about 150 pages the first time she picked it up, and finished it shortly thereafter.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it is written as a letter from the Reverend John Ames to his 7 year old son. Reverend Ames is 76 years old, and decided to write a letter as a way to pass on the lessons and information he wants his son to know that he won’t get a chance to share throughout his childhood. Here’s a passage I read last night that I really loved.

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. And yet no one can say what Being is. If you describe what a thought and a whisker have in common, and a typhoon and a rise in the stock market, excluding “existence,” which merely restates the fact that they have a place on our list of known and nameable things (and which would yield as insight: being equals existence!), you would have accomplished a wonderful thing, still too partial in an infinite degree to have any meaning, however.
I’ve lost my point. It was to the effect that you can assert the existence of something – Being – having not the slightest notion of what it is. Then God is at a greater remove altogether – if God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence. That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.
So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

Blogging award for the Rabbit Room

CMCentral.com has just posted their list of the top ten artists blogs of 2008. Shaun’s is #1 on the list (and deservedly so – he’s the reason I started blogging.) #3 is Jason Gray’s blog. And at #6 is none other than the Rabbit Room. Although I have to add, their blurb is incorrect. It says the RR features “not one, but three artists sharing their hearts through writing.” Actually, that would be five singers, a visual artist, two pastors, three writers, and myself. Still, anything that gets more people going to the Rabbit Room is great.