Midweek Music Break: Kelsie Saison, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’

Kelsie SaisonWhen I’m putting together my annual list of Christmas music here, I draw most inspiration (of course) from my existing music collection. But I also try to keep my eyes open for other, newer sources; many music-marketing sites, for instance, offer Christmas music free or for a nominal charge, and these downloads often come from from interesting newcomers. That’s how I came across Kelsie Saison this year: at the NoiseTrade site for musicians and authors hoping to find an audience.

There’s not a whole lot of information online about Saison. She is, or recently was, a student at Belmont University, and she currently lives, or used to live, in Nashville (where Belmont’s located). The image posted here is the one featured almost exclusively on other sites. Her recordings are available from other sites as well as NoiseTrade — at SoundCloud, for instance. She’s got a Facebook page, and a Twitter account (at least, I think it’s hers)…

but the music — three EPs of Christmas music — all seems to have come out in 2013. That’s also when her last Facebook post appeared; her Twitter feed is more active, after a fashion, but even there she hasn’t posted anything for months.

Given the untimeliness of the little information I could find, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to hear more from her. But in the meantime, we’ve got the three EPs. “Just” Christmas tunes, as I said — with a twist: she plays the piano and sings, and it’s jazz: lightly swinging, slightly old-fashioned, easy-listening jazz.

Her voice naturally suggests, as her Facebook page says, that she’s fond of Ella Fitzgerald, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Michael Buble, and Frank Sinatra. In today’s little gem, in particular, she seems to be channeling Fitzgerald: the song is a little over four minutes long, but she dispenses with the lyrics after the first ninety seconds or so. Thereafter, she scats through all but the last seconds of the remainder.

Scat singing is an interesting little back corner of music history. No one really knows where it came from, although theories abound. Louis Armstrong claimed to have invented it himself in 1926:

According to Armstrong, when he was recording “Heebie Jeebies,” soon to be a national bestseller, with his band The Hot Five, his music fell to the ground. Not knowing the lyrics to the song, he invented a gibberish melody to fill time, expecting the cut to be thrown out in the end, but that take of the song was the one released.


Armstrong’s claim, like pretty much anyone else’s with a theory, almost certainly relies more on legend and “common sense” than on actual historic fact. Wherever it came from, scat just blends the concept of vocals with that of instrumentals: it turns the human voice into a purely auditory device. In that way, it extends the voice — a particularly potent technique, I think, when used by someone who plays an instrument in addition to singing. Says Barry Keith Grant in Representing Jazz, edited by Krin Gabbard:

Scatting, unlike vocalese, does not taint the music with the impurity of denotation… Just as one musician explained the title of Charlie Parker’s “Klacktoveedsedsteen” by declaring “It’s a sound, man. A sound,” so scat singing, in avoiding the use of words, is seen to strive for the abstraction, the purity, of the music itself.

By the standard expressed there, I think Kelsie Saison’s scatting through the second half of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!” (she uses an exclamation point there) succeeds very well. I love the way it sounds.

Send to Kindle

“You Didn’t Forget the Words, Did You?”

[Video: a zebra teaches a little girl to scat-sing. Found it at Zooglobble, home of “kids’ music worth sharing.”
Warning: do not visit that site if you are even mildly distractable.]

My Dad taught me many things about music, especially jazz, even (I’m certain) in ways which I have yet to understand or even recognize. But on one point he was (I believe) mistaken:

We were watching Ella Fitzgerald on some variety-TV show; after pausing for a musical break by the band, all of a sudden she burst into this chain of nonsense syllables: Obba-dobba-DOO-dah, ba-dadda-da-doo-da-DOO… (or whatever). Her eyebrows waggled like Mexican jumping beans, and she smiled slyly. Dad burst out laughing. “She always does that,” he said, “when she forgets the words.”

Like I said, I think Dad was wrong about that (especially given how enthusiastically he welcomed instrumental improvisation). But singers who depart radically from the composed lyrics must brace themselves for the inevitable skepticism. Judges on televised singing competitions lose patience with contestants who forget the words to the songs they’re singing. I’ve seen such contestants (and woebegone karaoke’ers) freeze, lock up hopelessly, stuck in a loop of flickering blankness. They stammer, neurons misfiring; they’re like desperate smokers rummaging through a drawerful of out-of-gas cigarette lighters. Sometimes, you can see on their faces, they know it’s coming even before they get there: they take off at a wild dead run at a gap they know they won’t be able to cross — they gallop right up to the edge and leap, bursting out in something like charismatic glossolalia: Obba-dobba-DOO-dah

Then their eyes dart from side to side as they smile, weakly, as though to convince the onlookers: I’m doing this on purpose, y’know. “Norwegian Wood” can always be improved by some good scat.

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle