New holiday album showcases local jazz talent

Photo by 36 North Video.

Keenan McKenzie didn’t set out to write a Christmas album. The music department’s applied lecturer of saxophone was writing a few songs for a project that ultimately fell through, then he wrote a few more and before he knew it, he had a full album on his hands. 

“At first I said, well, I might as well get something out of this and I’ll just record them, maybe put out a single, just get it out there,” said McKenzie. “And I thought if I’m gonna get everybody together in the studio, maybe I’ll just try to get enough for an EP. So I wrote a few more songs and it kind of got out of control.”

The resulting album, A Bull City Holiday, features 11 brand new holiday songs written by McKenzie in a swing style, plus a big band arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne”. It features 30 local jazz musicians including three Department of Music faculty – McKenzie, teaching professor and Director of Jazz Studies Wes Parker and applied lecturer of jazz double bass Jason Foureman. 

“For the most part, as I was writing each song I very quickly started to get a particular person’s voice in my mind,” said McKenzie. “So the next step was asking them, seeing if they actually wanted to do it. So I sent them the lyrics and created a mockup, either just playing the melody on the saxophone or in some cases I tried to sing it myself. But of course those recordings are never going to see the light of day. Everybody was really game to do it and supportive.”

Some tunes are performed by a big band and some by a smaller combo, but all of them highlight the talented musicians that make up the Triangle jazz scene. McKenzie also noted that the music is highly danceable and was written with swing dancers in mind.

“For people in our area in particular I wanted this to be a celebration of our scene, because I think there’s a pretty good sampling of a lot of the [musicians] in our area. So I think that’s cool for people to hear,” said McKenzie. “There’s a chance if you’ve gone out to a jazz show you might see somebody you recognize on here. And then I think for people in general, this time of year is the time when more people listen to jazz and swing than any other time. For people whose radar I might not be on in terms of something to listen to, I think there’s a little bit more common thread because so many Christmas classics are in this style.”

Photo (and featured photo at top) by Alex Lassiter of Copper Key Photo.

McKenzie tried to approach the songwriting through more of a seasonal lens rather than leaning on the common themes of Christmas songs. “I’m not somebody that tends to listen to this stuff before Thanksgiving and I’m not immediately turning the dial to the Christmas station in the car,” he said. “And I would say in general there are some songs on here that are a little bit sentimental to some degree, but I tried to write a few that are more seasonal and tried to avoid some of the really common – what I find annoying – tropes of Christmas music. So sort of hit it with a little bit lighter touch.

“As a writer, I tried to approach the lyrics so that they speak to a lot of different people and avoid some of the pitfalls of those classics,” he added, “because everybody can name a Christmas song that’s a little cringey for one reason or another. So hopefully I avoided that.”

The album is available to purchase now and an official album release show will be held at Motorco in Durham on Dec. 3, featuring a majority of the musicians who perform on the album and a crowd of swing dancers. 

For more information, visit Keenan McKenzie Music on Facebook.