When Alex de Grassi recorded his most recent album, The Bridge, at Skywalker Sound, he took advantage of his time in George Lucas’s world-class studio to create a few tracks for separate release. Among the extras was de Grassi’s hip and jazzy arrangement of the seasonal favorite “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which the guitarist has released with an animation by the motion designer Greg Browe.
“James Taylor’s Christmas album has always been one of my favorite holiday recordings, and I was looking for a new holiday tune to arrange for the Windham Hill Winter Solstice tour in 2018,” de Grassi says. “I figured if Taylor could get away with doing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ and make it sound cool, maybe I could as well. I love the way the tune swings and works so well over a walking bass.”
In tracking the tune, de Grassi used his signature model Lowden, with its quilted maple back and sides, and some choice microphones. “Everything was recorded using a pair of Neumann KM 84s and a large diaphragm Neumann 67, as well as the house room mics for some natural reverb.”
De Grassi starts off with the piece in E major with simple but swinging texture, mostly relegated to two voices. He plays around with the bass notes for some bold harmonic implications. “I throw a C natural under the A, making the major chord sound minor or maybe even diminished,” he says, “A case of less is more because the combination of only two notes and the bass note substitution leaves a lot to the imagination as to what the actual harmony is.”
Things get more complicated at around 0:26, where de Grassi modulates to A via a slick harmonic move—instead of playing the expected I chord (E), he plays an Fmaj7, leading to Bb13 and then Db13, before landing in A major:
After a brief modulation to Bb, around 1:11, de Grassi settles back into A major for a quotation of another holiday song, “Up on the Housetop” (1:16). Then, he gets into a cool I7–bII7 groove with a walking bass line, followed by an angular improvisation, transcribed below. The last eight bars in the example are inspired by “shout,” a break in some jazz arrangements where the whole band plays a line in unison.
Regarding the last eight bars, “I wanted it to sound slightly lopsided—like it might spin out of control—while still maintaining the groove, so the first three iterations of the line are all slightly different and with increasingly unstable syncopations,” de Grassi says. “But the fourth time is like the first iteration, which brings it right back to the bridge. Greg Browe used that passage to good effect, suggesting the kid becomes disoriented and confused before regaining her footing and encountering the big guy with the beard.”