Joe Cox sits in the front of the computer screen in his studio in Los Alamos, New Mexico, listening intently to George Strait’s vocal on “Give It Away.” Using a mouse and music keyboard, he enters the singer’s notes into the staff on a piece of virtual manuscript paper displayed on the screen. Measure by measure, phrase by phrase, Mr. Cox takes down the vocal line and arranges a piano and guitar accompaniment so that musicians throughout the country, even throughout the world, can buy the sheet music and play that song.
As a freelance arranger for Hal Leonard Corporation, Joe Cox has done the same for songs recorded by Brad Paisley, Bob Seger, Taylor Swift, Jack Ingram, Tim McGraw, Danielle Peck, Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley, Lonestar, Pat Green, Heartland and Steve Holy – and that’s just in the last 3 months. If a country song becomes a hit by getting into the Billboard’s Top 40 charts, there’s a good chance Mr. Cox has transcribed and arranged the sheet music.
And now Mr. Cox has recorded “Jazz Christmas” – elegant background music for the holidays. But this album is definitely not country! So, how do you go from arranging country hits to recording a jazz record for the holidays?
JC: Since I prepare so much music for publication, most of the time for other recording artists, I’m good at writing down music. That’s where this project started. As a “relief” from my day job in the country music business, I wanted to write some jazz arrangements of Christmas carols that would be accessible for a pianist and bass player. Actually, the plan was to write a book’s worth of arrangements and have it published along with a demonstration CD.
LM: So, what happened?
JC: From my arrangements, I recorded the thirteen songs on the record. After putting together that demo CD, I did my own little boutique CD package, using a color printer. Then I gave it to friends, neighbors and family for Christmas last year. At the same time, I submitted the whole package with the written arrangements and CD to one of my publishers. And I was telling my friends that it would be available as a book and CD combined, probably by the next holiday season.
LM: But the publisher wasn’t interested?
JC: Can you believe it? Well, actually, yeah, I can believe it because manufacturing a book and CD combination is pretty expensive. But friends and industry colleagues were saying: “Forget the book. The CD is what people will really want.” And they were asking where they could buy more copies.
LM: Which gave you the idea to release the CD on your own?
JC: I didn’t want to give up the sheet music idea altogether, but I was starting to think that I’d probably have more success with the CD alone, not tying it to a book that would cost maybe $20 to $25.
LM: The cuts are played by a jazz trio with piano, bass and drums. What did you play and who did the other parts?
JC: I played the drums live, using a microphone set-up which fed the signal to Sonar 5, which is computer hard disk audio recording software. I was actually playing along with piano and bass tracks that were transferred over to Sonar from another software program, Sibelius, which is the notation system I used to create the written arrangements.
LM: So the piano and bass were not actually recorded live?
JC: Once the piano and bass were imported into Sonar, it took hours and hours of editing to get the tracks to feel natural. The live drum tracks help, of course. But most people will not be able to tell that the piano and bass were “virtual.” The piano is a beautifully sampled grand and the bass is a natural, full-sounding sampled upright.
LM: What are your favorite cuts on the CD?
JC: I call my version of “Jingle Bells” a bright, snowy jazz waltz. To me, it sounds like ice skating in Central Park in New York City. Another favorite track is “Angels We Have Heard On High,” because it is in the 7/8 time signature. The song is immediately recognizable, as are all the songs on the album, but I bet you’ve never heard this song in 7/8.
LM: Since George Strait is NOT an influence on you, at least for “Jazz Christmas,” who have been your jazz influences.
JC: I’d say if you’ve always loved “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi, “Jazz Christmas” is for you. My other jazz piano influences would have to be Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett.
LM: I’ve got two more questions. Where can we buy your CD? And, second, how in the world did you end up in Los Alamos?
JC: (laughing) Brownell’s Hallmark in Los Alamos has the album. It’s also available on CDBaby.com. Ruth and I moved here in 1991 when our boys were still in elementary school. We left Dallas, Texas, after having always lived there. We were looking for a big adventure, scenic beauty, a college town demographic and perhaps a little distance from our families. I had gotten to the point in my work where I could be anywhere as long as I had a phone, a computer and UPS. Now my business is done 98% by email. And Los Alamos is a great place to live.
The sound of "Jazz Christmas" is like dark chocolate, a hot cup of French Roast coffee, champagne, ice skating in Central Park, snowfall on Christmas eve and the hotel brunch on Christmas day.
A bright, snowy jazz waltz
Deck The Halls/O Christmas Tree
The halls are swingin’
Energy with a fast walking bass
Lo, How A Rose
A romantic ballad
We Three Kings
The Latin version
Late night holiday glow
Good King Wenceslas
A boogey for the holiday season
O Come Emmanuel
O Little Town of Bethlehem
A lush piano setting
In Dulci Jubio
With an infectious Latin riff
Angels We Have Heard On High
In a 7/8 groove
Bring A Torch/I Saw Three Ships
A beautiful traditional melody
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
An up-tempo ending to the set
Joe Cox is a full-time professional arranger of popular Billboard-charting sheet music. Joe used "Sibelius" and "Sonar 5" to create this record. The arrangements are available at www.SibeliusMusic.com