My new favorite Xmas song, and an interview with the composer!

Jared Bernstein Posted by Jared Bernstein.

From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team.


There’s old holiday musical favorites and then there’s new ones.

There’s old holiday musical favorites and then there’s new ones. Among the latter, I love this song The Meaning (Peace and Love) by composer and singer (and old personal friend) Sue Maskaleris. Sue’s among the greatest jazz/funk/Brazilian bandleaders you’ve never heard of. She writes these complex harmonic poems in weird time signatures that are interesting and challenging, but never lose the groove.

I was so blown away by this piece, both music and message (despite the fact that the US economy is 70 percent consumer spending), that I got her to answer some questions about it.

JB: What inspired you to write this song?

SM: I wanted to get annual radio play as I do on my Halloween song, “Mischief Night,” and make lots of money!!  ; >)

JB: It’s a pretty anti-consumerism message. Do you really think we’ve lost the meaning of Xmas?

SM: I fear that we have and I think most people would agree. The shopping frenzy from even before Black Friday, then cyber Monday, early and over-the-top store decorations, incessant piping of holiday songs, chopping down trees, garish light displays at homes–all to celebrate the birth of Christ; many loathe all of that but can’t escape it. I used to try to work abroad then but it’s everywhere. The true meaning of Christmas has been buried beneath the tinsel and spray-on snow for many years. Even other faiths are unwillingly barraged with all of this madness as the year ends.

JB: What meter is that? How can you play that so naturally?

SM: You’re a great bassist and composer, if some of your readers don’t know. It’s a samba, felt in 2/4, no time changes (unlike most of my songs). I have a deep affinity for Brazilian music, so I guess it came naturally.

JB: How did a kid from New Jersey who went to Manhattan School of Music develop such an acute feel for Brazilian music? To my ears, you rock this like a native of Rio!

SM: Thanks! As I announced at a recent concert, I’m a Greek-American masquerading as a Carioca (someone from Rio). Born in the wrong country and era for that matter…would have loved to come up during the heyday of bossa nova there in the 60’s.

JB: That funky part toward the end, a la Earth, Wind, and Fire. How did that come to you?

SM: Before the funk ballad kicks in, that interlude was inspired by some great Brazilian pianists like Tania Maria, Eliane Elias and Sergio Mendes. Even Vince Guaraldi, perhaps.

JB: What’s your favorite Xmas song?

SM: I’m pretty burnt out on all of them, unless I rearrange them or play them in odd meters. But for a Christmas song, I guess it’s Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime is Here,” which sounds quite forlorn as sung by children in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I sent the music and lyrics of its last line as a holiday card one year, as it also laments the true “Meaning”: “Oh, that we could only see such spirit through the year.”

Now sending cards feels insincere and wasteful to me, as do people wishing each other Merry Christmas nonstop for three weeks. It’s a day arbitrarily chosen by Christians. Why should it be “merry”? And why the focus of all these energies and month-long rituals (caroling, eggnog parties, mistletoe, etc.) on this one day? It’s hard to meet that expectation. Dreaming a white one? Much of the U.S. and the world never gets snow this time of year. It’s so tiring we abbreviate is with an X! Many are their loneliest or must be alone during this time, while others strive hard to be merry– at their drunken office parties. Giving gifts has become a grueling, costly (layaways, etc.) hassle for many, yet giving to the poor, donating to charities or volunteering is a very wonderful thing that happens this time of year (quick, so you can write it off!).

[JB note: Since his name came up a couple of times here, let me also praise the jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, the only guy who somehow bends notes on a (non-electric) piano. He got some attention as the guy behind the music in the Peanuts shows, but he’s a great jazz pianist in his own right. Here’s a selection from his masterpiece album, one that also has a Brazilian feel, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus.]

JB: This song is from your most recent CD. Where can people find it?

SM: Right here. My first CD, “Unbreakable Heart,” is there too, with jazz legends Eddie Gomez, Lenny White, Michal Urbaniak, Mark Murphy and many more. I hope your readers buy the CD from the link, as downloads and streaming have killed musicians’ livelihoods. We are supposed to get a fraction of a penny for those, and I never receive even that. Thanks for spreading “The Meaning” to your readers! And Bah Humbug!!